Monday, December 28, 2009

Brevet Brigadier-General T. H. Benton


Thomas Hart Benton, Jr., is a nephew of the celebrated American statesman and author, whose name, at his uncle's own request, he bears. He is a native of Tennessee, and was born in Williamson county of that State, on the 5th day of September, 1816. His father, Samuel Benton, was quite a noted man. In 1817, the year after his son Thomas' birth, he left Tennessee for Missouri; and settled in St. Louis. In 1822, he returned to Tennessee, and settled in Shelby county, near the present city of Memphis, which was then a mere village. In 1835, he left the States, and emigrated to Texas, which was at that time an independent Republic. During his residence there, he served one term in the Texan Congress. He died in 1846. Young Benton accompanied his father in all his migrations.

Colonel Benton's education is academic, and was acquired at the Huntington Academy, Tennessee. His collegiate course was brief: he passed only a portion of the year 1835 at Marion College, Missouri. In 1839, he came to Iowa, and located in Dubuque, where he lived till 1854. During his residence in Dubuque, he was first teacher, and then merchant. In 1846, he went to the State Senate from the Dubuque District, and served in Iowa's first General Assembly. He was elected, in 1848, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and, at the close of his three-years' term, was re-elected for a like term. The nomination for the same position was again tendered him; but he declined it, and the same year removed to Council Bluffs, his present home.

It would seem that Iowa had but one scholar; for, in 1858, Colonel Benton was elected Secretary of the Board of Education, under the new State Constitution. This office he held for the two subsequent terms, and was its incumbent at the time of entering the service. On the 10th of August, 1862, he was commissioned colonel of the 29th Iowa Infantry; and, on the 1st of the following December, mustered into the United States service. For gallant conduct in the different campaigns in which he joined in Arkansas, Colonel Benton, in the spring of 1865, was made brevet brigadier-general.

The history of the 29th is nearly the same as are those of the 33d and 36th Iowa regiments. In the latter part of December, when the enemy were threatening Columbus and other points on the Mississippi, Colonel Benton was ordered with his regiment from Benton Barracks to Columbus. No attack was made, and in a few days he sailed down the river to Helena, Arkansas. In January, 1863, he accompanied General Gorman on the White River Expedition—one in which the troops were subjected to great fatigue and exposures, but which, it is said, was fruitless, on account of the non-co-operation of the fleet. After his return from this expedition, he remained at Helena till the latter part of February, when he joined the Yazoo Pass Expedition, under General Ross. In the early part of April, General Ross, under orders from General Grant, returned with his command to Helena, where Colonel Benton remained with his regiment during the following Summer, and took part in the brilliant engagement of the 4th of July. This was a contest for the great gala day of the nation, and will ever have a prominent place in the history of our civil war. The following extract I take from Colonel Benton's official report:

"My men were under a severe fire for more than five hours, and it affords me the greatest pleasure to speak of both officers and men in terms of the highest commendation, for their coolness and courage during the entire action. I saw no flinching or wavering during the day. It is proper to add that several of my officers and men, who were excused from duty in consequence of physical disability, left their quarters and joined their respective companies, when the signal gun was fired.

"I would not do justice to an accomplished officer, should I fail to acknowledge the efficient services of Lieutenant-Colonel R. F. Patterson, during the action; and the special obligations I am under for the thorough instruction previously given by him to both officers and men, in the responsible duties and obligations of the soldier."

The loss of the 29th Iowa at Helena was seven killed and twenty-four wounded. Two of the latter were hurt mortally, and died soon after.

Early in August, 1863, the 29th Iowa joined the Arkansas or Little Rock Expedition, under General Steele, and was present at the capture of Little Rock. On the Little Rock march, Colonel Benton was in command of a brigade, composed of the 29th and 33d Iowa and the 28th Wisconsin regiments.

After passing the fall of 1863 and the following Winter, at Little Rock, the 29th Iowa, under its colonel, joined General Steele on the Camden march, and on this campaign saw its hardest service, and made the most interesting portion of its history. The object of the campaign has been already given. Had it been successful, it would have relieved the entire State of Arkansas from Confederate rule. In the expedition, the 29th Iowa marched two hundred and fifty miles, and lost in action one hundred and forty-two officers and men.

General Steele left Little Rock on this celebrated march on the 23d of March, 1864. General Banks in his course up the Red River was already approaching Natchitoches. The destination of both armies was Shreveport. Passing through Benton, Rockport, and Arkadelphia on the Washita River, and thence south-west across the Little Missouri, Steele arrived on the 10th of the following April, at Prairie de Anne — one of the prettiest little spots in wild Arkansas, or the whole "Sunny South." At Prairie de Anne, as already stated, he learned the probable fate of his expedition. There he learned of Banks' defeat; and, with Banks defeated and driven back, he, with his small army, could not hope for success, against the combined rebel forces. General Steele then pushed for Camden, which he reached on the 15th instant.

In this expedition, the enemy was first met on the tenth day's march, and near Terra Noir Creek, some four miles south of where General Steele had camped the night before. On the morning of the 2d of April, the day in question, Colonel Benton, with his regiment and two pieces of artillery, was assigned the perilous position of rear-guard to the supply- and transportation-train, consisting of about four hundred and fifty wagons. The day before the enemy's scouts had been frequently seen; and it was known that the rebel General Shelby, with ten thousand cavalry, was in the neighborhood. Steele's main force, and a large portion of the train had already crossed the creek, when Shelby first made his appearance. Colonel Benton, having himself disposed his forces, was barely in time to anticipate the dash of the gallant rascal, who, believing the entire train at his mercy, came on with the greatest celerity. Finding himself foiled, Shelby, after a spirited little contest, retired, and Colonel Benton, resuming the march, hurried up to the train. But after crossing the creek, he was again attacked by the enemy's skirmishers, who, from this point to three miles south of the creek, continued to harass his rear. Having now reached a commanding ridge, Colonel Benton halted his command in line of battle, and engaged the enemy for over an hour, and until he was reinforced by the 50th Indiana, brought back by General S. A. Rice.

