Cora Beach Benton
Civil War Wife
1838 – 1902 A.D.
By Tom Taber
Cora Beach was born September 11, 1838, in Penfield, NY. Daughter of Rochester pioneers Elias and Maria Vosburgh Beach, she received her “High School” education at the highly regarded Phipps Union Seminary in Albion, a village on the Erie Canal 35 miles west of Rochester. When she was 16, her parents and three younger siblings joined her in Albion, sharing a large house with oldest sister Maria and her lawyer husband Nelson Graves.
Cora married Oliver Charles “Charlie” Benton the day before her 19th birthday, and daughter Belle was born about a year later. They led a happy, rather quiet existence until late August 1862, when Charlie decided to enlist in the newly forming 17th New York Volunteer Light Artillery. Cora’s letters begin less than a month later. For Cora, being left alone to raise a 4 year old daughter was one thing; being left while seven months pregnant quite another!
Cora’s early letters are filled with anguish, caused by her longing for Charlie, but also by the fact that he had never opened his heart to Christ. Cora believed that there was a greater probability of her never seeing Charlie again than of his returning safely to her – if she couldn’t be sure of seeing him again in this life, she wanted to be sure of seeing him in the next!
As time passed and her new baby boy became less dependent upon her, Cora sought ways to supplement the meager (and months late) army pay Charlie received. She had to change, in her words, from being “a child to lead” to “a partner to walk with.”
In the spring of 1864, her older sister Emma asked her “Why not try to get 12 little girls to teach this summer?” Acting on this gave her life a new focus, took her mind off her loneliness, and brought in a modest yet helpful addition to the family income.
By reading the 160 letters (approximately 300,000 words), one gains a clearer understanding of civilian life in the North during our nation’s conflict. Cora, an “Odd Fellow” who had taken an oath to help the sick whenever the need arose, spent several sleepless nights with a neighbor family battling Typhoid Fever, when others stayed away fearing contracting the disease themselves. She saved the life of at least one of the family’s teenage daughters.
At the start of her letters, Cora’s brothers Howard (16) and Valentine (“Vallie”) 13 are either attending school or taking temporary employment.; in less than a year and a half, both are soldiers; one a hero, the other flirting with an arrest for desertion. Cora also keeps Charlie apprised of developments of another nature – sister Ella is betrothed, but as Cora says, “Being engaged to one and loving another better isn’t as pleasant as it might seem.”
Having spent so much time with Cora and her thoughts, I now think of her as a friend, regardless of the fact that she died 50 years before I was born. I believe that any reader would grow to love Cora for her humor, her humanity, her perseverance, and the fortitude and faith that saw her through the nearly 3 years of her husband’s absence during those “hard breathing days.”
Tom Taber of Albion, NY has spent his spare time the last four years researching Cora and the nearly 500 people mentioned in the letters she wrote to her soldier husband Charlie from 1862-1865. “Hard Breathing Days – The Civil War Letters of Cora Beach Benton” has been published as an ebook.