Comrade Rowley, Department of Iowa G.A.R.

William Smyth, Colonel, 31st Iowa Infantry Regiment, 1862-1865,

Col William Smyth, commander of the 31st Iowa Inf Regt, 1862-1865

Comrade Rowley’s story actually begins with someone else’s, that of Josephus White Benadom.  Benadom, known as “Seph” to family and friends, was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Iowa 31st Infantry, Company E as a fifer.  The 31st was a volunteer regiment raised in and around Davenport, Iowa and participated in several major engagements, including (among others) Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge as well as the Battle of Atlanta and Sherman’s March.  It was mustered out shortly after the war was over, on June 27, 1865.

Benadom’s Civil War experiences entitled him to membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization founded in 1866 and comprised of Civil War veterans who had worn the Union blue.  Benadom, who at this time resided in Maquoketa, Iowa, joined the Ben Paul Post in nearby Wyoming [IA].  The post had been established February 15, 1883.  However, Benadom’s name is not among its charter members or even its early members; in fact, his name does not appear in the rosters until 1915. There he would have remained, unnoticed and unknown among the nameless faces peering at us from old photographs, had it not been for Comrade Rowley, who had never served a day in the war but whose Post “membership” nonetheless earned him and his companion instant fame.

Courtesy National Park Service,

Vicksburg site marker for the 31st Regt.  Courtesy National Park Service,

Rowley was an unlikely candidate for G.A.R. membership. He was a young robin with a broken wing that Seph Benadom discovered in 1926.  Benadom, who by that time had been practicing medicine for decades, set the wing, named the bird Rowley, and kept him as a lifelong companion.  Thereafter, bird and savior were connected by mutual affection as well as a string affixed to both Rowley’s leg and a convenient button on Dr. Benadom’s coat. Legend has it that Rowley was fairly content despite being so confined, making only a few feeble attempts at escape. He thrived on a meat-and-fruit diet and accompanied Dr. Benadom wherever he pleased, including the 1926 G.A.R. encampment held in Des Moines, Iowa, where an alert news photographer captured and preserved for posterity a glimpse of Rowley the robin sitting atop his homemade perch stuck into the cork end of Dr. Benadom’s fife. This photograph catapulted Comrade Rowley (and Comrade Benadom) onto the front pages of many a midwestern newspaper and even one as far away as Canandaigua, New York.

"Seph" Benadom, MD with Rouwley, 1927.  Author's Collection.

“Seph” Benadom, MD with Rowley at the 60th GAR encampment in Des Moines, 1926. Author’s Collection.

If Rowley and Dr. Benadom were to be friends, though, the bird had no choice but to tolerate if not enjoy fife music. The doctor treasured the fife he had made in 1862 from “fine boxwood and brass” and played the old military tunes upon it on many occasions throughout his life.  It was, he said, “the best instrument in the whole G.A.R.” It had seen much wartime use, even when the young Benadom and his regiment “marched with Sherman to the sea.” Undoubtedly, it was the same instrument he used at the Great Jones County [Iowa] Fair in 1927, during a truly unforgettable musical performance that also featured Rowley the Robin:

Dr. J. W. Benadom’s Fife and Drum Corp[s], assisted by his sons, and Charles Clark of Maquoketa and Frank Byerly of Anamosa, appeared that year and are still recalled by many. Benadom had trained a Robin, caught the previous spring, to sit quietly on his fife as he played. The two were a familiar sight on Monticello streets for several years.

Rowley The Second enjoys the 67th Annual Encampment of the GAR.  Unidentified newspaper clipping, Author's Collection.

Rowley The Second enjoys the 67th Annual Encampment of the GAR. Unidentified newspaper clipping, Author’s Collection.

Rowley lived the good life from 1926 until his demise sometime before or during 1933, since that year Dr. Benadom attended the 67th G.A.R. National Encampment in St. Paul with an eight-week-old successor, another robin named Rowley the Second. Apparently Rowley the Second had inherited the amiable characteristics of the original Rowley, among which were stoicism and a fondness for fife music. Benadom explained to a reporter how he had whittled Rowley’s perch himself. Still, he had worried about bringing him to encampments, “I was kind of afraid he’d get scared of all the noise — these drums and bugles,” but there was no need to fret. Rowley the Second behaved as courteously as did his predecessor. Benadom claimed that Rowley the Second was so talented that he could “chirp a few bars” of his favorite tune, “The Girl I Left Behind.”

Both Rowleys proved perfect companions for the old doctor. For 7 years, first the one robin and then the other had posed contentedly on his perch as the duo’s fame spread in newspaper stories published from within and beyond Iowa. But all good things must come to an end, which they did in 1933, only weeks after Benadom and Rowley the Second had returned from the St. Paul G.A.R. encampment.  That’s when Dr. Benadom was murdered:

He was known to take walks in the park in the afternoon near his home at 639 N. Sycamore St, in Monticello, IA. It was on one of these walks that he reported to have been robbed by two thugs in the vicinity of the amphitheater ticket office. The men alleged to have taken $30 to $40. These circumstances of his confrontation frightened him and caused a sinking spell. He laid down on the couch in his reception room and became unconscious and continued so until his death an hour later.

ad for benadom sanitarium 1905

Ad for one of the five Benadom Sanitariums. Featured is Dr. J.A. Benadom, Dr. Seph’s strong-willed son. Item sold by,

This wasn’t the first time Dr. Benadom was mugged. In September 1902, he had been “waylaid, beaten, and robbed of $42, while walking near his home in Maquoketa. But he was a young, strong 59 years old then, and in 1933 he was 90 and unable to recover from the heart attack induced by the shock of his encounter with two burly thugs. Dr. Benadom was buried on December 9, 1933 in the Mt. Joy Cemetery near Davenport. What became of Rowley the Second is at this point unknown.  




