The life of Benjamin Best is an interesting one to say the very least. It is filled with remarkable details, many mysteries and a sad and tragic end.
Born in Hudson, New York the middle child in a family of 7, Benjamin grew up in a seemingly average family life during a period of some decline in Hudson. The town had been a busy whaling port and center of merchant trade but by the 1860’s was languishing as the 1850 railroad from New York City to Albany had transected the North and South bays at Hudson making them inaccessible to ships. The city would eventually transform itself into a city of manufacturing and industry over the course of Benjamin’s life there. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Benjamin, along with his brother John, would enlist in the 128th New York Infantry in early September, 1862. The 128th would initially be sent to the vicinity of Baltimore and would remain in the area until their first campaign experience, which would be the Gettysburg campaign of October 1862, the slightly lesser known sibling of the July 1863 campaign. Under the command of General John Wool, the 128th was among troops that boarded trains in Baltimore to move to Gettysburg on October 13th, 1862, in response to reported Confederate cavalry activity in the area. The Best brothers and the 128th marched into Gettysburg on the morning of the 14th and the regiment took possession of the public square and deployed pickets out on all the roads leading into Gettysburg. No little excitement occurred among the citizens of Gettysburg at this situation. Confederates were rumored to be within 2 miles of the town but that turned out to be an exaggeration. The Confederates did take the “gentle hint” at the arrival of the infantry from Baltimore and fell back south across the Potomac River. The 128th left Gettysburg on the morning of the 15th and returned to the usual camp and guard duties near Baltimore.
In early November 1862, the 128th was boarded on the transport ship, Arago, to be taken to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Benjamin’s brother John would desert the regiment the day the ship departed for Virginia. Due to weather and other circumstances, the troops would remain on board the ship for several weeks, with occasional trips ferried to shore for drill and exercise for the men. December 4th saw the 128th and the Arago part of a convoy of ships that headed south with troops to reinforce union forces at New Orleans. The trip was difficult and stormy and the troops were beginning to suffer greatly from the long time they had been confined to the ship. Under-supplied rations and disease were starting to take an effect on the health of the regiment. December 15th, the 128th finally arrived at the Mississippi River below New Orleans the troops were disembarked, but ordered into quarantine as there had been a number of cases of measles and smallpox on board. A number of the regiment had died on the journey and more here while in quarantine. January 5th saw the regiment board a steamer to move upriver to Chalmette, just 3 miles from New Orleans and the site of the famous battle of the War of 1812. The camp the regiment occupied was far from idea, being low lying with much standing water where the men were encamped. As expected, disease continued to ravage the 128th and on January 12th, the large, new regiment was barely able to muster 200 men fit to stand for dress parade. It was on January 13th that Benjamin Best would desert from the 128th New York Infantry.
What occurred after his desertion remains mysterious, perhaps he escaped and returned to New York by private transport or some other method, perhaps even with advice or guidance from his older brother...we will never know. He was living once again with his family in Hudson in 1865. He would marry and have a son, Edward, in 1867 and spend the next decades in Hudson working as a laborer and even as a railroad brakeman. In the 1890’s things then took a very unexpected turn. When or why Benjamin Best left Hudson New York for the west is very much a mystery. It appears his wife Susan was living at a hotel in Hudson in 1900 but Benjamin was by that time living in Washington State.
And here is where it gets very interesting…
On June 13th 1910, a young woman named Ethel Larned was taking a trip in a canoe along the eastern shore of Lake Washington and was making her way up the Mercer Slough, in what is now Bellevue. Her attention was captured by a small spaniel on shore running back and forth barking and whining loudly. Thinking the dog to perhaps be injured she landed her canoe and approached the dog. The dog slowly trotted off and when she followed it some distance she came upon a solitary, small log cabin surrounded by overgrown trees and brush. The dog stood at the door barking so Ethel approached and entered. The inside of the cabin was in disarray, an old cook stove covered with dirty pans and dishes, with feathers, animal skins and dead fish scattered about the floor. In one corner lay an old man with long, matted hair and beard on a couch. The dog jumped up on the couch and curled up beside the old man and Ethel approached. The old man whispered that he was starving and could she please get him something to eat. Ethel then left to return home to get some food but the dog, thinking she was deserting them, chased after and clung to her dress with his teeth. Ethel soon returned by boat with her father. Some food and coffee revived the old man somewhat and they were able to learn his identity.
The man was Civil War veteran Benjamin Best and he had been living in this cabin as a hermit on his own for some 7 years at that point. He had been surviving from hunting game and fishing and until the arrival of Ethel Larned and her father, he had not even spoken to another person for many years. He had suffered a stroke and was unable to feed himself. His dog had left him a couple of days prior, adding to his grief and suffering as the dog had been a faithful companion by his side for the past 7 years. His faithful spaniel had succeeded in bringing the Larneds to rescue him. Charles Larned would see him taken across Lake Washington and to the King County hospital in what is now the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. The spaniel was taken in by the Larned family. Benjamin Best was not expected to survive long but he did hang on a few days more at the hospital. He passed away June 19th, 1910 and was buried anonymously in the potters field cemetery adjacent the hospital and poor house. Sadly, the cemetery was also lost to history over time and many of the remains there were exhumed and cremated...but many were not. The fate of many of the Duwamish cemetery is unknown, Benjamin Best among them. We can only speculate what had occurred in Benjamin’s life that led him away from his wife and family in Hudson, NY to a hermit’s life in the woods of western Washington State and an anonymous burial in a poorhouse cemetery. A truly tragic story of a former Civil War soldier.
Sources: - Seattle Times, June, 1910 - History of the 128th Regiment New York Volunteers in the Late Civil War, DH Hanabaugh 1894 -Various US, WA State and King County Census data, wedding records and death records
Seattle Times 1910
Duwamish Poor House. Benjamin Best would be anonymously buried near here. Photo: MOHAI
King County Hospital, where Best would spend his final days, passing away June 19th, 1910. Photo: MOHAI
Early to mid-1800's Hudson, NY
Phantom Lake schoolhouse, 1894. This small log cabin school is shown to illustrate a cabin and the forest landscape not far from where Best's cabin was discovered. Photo: MOHAI
Modern view of paddling on the Mercer Slough very near to where Benjamin Best was found.