Benning, Henry Lewis
Henry Lewis Benning was a jurist who rose to the position of associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, became a vocal advocate for secession, and earned the rank of brigadier general in the Civil War. Fort Benning, near his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, is named for him.
Benning was born in Columbia County, Georgia in 1814, moved with family to Harris County in 1832, graduated from the University of Georgia, studied law and was admitted to the bar in Columbus in 1835. Columbus would be his permanent home. There, he was solicitor-general for several years (1837-1839), then practiced law privately before unsuccessfully running for a Georgia General Assembly seat in 1840. But he did not lose his interest in politics. In 1850 he was one of Georgia’s delegates to the convention of nine slave-holding states held in Nashville, Tennessee to determine the southern course of action if slavery was banned in the western territories. While the resolutions of the convention helped lead to the Compromise of 1850 which temporarily averted secession, Benning introduced resolutions in Nashville strongly defending slavery and supporting a state’s right to secede.
Returning to Georgia, Benning again tried for political office - this time running for the U.S. Congress on a Southern Rights platform, but was again defeated. Turning back to his roots in the law, he was elected associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court in 1853. He would serve on the court for six years. In the case of Padelford v. Savannah, Benning made the claim that state supreme courts were co-equal with the United States Supreme Court on the matter of constitutional issues. This powerful argument for states rights garnered Benning much support in the South.
Benning was chosen chairman of the Georgia delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1860. Led by Benning, the Georgia delegation and most southern delegates walked out of the convention when the national party refused to put a plank in the party platform supporting slavery. The split in the Democratic party virtually assured the election the Republican candidate - Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the west, but insisted he would not and could not interfere with the institution where it currently existed.
Many Southerners did not believe him. Benning was one of Georgia’s most vocal proponents of secession. On November 19, 1860, he delivered a speech before the Georgia General Assembly urging immediate secession, ending the speech by saying “let us do our duty; and what is our duty? I say, men of Georgia, let us lift up our voices and shout, ‘Ho! for independence!’ Let us follow the examples of our ancestors, and prove ourselves worthy sons of worthy sires!” Benning did more than just speak; he also presided over Georgia’s secession convention, and helped to draft the state’s Ordinance of Secession. After Georgia had seceded in January of 1861, Benning was dispatched as Georgia’s representative to Virginia, which was still debating the secession question. There he again gave a speech before the Virginia secession convention, arguing that separation from the Union was the only was to preserve slavery.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Benning helped raise troops which became the 17th Georgia Infantry; he was chosen a colonel in August of 1861. Most of his military service was in Virginia - he fought in the Seven Days’ Battles in the summer of 1862, and at Second Manassas, where he earned the nickname “Old Rock” for his steadfastness in battle. At the Battle of Antietam his troops played a pivotal role in holding a bridge, against overwhelming odds, allowing time for Confederate reinforcements to arrive and prevent a rout of the Confederate army. By January of 1863 he had risen to the rank of brigadier general. On July 2, 1863 he led his men on an unsuccessful assault on Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Benning and his troops were part of the contingent sent west in the fall of 1863 to reinforce Confederate forces trying to prevent a Union invasion of Georgia. He participated in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863, helping to lead the charge that broke the Union lines, and having two horses shot from under him. He also was instrumental in the Knoxville campaign later that year. By the spring of 1864 he was back in Virginia, where he was wounded in May at the Battle of the Wilderness. After recovering he again assumed command of his troops in Petersburg, Virginia in November, 1864, and was with them at the final surrender at Appomattox in April of 1865.
After the war Benning, like so many other Southern planters, returned home to a devastating economic situation. Much of his wealth had been invested in slaves and land; the slaves were now gone and much of his land was ruined by the war. Benning again took up the practice of law and began rebuilding his finances. He was also the sole provider for his family after his wife’s death in 1867. Benning continued to practice law right up until his death; in fact he was on his way to a court appearance when he suffered a major stroke and died on July 10, 1875. He was buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus.
One of Benning’s cousins was noted Georgia author Augusta Jane Evans.
In 1918, the U.S. Army established their infantry school at a camp in Muscogee and Chattahoochee Counties. At the request of the Columbus Rotary Club, the camp (and later fort) were named for Columbus native Henry Lewis Benning.