This Was Then: Ben Luce

The one-handed blacksmith from Company I

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There were at least a dozen men named “Benjamin Luce” who resided on Martha’s Vineyard over the past four centuries — all cousins of one another. Once, you could drive a cart from near the site of the modern roundabout in Oak Bluffs all the way to Waldron’s Bottom on the south shore of Edgartown on an ancient road variously known as “Benjamin Luce Path,” “Benjamin Luce Road,” or “Ben Luce Path.” Parts of the road still exist: the road into Goodale’s and some of the back roads in and near the State Forest still bear this name. The road’s namesake may have been Edgartown husbandman Benjamin Luce (1743–1816), whose gravestone lies deep in the woods near the shores of Duarte Pond, not far from this road.

So it’s probably only coincidence that another boy named Ben Luce — distant cousin Benjamin Norton Luce (1840–1912) — grew up barely a stone’s throw from the north end of the road, just up modern Barnes Road, in one of Oak Bluffs’ earliest settlement communities at the head of the Lagoon. The son of farmers James and Martha Luce, and the grandson of Sarah Norton Wilbur, Ben grew up a part of the close-knit but geographically extended community, loosely known as “Farm Neck,” that stretched from the Lagoon to Sengekontacket long before modern Cottage City sprang into existence.

“Ben was the Sampson of our youth,” wrote Charles Hine in his 1907 book, “The History of Cedar Neck” — “a great, broad-chested blacksmith with lungs like the bellows of his forge. His voice was like unto the howl of the storm, strong and penetrating, while his mighty arm and back were capable of wondrous deeds of strength.” As a teenager, Luce briefly apprenticed for a New Bedford carriage smith before returning to the Island to open his own business in Holmes Hole. Then a war broke out.

In August 1861, Luce was a 21-year-old blacksmith living in Vineyard Haven with his wife, Mary Jane, and their 4-month-old son, William. That month he became one of the first five men on the Island to enlist, recruited by an officer from Nantucket. Among these five were his uncle James Wilbur and his first cousin Elisha Smith — both members of the same small community in what would become South Oak Bluffs. The trio served in the same infantry company — Company I of the Massachusetts 20th Regiment — with the two other Island men, Peleg Davenport and Barzillai Crowell.
Of the five Vineyard soldiers to serve in Company I, only two would return home alive, and the two survivors would have wounds that would never fully heal. The Vineyard and Nantucket lost more men from Company I than from any other infantry unit in the Union Army. 

On Dec. 11, 1863, Company I was ordered to clear Confederate sharpshooters from the buildings in the city of Fredericksburg, Va., along the banks of the Rappahannock River, to allow construction of the temporary pontoon bridges the Union Army needed to enter the city in force. To achieve this goal, the men of Company I rowed clumsy, 22-foot pontoon boats 400 feet across the river, and through a firestorm of Confederate gunfire from the enemy’s sharpshooters and artillery. Once in the city, the soldiers of Company I conducted violent house-to-house and street fighting. The company would lose 38 of its 60 soldiers, many of them on that brutal first day of the battle. Ben Luce was one of the wounded. A musket ball struck Luce’s left wrist and ended his military service.

“Benjamin Luce from Martha’s Vineyard was shot between his thumb and index finger, the bullet tearing through his wrist and exiting from his lower forearm,” wrote historian Richard Miller in his 2005 book, “Harvard’s Civil War.” Luce was transferred to a military hospital in Maryland, and several months later to a second military hospital in Boston. According to his medical records, Ben permanently lost the use of his left hand. During the Civil War, soldiers would commonly falsify or exaggerate their disabilities to go home early, but Ben’s injury was genuine. One surgeon wrote a letter underlining his assessment that Ben was “a proper case.

After his discharge in May 1863, Luce returned to the Island and his work as a blacksmith and farmer, despite the loss of the use of his hand. His blacksmith shop was located first on Beach Road, and later just beyond the Marine Hospital (today the Martha’s Vineyard Museum) on what is now Lagoon Pond Road.

Luce served as town constable throughout the 1880s. He was on duty in 1883 the night the cataclysmic fire destroyed downtown Vineyard Haven. In 1889, the Fall River Daily Herald reported that “Constable Benjamin N. Luce of Tisbury took Miss Cordelia A. Bodfish to the insane asylum at Taunton yesterday. Miss Bodfish had been acting strangely for some time, and a few days ago proclaimed that she felt that the Lord would call upon her to sacrifice three children.”

For many years, Luce was Tisbury’s agent for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He maintained a small dairy farm, and kept chickens. 

“Ben’s voice was one of his strong points,” wrote Hine. “It had the carrying capacity of a megaphone, and when he bellowed, the very hills rocked. As he stood in the door of his blacksmith shop on the Beach Road, it was his delight to pass the time of day with someone across the harbor, and when he spoke, all the village knew his opinion.”

Ben Luce died in 1912 at the Marine Hospital next to his home, at the age of 72. Of the five Martha’s Vineyard men in Company I, he is the only one to have descendants living today.

The small body of water behind his home and shop became known as “Ben Luce’s Pond,” and served as a popular ice skating pond for generations of Vineyard children.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.

Justin Baer is a federal government retiree living in Maryland, and a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

 

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