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Turkey In the Straw, A Poem by MacKinlay Kantor

Courtesy Denver Public Library, Accessed September 12, 2012

It was some years ago that I last spoke with Willie, bass drummer for the Charles W. Dickerson Field Music.  Even then Willie was an old-timer, a Jaybird in Ancient parlance.  As we walked off the field at the Westbrook Muster with the robust strains of the Dickerson standpiece still ringing in our ears, we discussed just what makes Ancients tick.  We agreed that it wasn’t being born into the hobby, and it wasn’t necessarily talent or skill, but neither of us could come up with much else—that is, not until Willie put down his drum, clasped his hands to his heart, and said, “It’s right here.  To be a good Ancient, you have to feel it right here.”

I was struck by his statement.  Willie was right.  In fact, that’s exactly how the Ancients came to be.  Those who fifed and drummed in the American Revolution felt a similar sentiment as they passed down a large body of emotionally charged marches and quicksteps to their sons and grandsons and they in turn to theirs, so much so that Civil War fifers played many of the same tunes with the same vigor during that conflict as well.  And because they, too, felt it “right here,” the music persisted long after that war, both in the GAR field music and in the repertory and performance practices of Connecticut’s Ancient fifes and drums.

MacKinlay Kantor, while never an Ancient, nonetheless knew that feeling.  Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1904, he developed an interest in the Civil War.  “As a boy and teenager in Iowa,” his Wiki biographer tells us, “Kantor had spent hours listening to the stories of Civil War veterans, and he was an avid collector of first-hand narratives.”  As a young man, he joined the local Sons of Union Veterans and then the National Association of Civil War Musicians (but not until its hereditary requirement was relaxed, thus extending NACWM membership to qualified Sons).  Kantor attended GAR encampments, listened to even more stories of the old-timers, fifed with them at parades, and eventually wrote about his experiences in several novels and poems.

Turkey-In-The-Straw (1935), a self-described anthology of “American ballads and primitive verse,” consists of a series of poems that Kantor had submitted to various newspapers and magazines over the previous decade.  None of the 35 entries rise to the level of literary greatness, but all reveal how intensely the old veterans’ stories had affected the author.  There are 8 poems that deal with the Civil War; this one, entitled “The Twenty-Ninth of May,” presents a poignant juxtaposition of mortality and immortality.

Tomorrow, "The Jaybird" would clatter and cry
Like the echo of cannister cleaving the sky. . .
And he knew that thin hands with their stiffness and pain
Would prod the bull-drums to a battered refrain.
Ah, boot-toes were bright, and the faded eyes glared
Up at heaven,
 Tomorrow, my music is blared. 

Blue elves, army elves in a frenzy of age
Tore the grace-notes from bars on a rheumatic page. . .
O, pin me my ribbons and fetch me my drums,
I'm ninety years old, and my fingers are thumbs. 
And it's "Hell on the Wabash" or Kellogg's Q.S."
I'm the last of my line--and the bravest, I guess. 

"He's sleepin'," they murmured.  "Let's git him away,"
And, Jesus! They guided him into a day
Where the burnt banners brushed him as lips of the gods.
The Seventh Wisconsin!  Up, up through the sods
They were springing like birds in the haunt of a dream.
         Still linger the eagles.  Tomorrow, they scream.

However, this one about another otherwise forgotten Memorial Day is my favorite.  (For the uninitiated, it was and remains customary to play a dirge when entering a cemetery;  a quickstep would be in bad taste, hence Judge Wright’s complaint).

Judge Wright said, "It's contrary to law.
They shouldn't be playin' Turkey-in-the-straw!"

But all the old vets in the Potters' field
Mumbled and laughed as our bad hands wheeled
Through the powdered smoke, the muttering stammer—
Talking so fierce in 'Sixty-one grammar!"

And Perc Knowles nodded in his deep grave:
"The best martial tune those boys ever gave."

And Park Banks stirred in his old blue coat,
Close by the field of budding oat—
"The boys are beating.  I hear—I see. . .
Next tune they play'll be 'Jefferson and Liberty.'"

Clatter-patter, clatter-patter, crowds went by
And they only saw a mild May sky.
With us standing under it, beating like hell
A maudlin chorus the graves knew well.

Joe Mead whispered up through the sod,
"Hope they play 'Tallewan' too, by God!
Hope their fingers are wire and steel;
Hope they make the cedar trees kneel."

And unseen eagles yelled on a ridge
Over beyond the Deer Creek bridge.

Clatter-clack-clack.  The crowds went past. . .
And we were tired and done, at last.
But the cedars whistled that dancing sound
In the slow night breeze of the burying-ground.

And some say the little flags snapped like stars
To the drum, drum, drum of those redskin bars;
And I saw Yankee men pushing up their stones,
And dancing to our fifes on splinter-new bones!

It’s possible Kantor was working with a copy of American Veteran Fifer on his desk; more likely, it was his memories of any number of its contributors that enabled him to write with such simple elegance.

Kantor attended the Deep River Ancient Muster in 1959, coming up to Connecticut from his home in Sarasota, Florida.  He died in 1977, having immortalized the Civil War veteran in several of his many novels, anthologies, and film scripts and no doubt comforted by the realization that the legacy of the Civil War fifer and drummer will be carried on by the Ancient community for years to come.

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