SUBMITTED BY: Joel Stegall
Benjamin Franklin Ringgold is the earliest Ringgold I can positively identify as an ancestor. Most of what I know about him is from his biography written by his daughter-in-law, my Grandmother Jemima Page Ringgold, my mother’s mother.
Orphan and a runaway
Jemima Ringgold wrote that Ben was born in Pitt County, probably in 1838, orphaned as a young child, and reared by his uncle, Joseph Ringgold. Another note says that Ben’s father was named James Ringgold. Although I can confirm no other information on Ben’s parents, why he was orphaned or what happened in the first 18 years of his life, I have found information on Ancestry.com that at least allows some reasonable speculation. I have used as anchors the likelihood that Ben’s father was a James Ringgold, and that Ben lived for a time in his late teen years with an uncle, Joseph Ringgold.
Ancestry.com shows that a James Ringgold (1742-1797) of Kent County, MD married Hannah Tripp (1738-1844) and named one of their sons James Lockhart (1787-1860). James Lockhart Ringgold moved to Pitt County, NC, where he and his second wife, Joanna Snow had a son named Joseph Ringgold (1804-1880). There is some evidence that Joseph had a half-brother named James, who may have been Ben’s father. If so, it provides a possible clue to the identity of the Joseph Ringgold who was Ben’s uncle o Ben and foster parent.
Jemima Ringgold states that Ben was an orphan and lived with his Uncle Joe, but she doesn’t say when he was orphaned or when he moved in with Joe. The 1850 Census shows that a 12-year-old Benjamin Ringgold was in the Joshua Tripp household. Given that documents affirm a marriage connected Tripps and Ringgolds, it seems possible, perhaps likely, that when Ben needed someone to care for him, he went to live with Tripp family relatives. Further, it appears reasonable to suggest that Ben stayed with the Tripps until when he was 14 or 15 and then moved in with his uncle, the Joseph Ringgold identified above.
The Joseph Ringgold identified above was in the right place and time to have been Ben’s Uncle Joe. Further, the circumstances fit. Joseph Ringgold had at least four daughters and was wealthy enough to have several slaves (though apparently not enough for him to have been considered a planter rather than a farmer) and a carriage, not just a farm wagon. It seems believable that Joseph Ringgold would have thought it only proper that an orphaned boy, for whom Joseph was providing room, board and work, would help take care of menial tasks for his family, including driving his daughters in the family carriage. Ben seems to have taken a different view; he was, after all, a teenage male. Jemima wrote that Ben felt “put upon,” and thought Uncle Joe treated him “like a slave,” noting particularly his distaste with chauffeuring the daughters.
Not being happy with Uncle Joe, at about age 18 Ben left to look for work and lodging elsewhere. He found it in adjacent Cumberland County on the Henry Sessoms farm. He also found his future wife, Catherine Sessoms, an orphaned niece of Henry’s who was already living with the Sessoms family.
After Catherine Sessoms’ mother, Mary Purcell Sessoms, died after Catherine’s birth, Catherine’s father, Thomas, sent her to live with Mary’s sister, Katie Purcell McNeil. Later, Katie died and Thomas’ brother, Henry Sessoms, took Catherine into his home where she was living when Ben Ringgold came to the Sessoms around 1856.
Catherine and Ben married two years later, on March 31,1858. He was 20 years old; she was 19. It would have been common for the young married couple to continue to live in the same house with their foster parents. Or, perhaps, Joseph built a house for them on the farm. However they worked out their living arrangements, in another eighteen months, on Sept. 2, 1859, Catherine and Ben’s first child, William Henry “Willie” Ringgold, was born. He was my grandfather.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860 when Willie was 14 months old. Four months later, seven Southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) seceded from the Union. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, four other states (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee) joined the United Confederate States of America, igniting the conflagration that destroyed more of America than any other war in our nation’s history.
Ben believed in the Confederate cause. In spite of his being the father of a young child, he was one of the first to volunteer, leaving behind Catherine and 22-month-old Willie. Ben was so confident of a quick Southern victory he thought he’d be back in a few weeks. Jemima Ringgold writes:
Gallantly taking leave of his young wife and his precious baby boy, he went to help his comrades win the victory that he was sure would come, assuring his neighbors that his boy would one day be President (of the Confederate States of America)!
Confederate Army records (Appendix VI) show that Ben enlisted in Fayetteville July 20, 1861, but he was not actually mustered into service until Sept. 28, 1861 in Weldon. He was assigned to Company E (Manchester Guards) of the North Carolina 8th Infantry Regiment with the rank of private.
The conflict quickly proved to be anything but short and sweet. Jemima wrote: “Ben fought in several battles, was wounded, captured, and sent back to action through a prisoner exchange.”
Ben fought at Roanoke Island, NC, where he was captured Feb. 8,1862 by Union forces under the command of Gen. A. E. Burnside. He was released on parole Feb. 21, 1862 at Elizabeth City. It is not clear what he did from that time until August when he resumed duty with his unit. He was given leave to go home over Christmas, in Dec. 1862, which leads to one of most poignant narratives of our family in the Civil War.
Mother told me the following story many times and left it in her written notes, which I have edited slightly, adding some details from my own research of Civil War records:
As Benjamin was getting ready to return to his unit, three-year-old Willie did not want to see his daddy go. Benjamin took Willie to the corn field, made a play gun out of a corn stalk and set Willie to playing. With Willie’s attention on the play gun, his daddy walked away through the corn.
(By this time of year, ears of fresh corn would have been pulled, leaving stalks dry, making it easy to strip the leaves to make a play gun.)
