Our Uncle Ben

By Milton Yarbrough

My father, Marvin Yarbrough, enjoyed telling us about his Great Uncle Benjamin Stephenson, a Confederate war veteran. Ben was born in Northhampton County, North Carolina about 1837. Marvin had no living grandparents so he was close to Ben. Ben called Marvin "Marvell." When the war started Jenkins Stephenson took his hunting gun from the wall and went to war, followed by his son Ben, who was about 16 years old. Ben told the family that he followed his father to war in his shirttail.

Ben told the family that often he was engaged in fierce fighting on the battlefield and thought he would be killed. On one occasion, he was really scared, his company was wiped out, and all soldiers not wounded or dead had to retreat. Ben fell to the ground and pretended to be dead. The Union soldiers poked Ben with their weapons, but Ben didn't move. He heard a Union soldier say. "This one is dead." Soon dark fell; Ben hid in a thicket of trees and later found what was left of his outfit. Ben's fellow soldiers were glad to see him alive. Ben told his officers if they had stayed and fought they would have won the battle. Ben was told he could go home on furlough or stay there in camp and rest and have plenty to eat. Ben's decision was probably a wise one. The food on tables of the families of the South was scarce because of the war. Another place at the table would have put an extra burden on his family. In addition, travel in those days was slow and very exhausting.

Food was scarce for Confederate soldiers. Ben was hungry and ragged. One day, the troops were moving, and the Captain stood front and center with his wife and her fat bulldog to give orders. The troops stole the dog and passed it back in the ranks to the cook's wagon and cooked the dog. Actually, the hungry soldiers ate the dog before it was done cooking because the fire went out on the moving cook wagon. Ben often spoke of the time he spent at Elmira as a prisoner of war; he was sick and starved. Ben was captured at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on May 15, 1864. He was imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland and later transferred to Elmira August 3. 1864. He was later exchanged for another prisoner and transferred to James River, Virginia. He was hospitalized at Richmond, Virginia with diarrhea. Ben was furloughed for thirty days on March 29. 1865. (Information provided from Jeannie Stephenson Stinson, Stephenson Family Genealogist.)

Ben was sick and weak when he started his journey home to Northhampton County, North Carolina. Ben's family believed he was dead. One day Tabitha Britton Stephenson saw a man some distance from her home walk a few steps, stagger and fall. After awhile, he attempted to walk a few steps and fell again. Tabitha told her two other sons Nathan and Sam. "That is Ben. Go and bring him home." Tabitha was right; it was her son Ben. Ben was so sick; he was unable to work for a year.

Ben left North Carolina with eleven other young men including his brothers Nathan and Sam, several cousins and friends searching for a better life in Woodruff County, Arkansas. The Stephenson's found a place near good fishing and hunting.

The hardships of Ben's youth changed his ways and view for the rest of his life. Ben was married for a short time and had no children. Walter and his brother Victor Stephenson, Ben's nephews, sometimes had fun with their uncle and his strange ways. One day when Walter and Victor were young, they went to visit Ben. They saw Ben hide a bottle of whiskey in a trunk, so he wouldn't have to share the whiskey with them. The boys decided to have some fun with Uncle Ben. The brothers mentioned how much they would like to have a nip, and asked Ben if he had any whiskey. This, Ben quickly denied. When Ben wasn't looking, his nephews took the bottle of whiskey from the trunk and set it, the bottle, on top of the trunk. When Ben saw the bottle on top of the trunk, he pretended not to see it. When he thought the boys weren't looking, Ben sneaked the bottle back into the trunk. The nephews pretended not to see. They continued to tease Ben about how much they would enjoy a drink of spirits. Ben was getting irritated. As soon as the boys had a chance again, they sneaked the bottle out again. Ben came back in the room and saw the whiskey on top of the trunk. He opened the trunk and slammed the bottle inside. Then in anger, he jumped on top of the trunk and stomped the lid as hard as he could. Ben didn't like to share.

After Annie Yarbrough died. Will Yarbrough would bring a bottle home once in awhile. Will's daughters, Maggie and Maud, didn't allow whiskey in the house. The sisters would give their father's whiskey to Uncle Ben.

