Sergeant Benjamin Williams
Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry
Benjamin F. Williams was born in Morgan County, Ohio, in January 1837. His father, Dearman Williams, was a rural physician and struggling farmer. His mother, Mary Farmer, came from a family of successful local merchants. Both parents were devout Quakers (Orthodox) whose families had left North Carolina during the first decade of the nineteenth century in opposition to the institution of slavery, and Benjamin, together with his three brothers and four sisters, grew up within his parents' faith. As Benjamin's subsequent actions suggest, he also came to share their anti-slavery convictions.
When Benjamin Williams was just eighteen, his parents moved the family to Iowa. Benjamin's older brother John went first, buying land in Muscatine, along the banks of the Mississippi River. The rest of the family settled in central Iowa, where they numbered among the first inhabitants in the fledgling village of Lotts Creek. Benjamin remained there long enough to help his father clear the family's land and launch the new farm. However, 1859 brought news of the Pikes Peak gold rush to Lotts Creek, and Benjamin set out for Colorado determined to make his fortune.
Like most of those who thronged the streets of boomtowns like Denver and Golden, Williams found work (but no gold) in Colorado. He spent two years in the mountains, dividing his time between mining, hunting, and trapping. When the Civil War began, however, Williams quickly packed up his belongings and headed east to join the Union Army. By September 10, 1861, he had made his way to Omaha in the Nebraska Territory, where he enlisted as a Private in Company B of the Curtis Horse Cavalry on September 10, 1861.
Williams was mustered into service on September 21, 1861, and served for the duration of the war, receiving his discharge on June 15, 1865. He had a distinguished military career and received several promotions:
Promoted to Second Corporal on June 12, 1862
Williams was took part in all of the regiment's major actions during the first two years of the war. In the fall of 1863, due to illness he spent several months in field hospitals and the general hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, battling a severe bout of what military records describe as typhoid fever. After a brief furlough early in 1864, Williams again returned to active duty in the field.
On July 31, 1864, Williams was captured by Confederate forces in heavy fighting during the battle on the Chattahoochee River, near Atlanta, Georgia. Williams spent the next six months in Confederate prison camps, primarily at Andersonville with shorter stints at two smaller camps. He later told his nephew how he managed to escape amid the confusion caused by General Sherman's advance through Georgia, which forced Confederate authorities to relocate many of the prisoners held at Andersonville. "In the confusion of this abandonment, Ben Williams succeeded in making his escape. Trailed by blood-hounds, after numerous thrilling experiences in which he seemed to come within a hair's-breadth of recapture, he finally made his way into the Federal lines, weak and emaciated, with his health shattered by malaria" [Hubert E. Collins, "Ben Williams, Frontier Peace Officer," Chronicles of Oklahoma 10:4 (Dec. 1932), page 521].
In his pension application, Williams himself described the end of his "near 7 mo. imprisonment in Andersonville and other Rebel Prisons. Feb 22nd 1865 I made my escape to Wilmington NC, was imediately taken with Typhoid fever (the 3rd atack during my army service) and conveyed in hospital vesel to Anapolis Md where I was placed in hospital [and] where I first became aware of surounding things Mar 10th." Williams spent several more months in army hospitals, and was finally mustered out of the service in Muscatine, Iowa, in June.
Although he was constantly plagued by the after-effects of the illness he contracted in the army, Williams lived a colorful life after the war. In 1873, after eight years of quiet farming in central Iowa, he followed his older brother John to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Agency in what is now western Oklahoma. There Williams received a commission as Deputy United States Marshal and orders to prevent depredations on Native American property by the scores of white horse thieves, buffalo hunters, and other outlaws who had found their way to Indian Territory and the Texas panhandle. Tragically, Williams' wife and two young daughters died in a wagon accident en route to this post, leaving him to raise two sons on his own.
When Williams completed his service as a Deputy Marshal in 1875, he chose to remain in the area, starting a cattle ranch near Mobeetie, Texas, on land just beyond the boundary of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Agency. According to his sons, Williams chose this location at the insistence of a handful of Cheyenne and Arapahoe headmen, with whom he had become fast friends. The fact that Williams slaughtered six hundred bison during his first year on the ranch calls the depth of this bond into question, but it is true that Cheyenne and Arapahoe hunters were frequent guests at the Williams ranch well into the 1880s.
Williams remained in the Texas panhandle for more than a decade. As the population of Mobeetie and Wheeler county grew, however, Williams was distressed to learn that many of his new neighbors were Confederate veterans. Concerned that verbal jousting between former combatants might give way to real violence, Williams sold his land in 1886 and moved to Santa Clara, California. He became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and lived the rest of his life in northern California. Benjamin Williams died on October 19, 1908.
The Fifth Iowa Cavalry website is grateful to Williams' great-great-grandson, Nathaniel Sheidley, for this detailed portrait of one of the Fifth's outstanding veterans.