(Ben returned to his unit and was “slightly wounded” 30 Jul 1863 in combat at Morris Island, SC.)
On Sept. 29 1863, nine months after Ben’s home visit, Catherine gave birth to their second child, another boy, Thomas Luther. Ben never saw him.
Ben’s 8th Infantry Regiment was constantly on the move. By Dec 1863, the group had set up for the winter near Petersburg, VA. At the end of Jan 1864, the regiment took a train to the Goldsboro/Kinston area, where the commanding officer, Col. Henry Shaw, was killed. Lt. Col. J. M. Whitson was promoted to the rank of colonel and named the new commander. The unit moved on to Suffolk, VA and then took a train back to Petersburg in March. With not much going on militarily, a late snow was an invitation for a bit of intramural competition. North Carolina’s 51st Regiment attacked the Eighth with snowballs. It is not clear who won, but one participant said, “It was an exciting and enjoyable affair.”
Ben’s Letter Home
Along about this time, Catherine wrote Ben that she was having trouble providing for herself and the boys. Men who stayed at home (those who were older or had some physical limitation) were expected to provide for the wives and children of those away from home in fighting units.
Ben wrote to Billy Sessoms (perhaps his wife’s guardian or brother) expressing his concern that “the committee” was not looking after his family, taking a jab at the men he suspected had faked disabilities to avoid service. The original is in the archives. I have edited the text below in minor ways to make it more readable.
April 3rd, 1864 – Camp near Petersburg, VA
To Mr. Billy Sessoms
I set myself to inform you that I am well at this time and I hope this will reach you and find you the same. I have no news to write only that I received a letter from my wife the other day and she said that the committee did not give her enough money to pay for one bushel of corn and I think the committee might give her more. She said she could get along on that and I know she can’t. I guess some of them think it hard to pay heavy taxes but I think it hard for soldiers to stay in the army and leave our families at home to suffer. I could have stayed home and feigned illness as well as some of the rest. I think if the community would try they could do better although I don’t need from you a loan.
Soon after Ben sent this letter, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was ordered to move his army of the James to the town of Bermuda Hundred, VA, between Richmond and Petersburg, and disrupt Confederate supplies moving to Richmond. Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard assembled a coalition of troops to meet Butler and keep the supply lines open. Beauregard’s forces included North Carolina’s 8th Regiment, now commanded by Col. J. M. Whitson. Ben was in Company E under the command of Capt. L. R. Brewer. Beauregard attacked Butler near Ware Bottom Church on May 20,1864. A detailed description of the NC 8th Infantry’s action is described in Clark’s 8th North Carolina Infantry Regimental History.
Beauregard’s Confederate coalition prevailed, but the cost was high. Ben Ringgold was among the 1400 casualties. His daughter-in-law, my grandmother, Jemima Page Ringgold, wrote: “One day the awful news came that Benjamin F. Ringgold was fatally wounded …and could live only a few days!”
Ben died June 18,1864 in a hospital in Petersburg, VA and was buried there with other Confederate soldiers. At age 26, having fought nearly three years in a war he was sure the Confederates would win in a matter of weeks, he left behind a distraught wife and two little boys, including one he had never seen.
The marker for Benjamin Ringgold in the Fisher Cemetery at Stedman incorrectly states that he “Died in Battle of Lexington, VA.” However, the Confederate Army Service Report states: “Wounded in the thorax at Ware Bottom Church VA. May 20th 1864. Died in hospital at Petersburg VA. on June 18th 1864.”
There was no “Battle of Lexington” in the Civil War. There was a limited military action, called Hunter’s Raid, near Lexington, VA, but it occurred three weeks after Ben was wounded. Furthermore, Lexington is about 160 miles west of a “camp near Petersburg,” the location indicated on Ben’s letter dated in April.
The same gravestone appears to be in error regarding the date of Catherine’s birth. It says she was born in 1831; however, Census records, which should be more reliable because Catherine herself would have reported her birth date, indicate that she was born in 1839. This is also more believable in that Ben was born in 1838.
Family Life After Ben’s Death
When Ben died, William Henry was four years, and Thomas Luther was only nine months old. Catherine and the boys never completely recovered from the loss of their father and the economic hardship that followed them throughout their lives. Jemima Ringgold wrote: “The agony endured by the mother during these days left its stamp upon her for life and she never was the same again. (Four-year-old Willie’s) mind was so impressed with the grief of it, that it left an effect that never was entirely erased.”
My mother, Jemima’s daughter, wrote: “Both boys were industrious and well-respected. Willie stayed home with his mother, while Tom liked to wander about and see the country, working and living wherever he chose.”
Notes & Sources:
For a complete roster of soldiers in this unit and the intriguing story of campaigns in which the NC 8th Infantry Regiment was involved throughout the war, see archives for Walter Clark (ed.), 8th North Carolina Infantry Regimental History; Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, Vol. 1; and, John Moore’s 8th North Carolina Infantry Soldier Roster. published by the State, 1901. http://www.civilwarindex.com/armync/8th_nc_infantry.html
It is not clear exactly what committee Ben refers to. It appears to have been a volunteer group charged with ensuring that the women and children left behind would be cared for.
The Ware Bottom Battlefield Park is now located on the site. “The Civil War in Chesterfield County -Ware Bottom Church,” http://www.chesterfieldhistory.com/Civil%20War/Civil%20War_Ware%20Bottom.html
The Civil War in Chesterfield County -Ware Bottom Church, http://www.chesterfieldhistory.com
Confederate Service Records, vol. 4, p. 571