A Civil War Biography

Henry Washington Benham

Benham was born 17 April 1813 largely believed in Meridien, Connecticut. He graduated from West Point first in the class of 1837 and was posted to the engineers as a second lieutenant. He was brevetted for his action during the war with Mexico and promoted to captain on 24 May 1848.

When the Civil War started Benham was assigned on 14 May 1861 as Chief Engineer of the Department of Ohio. Although assigned as an engineer he directed a small detachment in pursuit of Confederates from Laurel Hill in western Virginia. During this pursuit during action at Carrick's Ford on 13 July 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Robert Seldon Garnett became the first general officer killed during the war. Benham was given a line command on 22 July and promoted to major on 6 August. He was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers on 13 August and given command of a brigade in the occupation army in western Virginia in September. He quickly fell in disfavor with his commander, William Stark Rosecrans, and was relieved on 11 October and sent to the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

Benham took part in the successful operations against Fort Pulaski. On 16 June 1862 he defied orders and launched an unsuccessful frontal assault at Secessionville, South Carolina. The attack on Confederate Fort Lamar, commanded by Brigadier General Nathan Evans, was the first Union operation aimed at taking Charleston. As a result of his actions Benham's brigadier general commission was revoked on 7 August and he was post to engineering duty in Massachusetts. President Lincoln reinstated Benham on 6 February 1863 and he was assigned to command the engineering brigade of the Army of the Potomac. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel of engineers in the regular army on 3 March. Benham would remain in command of the engineers until the end of the war. He was with the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Appomattox. He would be brevetted major general of volunteers and brigadier and major general in the regular army on 13 March 1865.

Benham was mustered out of the volunteer service on 15 January 1866. He remained in the regular army engaged in engineering projects such as directing the construction of the Potomac aqueduct and the Washington Navy Yard. He invented the picket shovel developed the concept for rapid construction of pontoon bridges by means of "simultaneous bays". Benham retired in 1882 with the rank of colonel. He died on 1 July 1884 in New York City.

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