The history of that entire day's march is but a repetition of the above, with the exception that the forces engaged on both sides were being constantly reinforced. Late in the afternoon and near where General Steele had left the Washington road, Shelby was joined by Cabell, and Colonel Benton by the 9th Wisconsin Infantry. Here another engagement followed, when the enemy, being again repulsed, retired for the night. On the morning of the 4th of April, the battle of Elkin's Ford, on the Little Missouri River, was fought. Colonel Benton, although under fire with his regiment, was not engaged. The march through Prairie de Anne was attended by a series of skirmishes and engagements; though none of them were bitterly contested. Jenkin's Ferry on the Saline River was the great battle of the campaign, and there Colonel Benton and his regiment most distinguished themselves.

Steele occupied Camden from the evening of the 15th to the night of the 26th of April, and then left on the return to Little Rock. During all this time, the enemy had been devising plans for his capture. Before he left they had sufficient forces to attack and defeat him at Camden, but this they did not do; for their object was the capture of his army; and so confident were they of the success of their plans that, a rebel officer offered to wager large sums of money that General Steele would not see Little Rock, except as a prisoner of war. Had the rebel General Maxey, with his five thousand men, been purposely less vigilant in watching Steele at Camden, their schemes might have ripened into success; for Steele might have maintained himself by foraging several days longer, but this Maxey would not allow: he would pounce on every foraging party sent out, thus compelling Steele to rely on his supply-trains from Pine Bluff. When the last train sent back was captured with its escort, he, of course, could do nothing but retire. The last Federal troops left Camden just before mid-night of the 26th of April, taking the road via Princeton and Jenkin's Ferry.

On the evening of the 28th of April, the retreating army encamped at Princeton, sixteen miles south of the ferry. The march was resumed early on the following morning, and proceeded unmolested till some ten miles out from camp, when, in the midst of a most terrific thunder-storm, the rear-guard was opened on by the enemy's artillery. Price and Kirby Smith had come up by forced marches, having crossed the Washita some twenty-five miles below Camden; and from this point, till Steele's advance reached the ferry, they continued to harass his rear. A pontoon-bridge had to be constructed, which, with the swollen waters of the river and the black darkness of the night, was well-nigh impracticable. There were also other difficulties to overcome, but these will be mentioned elsewhere.

With all these obstacles to overcome, only the artillery and Carr's Division of Cavalry were able to reach the north bank of the Saline before day-light broke. It would have been impossible, had there been more time, to cross the train; for the wagons were all sunk to their axles in miry quick-sands. The whole bottom was a vast mud-bed, and nearly the entire train and stores had to be burned. How the artillery was crossed I can not understand. In the meantime the enemy had made their dispositions, and were advancing to the attack. Carr was at once dispatched with his cavalry to Little Rock, while the infantry halted to fight the battle of Saline River. I should state that a portion of the infantry was sent over the river to guard the artillery. Only about five thousand were left on the south bank.

The battle opened at day-light and on the part of the enemy with artillery. His force was not less than ten thousand — two rebels to one Federal, and the Federals had no artillery. Further particulars of this engagement will be found in the sketch of the late gallant General Rice, who was in command of our forces, and who received a wound, from the effects of which he died not long after.

The 29th Iowa held the right of the line of battle, and half-knee deep in mud and water fought with the most determined bravery from the beginning to the end of the engagement. The gallant charge, which captured the enemy's artillery (the only artillery on the ground) was made by this regiment in connection with the 2d Kansas (colored). One hundred and eight in killed and wounded was the list of casualties of this noble regiment. The colonel escaped uninjured, though his horse was shot dead under him.

Returning to Little Rock with the balance of the forces, the 29th Iowa went into camp where it remained for nearly a year. In February, 1865, it was ordered to New Orleans, where it was attached to the forces of General Canby. Its last services were, in aiding to reduce the strong forts that defended Mobile. The particular part that it acted, I have been unable to learn.

Colonel Benton received his commission as brevet brigadier-general, while stationed with his command at Mobile Point, Alabama, and just before the forces marched from that place, against Spanish Fort. The rank is only complimentary: in justice, his commission should have made him a full brigadier.

General Benton is six feet in hight, and has a well-formed person. He has dark brown hair, a light complexion, and mild, blue eyes. He lacks the dignity and majesty that characterized his late distinguished uncle. Like his uncle, however, he has large self-esteem, and full confidence in his ability. If he wants any thing, he asks for it directly, and not through another; and, if he has done any thing, he does not affect modesty and refuse to let it be known.

In religion, General Benton is a Methodist, and in politics, an ardent Republican. He was formerly a Democrat, but left that party in 1860.

His military record is not a glaring one: indeed, there have been few brilliant ones made in the department where he has chiefly served. But no officer in the army has a more honorable record than he. Great confidence has always been placed in him by his superior officers. After General Steele had lost a great portion of his train near Camden, his chief hope of relief was in the safe escort of a provision-train of one hundred and ninety wagons, forty miles out on the Pine Bluff road, and in charge of a few convalescents, under Colonel Mackey, of the 33d Iowa. The responsible and dangerous duty of bringing this train through in safety was assigned to Colonel Benton, with a force consisting of only two regiments of infantry, four pieces of artillery, and a small squadron of cavalry.

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 445-52

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