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York soldier deserted after being reported as killed in railroad accident

Vintage train cars at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, PA. (Scott Mingus photo)

Railroad travel in the 19th century at times could be risky at times. Poor track conditions such as broken or loose rails could cause a train to derail. Excessive speed, poor weather conditions, two trains on the same track headed in opposite directions, bridge collapses–all are known to have caused serious mishaps on railroads in the Mid-Atlantic region. Occasionally, couplings between cars failed, sending them hurtling on their own down grades. Fortunately, accidents were not common and most people arrived safely at their intended destinations.

Perhaps the most tragic situations were those involving human error–someone rushing to board a moving train, standing on top of an overcrowded rail car while entering a bridge, sticking arms or feet out of a window, trying to move from car to car while they were careening from side to side, and similar circumstances. In several documented instances, the victims were Union soldiers.

They included Benjamin Franklin Snyder of York, a father with a young family.

Except, he was not a victim as reported in the press.

Here is his story, as derived from the December 2, 1861, edition of the Baltimore Sun.

According to researcher Dennis W. Brandt’s database of Civil War soldiers (on-line at the website of the York County History Center), Benjamin F. Snyder was born December 23, 1837, and lived in the Brogue area. In November 1859, he married Phebe Ann Flinn and a year later fathered a daughter, Ida. He worked for farmer William Shaw in Lower Chanceford Township and had a mistress on the side, fathering another child by her. He was 5′ 10″ tall with dark hair and hazel eyes when he enlisted as a private in Company K of the 87th Pennsylvania on August 24, 1861.

Within weeks, Snyder and his regiment were stationed north of Baltimore at Relay House guarding the infrastructure of the Northern Central Railway. Snyder, perhaps weary of the tedium, slipped away and deserted.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Snyder was in Baltimore on Thursday, November 28, on a signed pass. Well after midnight, he reportedly was trying to catch a moving train when he slipped underneath it and was crushed to death. Railroad officials took the body to the army encampment and turned it over to the officers of the 87th Pennsylvania for transport back to York for burial. A coroner’s jury ruled the cause of death to have been accidental.

However, they did not have have all the facts.

The problem was the body was not Ben Snyder. He had deserted from the army and slipped away. Later in the war, he was drafted into the 149th Pennsylvania and served until the end of the Civil War. According to Brandt, Snyder moved to Jefferson County, called himself Benjamin Taylor, married, and started a new family.

Here is how I framed the story, using information from a Snyder family member, in Civil War Voices from York County.

“In late November, Benjamin Snyder was performing guard duty along the Northern Central Railway, when a train struck and killed this father of two daughters and a teenage son, William. He was buried in Salem United Brethren Cemetery in York County, and another family, the Shaws, raised William. Benjamin Snyder is regarded as the first casualty in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, but he’s remembered for another reason.

“A comparison of family records and public documents suggest to descendant Sam Snyder that Ben Snyder had relations with two different women in the same time frame. A month before the two pregnant women were due to deliver, he ran away and joined the 87th. A month after Snyder signed up, his wife Phoebe’s three brothers, the Flinn boys, enlisted. Ben Snyder’s stated death date is November 29, which also happens to be his wedding anniversary.

“The story takes yet another strange twist. A woman in Ohio contacted Sam Snyder about her own ancestor, a Benjamin Taylor whose life story strongly parallels that of Ben Snyder. That comparison goes down to the William Shaw who had adopted the fatherless William Snyder, son of Ben. Sam wonders whether his great-grandfather might have been a philanderer with a killer instinct instead of a casualty of war, who actually lived out his life with yet another woman in Brookville, Pennsylvania. In the days before ID cards, fingerprint sciences, and Social Security numbers, thousands of men used aliases during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“Did Benjamin happen to come across an accidental death of someone along the railroad on his anniversary, and decide to use that as an easy way to escape his dilemma back in York County, or did he calculate the date, find someone of his build, height, and complexion, etc. and murder him to fake his death?

Regardless if Benjamin was a murderer or an opportunist, the question remains — who is actually buried at Salem United Brethren Cemetery with a marker of the 87th PA Inf. and the name Benjamin Snyder?”