February 18, 2019
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Inaccurate rebel shooting let a LaGrange farmer come home alive

Credit inaccurate shooting by Confederates for populating LaGrange with Hinkleys — and credit inaccurate shooting by Benjamin Franklin Hinkley for populating LaGrange with crows.

Hinkleys figure prominently in LaGrange lore:

• First settler: David Hinkley Jr. in 1822.

• First frame house: built by David Hinkley Jr.

• First married woman to settle in LaGrange: Betsy Hinkley, David’s wife. In 1839 she bore him a son named Benjamin Franklin.

Known by his friends as “Ben Frank,” Hinkley worked on his parents’ farm and developed a tough physique. He might have remained in LaGrange all his life, but Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and Maine Gov. Israel Washburn summoned Maine men to save the Union.

Of the 690 people living in LaGrange, 83 men would answer Washburn’s call. Joining the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment in late summer, Benjamin Franklin Hinkley headed to Augusta and an assignment with Company K. Mustered into federal service on Sept. 7, the regiment departed by ship for New York on Sept. 10.

“This regiment, Col. [Lee] Strickland commanding, arrived yesterday morning in the steamer Commodore, at Hunter’s Point,” the New York Times reported on Sept. 12. The 8th Maine Infantry then traveled to “the camp of Instruction at Hempstead, where the regiment will be attached to Gen. [Thomas] Sherman’s Division.

“At present the regiment can muster only 800 men, but will be raised to the maximum number of 1,046, the regimental depot at Augusta, Me. being still kept open for the enrolment (sic) of recruits. Most of the men already enlisted were raised in the region of Moosehead Lake, Bangor, and Augusta,” the Times noted. Then the paper identified, by name and rank, the regiment’s field and staff officers.

In this one announcement, the Times let every Big Apple-based Confederate spy learn the 8th Maine’s intimate details. But most Union newspapers readily printed troop-movement articles during the war; often the most avid readers wore uniforms colored Southern butternut or gray. In fact, before Pvt. Hinkley and his comrades reached Washington, D.C., a few days later, news about their pending arrival had probably reached Richmond.

About Oct. 20, Hinkley carried his rifle and gear aboard a steamer moored at Annapolis, Md. The 8th Maine Infantry would participate in Sherman’s seaborne expedition to capture such key South Carolina ports as Beaufort and Port Royal. The steamers carrying the 8th Maine and 14 other regiments sailed on Oct. 21 and joined a burgeoning fleet at Hampton Roads, Va.

While his regiment lolled aboard ship there, Hinkley likely heard about the political intrigue involving Strickland and Capt. Henry Boynton, the Company D commander. During the war, glory- and promotion-hungry junior officers often disparaged their superiors, as Boynton did when he wrote Gov. Washburn a blistering letter on Friday, Oct. 25.

Furiously underlining single words and entire phrases, Boynton (who hailed from Livermore) informed Washburn that “owing to a remarkable degree of incapacity in field officers, in Battalion instruction and drill,” the 8th Maine “has made little or no improvement since leaving Augusta.

“The military imbecility of the Colonel and the Lt. Col. [John Rust of Camden] renders the Regiment a reproach instead of an honor to our noble State,” Boynton wrote. “It is a burning shame for so noble a regiment to be under so incompetent leaders.”

Then he made his salient point.

“Now I have … a natural ambition to desire a position as Lieut. Col. or Major in some other Regiment now raising or to be raised, which you can give,” Boynton informed Washburn. The ambitious captain would receive his desired promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1863 and would command the 8th Maine Infantry by spring 1864.

But Boynton and Hinkley sailed with the Sherman Expedition on Oct. 29, 1861, and nine days later Ben Frank Hinkley helped capture the Confederate forts guarding the harbor at Port Royal, S.C.

Now a combat veteran, Hinkley landed on Hilton Head Island the next day and in April 1862 helped capture Fort Pulaski near Savannah. Hinkley would participate in other coastal expeditions, including the March 1863 attack on Jacksonville, Fla., and the April 1863 assault against Charleston, S.C.

Now a corporal, Hinkley sailed north with the under-strength 8th Maine Infantry in April 1864. Led by Gen. Benjamin Butler, some 16,000 Union soldiers landed along the James River near Drewry’s Bluff, a major Confederate fort several miles downstream from Richmond.

Enemy troops launched a surprise attack on May 16. Now commanded by Col. Henry Boynton, the 8th Maine Infantry fought magnificently as the Confederates trounced Butler’s army.

That day the 8th Maine lost three men killed, 64 men wounded, and 29 men missing. Boynton suffered a ghastly wound, and Hinkley “was firing from a one knee position when he got a spent musket ball in the thigh,” according to the Benjamin Hinkley biography written by David Fox, Hinkley’s great-grandson.

“His leg muscle was flexed so that the lead ball flattened against the muscle,” Fox wrote. Subsequently hospitalized at Point Lookout, Md., Hinkley “was mustered out with disability” at Augusta on Sept. 15, 1864.

So the Civil War ended for Hinkley, who soon married Theresa Kenney and moved in with his parents. Their house burned in 1885, “and a new farm house was built on the road next to the schoolhouse,” Fox wrote.

Called the Hinkley House, this building became a hotel operated by Benjamin and Theresa Hinkley. A guest paid $1.50 per night for a room and used an outhouse, “a ‘three-holer’ (small, medium, and large) located far out in the shed,” recalled Fox, who used the facility “when visiting their son, my Uncle Wallace.”

Raising “potatoes for the outside market,” Ben Frank Hinkley farmed extensively for the rest of his life. He and Theresa had seven children; “three died in infancy, but Grace, Bertha, Ethel, and Wallace had long lives,” Fox wrote. Grace was Fox’s grandmother.

A photograph taken between 1925 and 1930 reveals the love still shared by Ben Frank and Theresa. By now an elderly couple, they clasped hands while posing for a photographer outside the Hinkley House. Ben died in 1930, Theresa in 1931; they lie buried side by side and next to four of their children at the Hill Crest Cemetery in LaGrange.

As for that incredibly poor shooting by Confederate soldiers and Ben Frank Hinkley: Well, “he brought the lead ball [that struck him in 1864] home, flattened it some more, and it was used as a ‘belly band’ on all of his [newborn] children!” Fox wrote.

And Hinkley apparently was a better sharpshooter during the war than afterwards.

“In his later years he would sit on the back porch and shoot at crows,” Fox wrote. “Apparently he didn’t hit enough of them, as they are still a nuisance to farmers!”

Brian Swartz may be reached at .

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