A World Winder exclusive by Guestblogger Shane Cashman of Future Ancestor.
I combed through a forgotten cemetery beside a trailer park looking for the grave of Benny Havens. Havens was a locally infamous barkeep from the small town of Highland Falls and West Point, New York circa 1830.
On his small faded white headstone is inscribed, “Benny Haven’s, Oh!” The title of the song that service men used to sing in his honor while drinking at his bar and later while marching in and out of the Civil War.
An incarnation of Benny’s old bar still exists on Main Street in Highlands Falls today and a good deal of us from that town have had many a whiskey there. Growing up in West Point has given me the opportunity to drink whiskey with the ghosts of some of the West Point alum who went on to become Civil War Generals and Legends
Even Edgar Allan Poe, before he left the Academy, also frequented the bar in his Cadet days.
Of alcohol, in 1848, Ex-United States Military Academy cadet, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been a desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some impending doom.”
A young Poe used to frequent a Hudson Valley, NY tavern for drinks during his short career as a cadet. From 1830-1831 his favorite haunt was Benny Havens in Buttermilk Falls, now known as Highland Falls, West Point’s neighboring town. Although Benny Havens is no longer in its original location, which overlooked the Hudson River beneath a concealed cliff, its legend survives only blocks away on Main Street. It was there that Poe was able to try his hand in his “pursuit of pleasure.”
A sign from the original Benny Haven’s hangs in the bar. It reads, “Havens Landing.”
Poe, along with other West Point notables, such as William Tecumseh Sherman and former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, shared a love for the local bar.
Poe ended his education at West Point just a year after he matriculated, but said that Benny Havens, the tavern keeper, was the “sole congenial soul in the entire Godforsaken place.” Some of American history’s most well known military figures would agree. From George Armstrong Custer to Jefferson Davis to Ulysses S. Grant, all became devout patrons of Benny Haven’s during their respective stays at the Academy.
Benny Havens served as a first lieutenant of the Highland falls company in the War of 1812. For years Benny and his wife, Letitia, operated their tavern, a one-story cottage near the old cadet hospital on the base. They served ale, cider, and other home cooked meals that gathered faithful soldiers and cadets daily. Cadets though were not allowed to partake in the tavern’s revels, as West Point restricted them from drinking anything other than coffee or cider, so when West Point found out that Benny was selling his potent drinks to the young cadets, he and his bar were expelled from Post in 1832, one year after Poe was expelled himself.
At the time Colonel Sylvanius Thayer, the new West Point superintendent banned liquor from the academy. Benny and Letitia Havens would become the only American citizens to be banished from West Point for life.
After he was exiled for serving drinks to cadets, Benny re-located beneath the cliffs of Buttermilk Falls, near the river, just over a mile from the cadet barracks.
No amount of rough terrain, bad weather, or strict rules, kept cadets from their favorite watering hole. Cadets, such as Custer, Poe, and Davis, would routinely risk their lives, or at least their studies, to venture down river, after having snuck off base, to go drink at the popular tavern. The cadets would sneak out of their windows after lights out and either travel through the dense forest rife with cliffs to the bar, or should the dead of winter have proven cold enough, they would have stealthily skated down the Hudson River right to Benny Haven’s.
His home cooked meals were also a favorite attraction for cadets. In Laura Benet’s biography of Edgar Allen Poe, she writes, “Poe was very uneasy about his future and this isolated spot on the Hudson River had no social life…Benny Havens’ chickens soups were famous. The boys carried home many articles under their blue swallow-tail coats.”
Jefferson Davis nearly lost his life five years before Poe came to West Point, because of his fondness of the tavern. Before Davis would become the president of the Confederacy, he used to recount a story, about how he almost died while escaping Benny Haven’s one night. Officers had supposedly busted up one raucous night at the bar when the young Davis was in the pub drinking, against Academy regulation. He tried evading the officers by running along the jagged cliffs in the forest. In the cover of night though he had fallen over one of the cliffs, almost losing his life in an attempt to avoid any reprimand his officers would have sentenced him with.
The bar’s off-limits appeal would eventually make Benny Havens a legacy, and an institution amongst the cadets. So much so that a song, “Benny Haven’s, oh,” was written in honor of it. Lieutenant O’Brien of the Eighth Infantry created “Benny Haven’s, oh,” in 1838 while visiting a friend at West Point
After the song had gained in popularity amongst cadets and soldiers, for years after Lt. O’Brien himself died, each graduating class from West Point would add a verse to the song. It was popularly sung during the Civil War by entire regiments. The song is still sung today by the West Point Glee Club. The first stanza goes:
Come fill your glasses, fellows, and stand up in a row,
To singing sentimentally, we’re going for to go,
In the army there’s sobriety, promotion’s very slow,
So we’ll sing our reminiscences of Benny Havens, oh!
The song would immortalize the man, who was broken hearted for being cast out of West Point, who had since become a friend to many cadets and soldiers alike.
“Anyone probably wouldn’t know anything about him if it weren’t for the song,” Sharon Lodge, the manager of the West Point Visitor’s Center says.
When Benny Havens died in 1877 his tavern had to eventually be relocated to make room for the West Shore railroad. It was then disassembled and re-erected in the hills by Long Pond Mountain five miles away. Since that time the original transplanted tavern has become a victim to fire.
Benny Havens is buried in the High Union Cemetery in Highland Falls off of Old State Road. His grave is marked with the title of his infamous song.
Some cadets still visit the bar today, but it’s doubtful that “Benny Haven’s, Oh” is on the jukebox, or even sung there. Although, I might go there again soon and do my best to sing at least a verse and or come up with my own.
If you find yourself with a mean hangover the morning following your visit to Benny Havens, I recommend getting breakfast at Andy’s Restaurant. It’s just a few storefronts down from the bar and anything on their menu can cure whatever concoctions you enjoyed the night before.
Visit Benny Havens at 993 Main Street in Highland Falls.