When studying family history, one often finds a character whose experiences earn him the label of family adventurer. The Benson family history is full of strong men and women, but only the mostly documented story of the life of James A. Benson, born in Kennebunkport on Dec. 4, 1840, reads like historical fiction.
Uncle Jim, as family members still refer to him, was reportedly fearless, even as a boy. He starred in a plethora of Benson-family legends beginning in his teenage years. One such legend, submitted to a local paper for publication by Melvin Landon many Halloweens ago, painted a vivid picture of Jim’s youthful bravado. After his chores were done, Jim would walk down to the Port to go see the girl he was smitten with — a girl who was at the time being courted by several young men. She lived alongside the cemetery and Jim was in the habit of cutting through to save time.
One night, after seeing Jim cross the cemetery, one of his frustrated rivals hatched a sinister plan to scare Benson off. He dug a grave right in the middle of the path he knew Jim would traverse again later that night. After sweet goodbyes were uttered, Jim took off light-footed into the night. Before a moment had passed, the ground opened up under our hero, plunging him into the freshly dug grave. Just then his rival jumped out of hiding wrapped in a sheet and in his spookiest voice chanted, “What are you doing in my grave?” Jim reached up, grabbed the ghost by the ankles, pulled him in and scrambled out. “What the hell are you doing out of your grave?” roared Jim, as he shoveled dirt onto his stunned opponent. Like most spooky graveyard tales, this one cannot be verified, but if anyone ever lived such an adventure it might well have been James Benson.
Uncle Jim volunteered, at the age of 20, to serve in the Civil War. He was sent to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Va. He was working there as a teamster in 1861 when Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and offered Union Army Teamster jobs to many fugitive Virginia slaves.
Letters addressed to Jim at Fortress Monroe from his father in Kennebunkport have been preserved by his descendants. In them and in the regimental records we learn that after his first term as a teamster expired, Benson enlisted in Company D of the 27th Maine Regiment on Sept. 30, 1862.
Enlistment in the 27th Maine was intended to be a nine-month commitment, but as Jim’s relatively uneventful second term of service was coming to an end, President Abraham Lincoln asked members of the regiment to volunteer for an extra week of active service to defend Washington from Robert E. Lee’s army, which had recently invaded Pennsylvania. Less than half of the soldiers volunteered to stay on and the ones that did were promised the Medal of Honor.
By some bureaucratic mix-up, medals were prepared for the entire regiment and many of the medals were distributed before the mistake was discovered. The rest were later stolen from Col. Mark Wentworth’s barn, where they were being stored. In 1917, Congress ruled that only those 27th Maine soldiers who had served the extra week were eligible for the Medal of Honor. James A. Benson must not have been one of them because his name appeared on the list of soldiers whose medals were revoked.
After the war Uncle Jim travelled out west to find his next adventure. He married Irish-born Margaret Kelley in Oregon, but by the time the 1870 census was taken, Jim and Margaret were living in San Francisco, Calif. He listed his occupation as drayman; a drayman was a driver of horse or mule teams that delivered goods and supplies.
Uncle Jim’s descendants still own the whip that he is said to have handled with great skill. On one of his trips home to Kennebunkport, Jim wanted to demonstrate that skill for his family. While his aunt scolded him for wasting her time he shredded her apron with the snapping tip of his driving whip. The Bensons returned to California and by 1880 Jim was a San Francisco policeman.
He was also employed for a while as a dog sled driver in Canada. Family legend says that Benson found himself in dire straights one night having frozen several toes while he was out on a sled run. Rather than let gangrene invade his foot, he instructed a friend to cut off the discolored toes with a knife after he had consumed enough whiskey to render himself unconscious.
Sure enough, records from the Togus Maine Disabled Soldiers Home, where Uncle Jim passed away in 1907 after a thrilling 67 years, indicate he was missing three toes on his left foot and one toe on his right.
Many thanks to Frank Landon for his Benson family records. Like his mother, Ruth Landon, did before him, Frank devotes immeasurable personal time to preserving the history of Arundel and Kennebunkport.