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Brigadier General Henry Lewis Benning, CSA

HENRY LEWIS BENNING (April 2, 1814-July 10, 1875), jurist, statesman, soldier, was born on a plantation in Columbia County, Georgia, the son of Pleasant Moon and Matilda Meriwether White Benning, the third of eleven children. He attended Franklin College (University of Georgia), where he graduated with first honors at the age of twenty. Upon his graduation he moved to Columbus and there made his home for the rest of his life. At twenty-one he was admitted to the bar, and two years later was appointed solicitor-general for his judicial circuit. He afterward served a term in the General Assembly. On September 12, 1839, he married Mary Howard Jones of Columbus, by whom he had ten children, of whom five daughters survived him. His only son died of wounds received in the Civil War. Able, logical, industrious, and of the highest integrity, he had not a few of the qualities of Calhoun. He was convinced that to free the negroes would create such social chaos in the South as to make civilization impossible and life for the whites unendurable. He believed emancipation, and the subsequent enfranchisement of the slaves, inevitable if the South remained in the Union. He therefore became an ardent secessionist. But while he felt secession necessary he considered it by no means the solution to the problem. He feared some of the northermost slave states might, from economic reasons, develop a sentiment against the institution, and he would protect the lower South from the chaos of emancipation by the formation of a "consolidated" Southern Republic, with strong centralized powers, so that slavery could be put "under the control of those most interested in it." (letter to Howell Cobb, Toombs, Stephens and Cobb Correspondence," American Historical Association Annual Report, 1911, II, 171). In the crisis of 1850 he was for immediate withdrawal from the Union, and became an enthusiastic supporter of the movement to hold a Southern Conference at Nashville. In the election held in Georgia to name delegatges to this conference he was successful, but most of the other secessionist candidates were overwhelmingly defeated, and the small number of votes cast showed that the vast majority of the people were not aroused. Indeed, the fact that Georgia, generally regarded as a pivotal state, had thus decisively repudiated the "Southern-rights" movement, foredoomed the convention to failure. But Benning was persistent and resourceful. Ostensibly, in an effort at compromise, he introduced at Nashville a resolution to the effect that nothing less than the Missouri line could be accepted by the South as a settlement of the territorial problem. He believed the South could be persuaded to demand this as an ultimatum; that the North would promptly reject it; and that secession would then be the only alternative. The resolution was duly passed, but the result was not what he had hoped it would be. Meeting in December, the Georgia Convention, instead of ratifying the action of Nashville, accepted Clay's compromise measure, "being impelled thereto" (in the language of the resolution) "by an earnest desire to save the American Union." In 1851 Benning accepted the nomination of the Southern Rights Democrats as one of their candidates for Congress and, although he ran ahead of his party, was defeated in the Constitutional Union "landslide" of that year. In 1853 he was elected by the General Assembly as an associate justice of the Georgia supreme court, where he delivered, in the case of Padelford vs. Savannah (14 Georgia,438) an exhaustive opinion in support of the principle that a state supreme court is not bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States on constitutional questions. The two courts he held to be "coordinate and co-equal." This remarkable decision, comprising eighty pages, is perhaps the most vigorous and elaborate exposition of the doctrine of "strict construction" ever set forth in a judicial pronouncement. At the expiration of his term in 1859 the General Assembly failed to reelect him, largely because of the activities of an influential and disgruntled litgant. Benning is generally regarded as having acted always with the Southern extremists, but in 1860 he refused to follow Yancey out of the Democratic Party upon the disruption of the Charleston Convention; on the contrary he was vice-president ofthe adjourned convention of the "regulars" which met at Baltimore and nominated Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. But, in 1861 he took an active part in the Georgia Convention which adopted the Ordinance of Secession, and was sent by that body as its commissioner to the Virginia Convention. There he delivered a carefully prepared address on the race problem and secession. Thomas R.R. Cobb said (American Historical Association Annual Report, II, 544) that Benning was seriously considered for a cabinet position in the newly established Confederacy, but he voluneteered in the army, and was made colonel of a regiment which he organized in Columbus. His record as a field officer and as brigadier-general was distinguished. His steadfastness in critical situations earned for him the sobriquet "Old Rock." At Sharpsburg his defense of a bridge over Antietam Creek was heroic. At Chickamauga he had two horses shot from under him; cutting a third from an army wagon, he rode bareback into the fight at the head of his brigade. He went through the heavy fighting on Little Round Top at Gettysburg unscathed, but was severely wounded in the Wilderness. At Petersburg, during a fierce Federal assault, his brigade for hours withstood the whole attack alone. Throughout the varying fortunes of war he seems never to have lost hope that the South would win, and when a courier notified him at Appomattox that Gen. Lee was going to offer terms of surrender, it is said that he was heartbroken. Returning home he found his houses burned, his goods and money vanished, and his dependents increased by the widow and children of his wife's brother, who had fallen in the war, and by his sister's orphans. He resumed the practise of law. On July 8, 1875, having spend the preceding night upon a case in which he was intereste, he was stricken with apoplexy on his way to court and the next day he died. [R.H. Shryock, Ga. and the Union in 1850 (1926); A.R. Lawton, "Judicial Controversies on Appellate Jurisdiction," in Report of the 38th Ann. Sess. of the Ga. Bar Ass. (1921); a short biography of Benning by his daughter in Men of Mark in Ga., vol. III (1911). Benning's judicial opinions are to be found in volumes XIV to XXIX, inclusive, of the Ga. Reports. See also Atlanta Constitution, July 11, 1875.] B.F.

Benning*Cobb*Russell Pages

Benning-Cobb-Russell Family of Georgia