Next time you find yourself at Fern Hill Cemetery, I recommend you wander up to the north side of the cemetery and pay your respects to a humble, unassuming man but one who lived quite a remarkable life. His name is Thomas Benn Dyer, nephew of Aberdeen’s founder, Samuel Benn. Thomas was born in 1843 in Coolbanagher Ireland and immigrated with his family to Massachusetts in 1848 during the infamous Irish potato famine.
In August of 1861, Thomas enlisted in to the Union army (Massachusetts 21st Regiment) just shy of his 18th birthday. Over the next, almost 3 years, Thomas would participate in 14 military campaigns, some of the most significant of the great civil war and would be wounded twice. These battles included; Roanoke Island, Second Bull Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Antietam and Cold Harbor. During one of the battles, Abraham Lincoln visited the troops and Thomas witnessed him personally.
On June 2nd 1864, during the battle of Cold Harbor, Thomas was taken prisoner by the Confederates. His confinement included three months at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. He was eventually paroled in Virginia in March 1865. During the final six weeks of his confinement, Thomas contracted diphtheria and was in and out of consciousness. He had no recollection of those six weeks. While ill, he was attended to by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. She had been adapted as the unofficial daughter of his regiment. Thomas became a close friend of Clara Barton and stayed in contact with her after the war. On August 23rd 1865, Thomas Benn Dyer mustered out of the army.
Thomas located to New York City after the war and began studying art at Cooper Institute. Thomas graduated number one in his class receiving a diploma signed by the founder and famous American industrialist, Peter Cooper.
Following graduation, Thomas obtained a job as a safe painter in Philadelphia. One of his most significant commissions was to paint the safe that contained the original parchment of the Declaration of Independence, which was displayed at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia.
Thomas continued to work in Philadelphia until his retirement in 1912, at which time he moved out west to the town his uncle Samuel Benn founded, Aberdeen Washington. For the next 21 years, Samuel and Thomas developed a very close relationship. The respect that Samuel had for Thomas is likely reflected in the position of their grave locations. On one side of Samuel Benn rests his wife Martha, on the other side of Samuel rests his nephew Thomas Benn Dyer.
Photos provided by and story written by James Brasfield, descendant of Samuel Benn.