Uncle Ben enjoyed his visits and meals with his niece Annie Tabitha and Will Yarbrough, my grandparents. Uncle Ben called his niece Tabby. When Ben was asked if he would like more coffee, he would reply. "Well, only an eggshell full. When the server stopped before the cup was full, Ben would say. "Oh pour on." The server would end up filling the cup. Then Ben would say. "I only wanted an eggshell full." Uncle Ben would come by the Yarbrough home on his way fishing. He would say, "Tabby get the skillet hot. We shall have plenty of fish for supper." If the fish didn't bite, Uncle Ben would come by with the unfavorable story that the fish just wouldn't bite today. "I shall catch them next time," he would say. If Ben had good luck fishing, he would take the lane home. Tabby would laugh and tell the children that Uncle Ben had good luck fishing today.

Marvin Yarbrough remembered once when he was a small boy, he went home with Uncle Ben. Soon it was time to eat supper. Ben sliced a big piece of cold ham and placed it between two pieces of cold cornbread and gave it to young Marvin for supper. Dad was used to good hot meals cooked by his mother and had no appetite for the food. Uncle Ben told Marvin as soon as it was dark they would try to catch that old big bear. Ben decided to have some fun with his little grandnephew and made bear-like footprints in the sand. Once it was dark, he told Marvin, "Now is the time to catch that old bear. We shall catch him for sure tonight." Little Marvin began to shake with fright, but followed the old man to where Ben had made the tracks. When Ben showed Marvin the fake bear tracks, Marvin had seen enough. Marvin ran 1/8 of a mile home. It wasn't until later that Marvin learned Uncle Ben had played a trick on him.

Ben was not a big farmer, or a great farmer, but he was a productive farmer. He always had plenty of pork cured. He had a mixture of every color and kind of chicken. His chickens produced more eggs than anyone. Many times when the Yarbrough family decided to make ice cream Annie would send her son, Marvin, to get eggs from Uncle Ben and invite Ben to the ice cream supper.

One day Marvin went to get eggs at Uncle Ben's farm; he found Ben gone. He had probably gone fishing. Marvin found nests full of eggs, eggs everywhere. Marvin collected enough eggs for the ice cream. Caesar, Ben's hunting hound was guarding the chicken house. Caesar knew Marvin and was glad to have some company. When Ben came home, he was invited to the ice cream supper. Marvin told Uncle Ben that he got eggs to make the ice cream from his chicken house. Ben told Marvin he was lucky that Caesar hadn' t eaten him alive. He said, "Never trust him. He is a ferocious dog when left to guard my property." Marvin was not afraid of Caesar.

Uncle Ben was a good hunter. Several prominent and wealthy men in the country hunted with Ben. Minor Gregory, the richest man in the county sometimes hunted with Ben. Everyone in the county had heard the story that Mr. Gregory sometimes lit his pipe with $5.00 bills. Ben believed that Mr. Gregory really did light his pipe around a campfire while hunting with a five-dollar bill. Ben told family he got on to Mr. Gregory. "Don 't be so foolish Minor," he snapped. Ben had many friends.

Walter Stephenson moved to West Texas and later sent for his Uncle Ben to come and live with him. Ben was getting old, so he went to Texas to live with Walter and his family. Ben was very unhappy in Texas. He had always lived near woods and streams. Ben's favorite hero was Daniel Boone. Ben told Walter that West Texas had more preachers and less religion, more cows and less milk, and you can see farther and see less than any place he had ever seen. I had rather be dead in Arkansas than alive in Texas. The sick old soldier wanted to return to Arkansas and be buried in the Stephenson Cemetery. He wanted to be buried where his family, cousins and friends who left North Carolina many years before were laid to rest.

Walter sent Ben back to Arkansas. The big strong Ben was now sick and weak with only a short time to live. Marvin remembered when Uncle Ben came back to Arkansas, Uncle Jim Garrett was farming the Yarbrough farm at that time and hired a man to take care of Ben, He was very frail and shaking. He told Minor and Marvin to build a big fire because he was very cold. Uncle Ben didn't live long. The Yarbrough children were boarding with Uncle Jim Garrett at the time. Mr. Robinson, who took care of Ben, woke the Yarbrough boys and told them to say goodbye to their Uncle Ben. Marvin, Minor and Darius got out of bed and watched the old soldier take his last breath. Uncle Ben was probably the last one in the Stephenson family to be buried in the cemetery.