Before the war, Benjamin Dyer Merchant was working in his father’s mercantile business in Dumfries, Virginia. He stood at 5’7″, 2 inches shorter than I. He had dark hair, a dark complexion, and dark eyes; my girlfriend says we look a lot alike, even though we’re so many generations apart.
B.D. was only 23, a year younger than myself, when he enlisted to fight for Virginia. He enlisted for 12 months’ service on 23 April, 1861 at Brentsville and on 28 May, 1861 at Fairfax Court House he was mustered into Co. A 4th Virginia Cavalry, Wickham’s Brigade, Fitzhugh Lee’s Division as 2nd Sergeant. His horse was valued at $160, his equipment at $20.
He enlisted again for 2 years’ service on 7 March, 1862 at Round Top, Virginia. 25 April he was elected Jr. 2nd Lieutenant, and 3 days later he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. On 11 October, 1863, 2 days before the Bristoe Campaign, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
On 29 December, 1863, B.D. was wounded in Antioch, Virginia and taken as as prisoner of war. He was confined at Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC, then transferred to Fort McHenry and Point Lookout. Finally, he was admitted into Hammond General Hospital to be treated for his injuries and sent to Fort Delaware after.
On 20 August, 1864, he was sent to Morris Island, South Carolina, at the entrance of Charleston Harbor. Here he became one of the Immortal 600. B.D. and his brothers in arms were used as human shields and intentionally starved for 45 days in an attempt to stop the Confederate gunners at Fort Sumter. Hands and feet bound, they laid defenseless in the sand day and night as the shells whistled over their heads. Miraculously, none of them were injured by the Confederate fire, even as shells landed amongst their tents.
They were confined at Fort Pulaski on 10 November, 1864. They spent the winter there, 13 of them dying of dysentery and scurvy. The survivors were sent back to Fort Delaware, where 25 more succumbed to illness, remaining there until after the war.
Lt. Benjamin Dyer Merchant took the Oath of Allegiance on 12 June, 1865, swearing allegiance to the same government that used him and his brothers as human shields. I don’t know if he ever forgave them, I don’t know if he was one to hold grudges. Whilst I don’t carry his family name, I do know that his blood is my blood and I don’t forget and I don’t forgive.
– Tyler J. Thompson