A Stranger and a Foreigner

“Miss Cumming, you may wish to attend to Private Smith at your earliest,” said the doctor. “I do not expect him to make it through the day.”

“Where is he, sir?” Kate said.

“Upstairs,” said the doctor. “Memphis boy. 6th Tennessee Volunteers.”

“Tennessee. Very well,” said Kate. She moved toward the stairs.

“Miss Cumming?” said the doctor.

“Sir?” she said turning back.

“I asked you because he has no family here. He’s from Canada.”

“Canada, sir?” Kate said.

“Yes, ma’am. Canada. Living in Memphis by himself when the war started. He is among strangers here. Please try to make him comfortable during his last hours.”

Kate cleared her throat. “He is not among strangers, Sir. He is no more a stranger or a foreigner, but a fellow-citizen and a saint.”

The doctor half-smiled. “Indeed, ma’am.”

Kate found Private Smith upstairs, his eyes closed, his lips moving slowly as he mouthed words softly that no one could hear.

“Private Smith?” Kate said.

He cracked his eyes, sweat on his forehead. “Ma’am?” he said. “Where is my sister? Is my sister come for me?”

“Who is your sister?” Kate said, lowering herself next to his cot.

“My father,” said Private Smith. “My father is here.”

“Is he, Private?”

“Benjamin. Benjamin Horace. That’s what he calls me,” said Private Smith. “My time must be near. My dad is here calling me.”

“Is he down from Canada, Benjamin?” Kate said.

Private Smith licked his lips, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “No, ma’am. He’s been gone some years now.”

“I see,” said Kate.

“Ma’am, make it a nice box they put me in,” said Private Smith.

“Excuse me?” said Kate.

“I’m a carpenter,” he whispered. “I would like a nice box.”

Kate took a deep breath. “Do you have family I can write to, Benjamin?”

He nodded. “My sister. Send for her. If she cannot make it, let her know. She is married. She is in Canada.”

“In Canada?” said Kate.

He was still for several long moments, then breathed deeply. “Arovia, Canada West. Mrs. H Hartman. That’s my sister. Send for my sister, please.”

Kate touched his arm. “I will send for her, Benjamin. And until then, I will be your sister. You are among family here.”

Eyes closed, he licked his lips again and nodded. His breathing was labored, and Kate held his hand as he resumed his muttering. Sometimes, she could make out that he whispered for his father. She did not track the time, just sat with him, and some time in the afternoon hours, the labored breathing stopped and Benjamin Horace Smith was gone. Kate wrote the letter, as requested, though she could not guarantee it would get through the lines and all the way north.

Little is known of Private Benjamin Horace Smith. In 1860, he was a carpenter, age 23, living by himself in Memphis, Tennessee. The census record indicates he was born in Vermont. In that era, there was little distinction between northern Vermont, upstate New York, and Canada. Families moved back and forth across state and national borders for work.

Slavery had been illegal in Canada since 1834. It had been illegal in northern states since the 1780s and 1790s. We cannot underestimate the power of place in the Civil War. Benjamin was a member of Company H, which was recruited out of Madison County, Tennessee. But he was a resident of Shelby County . . . Memphis, specifically. That might suggest how much Benjamin believed in the swirl of Southern patriotic fervor around him. Fort Sumter fell on April 14; the 6th Tennessee was formed the next month. Benjamin appears to have left his own county and sought out a place to sign up as quickly as possible. Did he go with friends? Was he a member of a militia? What drove him to battle for his adopted city and region? The records are entirely silent. What if he had remained in Vermont? Or in Canada West? Would he have been an ardent Unionist? Would he have joined with the Green Mountain regiments? Would he have stayed out of it altogether?

At least for now, we know almost nothing of Benjamin’s upbringing. At present, no records can definitively connect a Miss Smith to a Mr. H Hartman of the Ontario or northern Vermont areas. The fact that he asked Kate to write to his sister suggests that his parents may have passed already or that his relationship with them had suffered. As with other Shiloh wounded who died at the Old Tishomingo Hotel, no burial place or record of Private Smith can be found. What we know is that Benjamin Smith appears suddenly and by himself in the 1860 records, that he had come down from nearly the furthest northern spot in the country, that he enlisted as quickly as possible in the cause of the South, and that just eleven months later, he was buried in an unmarked grave for that cause with no progeny to speak of and no traceable connection to any other contemporaries.

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