Monday, March 06, 2017

'Shrouded in gloom': An assassination at Antietam in 1912

Charles W. Adams, the first battlefield superintendent at Antietam, was murdered in 1912.
(National Park Service image via Stephen Recker, author Rare Images of Antietam.)
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In his nearly 12 years as the first Antietam battlefield superintendent, Civil War veteran Charles W. Adams was a quietly efficient bureaucrat.

Appointed in 1900 after Congress appropriated funds for the position, the former doorkeeper at the House of Representatives initially earned a yearly salary of $1,200, later bumped to $1,500. During his tenure, the park had no visitor's center or official guides -- Adams didn't even have an office. A staunch Republican who had held several political offices in the area, he spent nearly all his time on park maintenance and was known as a stickler for details.

"... he knew not only every man in his election district as a party leader but almost every stick and stone on Government property in his care," a newspaper reported about Adams, one of the county's more popular citizens. "A fence post could not remain out of plumb for more than a day without his notice."

When veterans' reunions were held in Sharpsburg, Adams eagerly aided their efforts, not surprising given his service in the Union Army as a private in the Maryland Light Artillery. Severely wounded at Winchester, Va., on June 13, 1863, he was captured there, paroled and sent to a hospital in Baltimore. He served the rest of the war behind a desk. After the war, he was a tax collector in Washington County, Md., among other roles, and earned a reputation as a good businessman. In 1883, he and another man started a weekly newspaper in nearby Hagerstown, Md.

On June 7, 1912, the Evening News of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., 
published a story on Charles Adams' murder under
 these headlines, an early-20th century example of fake news.
In an otherwise unremarkable career as battlefield superintendent, Adams reportedly riled locals in 1912 when he banned farm machines and cattle from traveling on park roads.

Then came June 6, 1912, a late-spring day in Sharpsburg that "threw the whole neighborhood into the greatest excitement" and left all of Washington County "shrouded in gloom."

At about 9 that morning, Charles Benner, who, according to a newspaper account, was a "drink-crazed job hunter," confronted Adams on Burnside Bridge Road where he was working. Benner, who had an "uncontrollable temper," according to another account, pulled out a revolver and shot Adams in the back and then pumped several more bullets into the unarmed man. Reeling, Adams fell against a fence, telling Benner, "Don't shoot me anymore, Charlie."

Eager to finish the dastardly deed, Benner reloaded and resumed shooting, riddling Adams with perhaps as many as 12 bullets. Six bullets lodged in Adams' abdomen, one in his wrist and another in his neck, according to a report. A witness in a nearby field confronted Benner, who threatened to shoot him, too. Another man alerted Adams' son-in-law, a local doctor, and the married father of two daughters was transported to his house in Sharpsburg.

"It was, however, seen at once that nothing could be done for him but make him as comfortable as possible," a local newspaper reported. Adams, nicknamed "Captain," died shortly after he was gunned down. The next day, the headline in the local newspaper called the 69-year-old veteran a "popular and useful citizen of Washington County."

(Even the big-city Washington Post ran with the story, publishing it on Page 1 under the headline "Antietam Battlefield Superintendent Victim of Assassin." Although Benner had not served during the Civil War, The Evening News of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., reported he was a Confederate veteran who despised Adams, the former Yankee. "Civil War Hatred Results in Murder," its headline blared -- an early 20th-century example of fake news.)

Does the William McKinley monument near Burnside Bridge have a tie to the murder 
of Charles Adams? The monument is shown here in an image shot in 1925.  Farm outbuildings
in the background were torn down long ago. 
(Library of Congress collection)
Meanwhile, a posse was sent after Benner, who was tracked down at his house. But it was too late. No stranger to violence with firearms, Benner was found dead in the corner of his summer kitchen with a bullet wound near his eye. No one saw him commit suicide, but several people heard the bang of the revolver.

"It is now admitted by residents of Sharpsburg," the Washington Evening Star reported, "that had not Benner taken his own life there would have been grave danger of speedy revenge."

It's unclear what drove the 60-year-old married father of a teen-aged son to kill Adams. A newspaper account speculated it was an "old grudge," perhaps involving court testimony Adams gave about Benner's character years earlier. Or perhaps it involved a dispute over the purchase of land for the William McKinley monument near Burnside Bridge. Benner's father originally sold the property to the State of Ohio, and there apparently was a disagreement with the park over right of way and payment.

In 1909, Benner was involved in an altercation with another Civil War veteran, his own brother-in-law, over another property dispute. But he was the gunshot victim that time, suffering a serious bullet wound in his arm and another in his hip. At trial, Mathias Spong said he acted in self-defense, claiming Benner once choked him until his tongue was hanging out, and he was acquitted. About 10 years earlier,  Benner shot another man in the stomach during a quarrel, nearly killing him, but he never served time.

Although Benner's motive for murder may be in dispute, there's no disputing where the men in this sad tale may be found today. Both are buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Sharpsburg, across the road from Antietam National Cemetery.

From left, gravestones for Charles W. Adams and his killer, Charles Benner, 
in Mountain View Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md. (Find A Grave)

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-- Find A Grave, newspaper account, probably a Maryland publication, of Adams' death.
-- Mathias Spong Family History, written by William Bauman, revised 2016, accessed online March 5, 2017.
-- The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., June 7, 1912.
-- Snell, Charles W. and Brown, Sharon A., Antietam National Battlefield and National Cemetery: An Administrative History, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1986,  Pages 123-24.
-- Baltimore Sun, June 7, 1912, Sept. 15, 1912.
-- Washington Evening Star, June 7, 1912.
-- Washington Post, May 21, 1909, June 7, 1912.
-- Williams, Thomas J.C., A History of Washington County, Maryland, From the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time, Chambersburg, Pa., John M. Runk & L.R. Titsworth, 1906.

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