Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Pray the Lord that this war may soon end": R. W. Benton of the 14th Connecticut Infantry

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, many of us will think only of a day off of work, cookouts, baseball games, and relaxation. Millions of Americans will forget why it is that we are taking a weekend to watch a parade or fire up the grill. I haven't been very active on here over the past few weeks, as I have spent much of my time either working at the park or working on my research, but I wanted to share a few letters from a man who was at Antietam, as they serve as a reminder of what this country has gone through to enjoy the freedom we all know as Americans.

Raphael Ward Benton served with the 14th Connecticut Infantry, a regiment which was raised in Hartford in August of 1862. The men of the 14th Connecticut were just a few of the many soldiers in the Army of the Potomac for whom Antietam was their first battle. Benton's letters were written to his wife. Typed transcript copies of the letters can be found in the park library's unit file for the 14th Connecticut. They begin with a letter sent home on August 31, 1862, from Fort Ethan Allen, outside of Washington.

Fort Ethan Allen
August 31, 1862
My Dearest Wife,
Although it is the Sabbath there is no preaching here as it is raining. So I spend the time writing to you. First of all I say I am quite well though I think when I tell you the circumstances you will think it strange. Before noon the day that I wrote you last we were ordered to march for Camp Chase which is as near as I can judge not far from six miles from Washington on the Virginia side. So we shouldered our duds and started. It was uncomfortably hot and dusty beyond all reason but a soldier has no business to be tired or complain, we reached there about six o’clock perfectly dripping with sweat, covered with dust less than an inch thick, actually the dust rose in such clouds that men and horses could not be seen at a distance of more than from ten to fifteen rods according to circumstances a great part of the way. Some of our strongest men—George Hall of N.G. was one—were obliged to have their knapsacks put on board of baggage wagons and hardly reached camp at that but somehow my strength held out wonderfully. We pitched our tents and were soon sleeping soundly on the ground beneath hoping to have a good night’s rest but in this we were disappointed for a three a.m. on Friday we called out our guns and ammunition distributed in the dark and with as little noise as possible, we were then given two crackers apiece and a cup of coffee, a rubber blanket and ordered to march we knew not whither, after marching awhile we were informed that it was supposed the rebels were intending to make a demonstration at Chain (?) Bridge some six miles above on the Potomack (sic). We reached that place before noon some of our men behind who were to (sic) tired to go with us, not finding the rebels at that place we were marched two or three further in a westerly direction almost all the way up hill to Fort Ethan Allen where we were directed to (encamp) outside the Fort and in case of attack occupy the rifle pits and here we have remained until the present time and how much longer may I cannot tell neither do I care if we could be made comfortable but as it is with our tents knapsacks blankets and overcoats we know not where, with nought to sleep on but the ground and nothing to cover us but the heavens and a rubber blanket , a wet day and the prospect of a wet night, with nothing to eat but bread and salt pork eaten raw or roasted in the fire on the point of a stick, with no coffee that is decent, we cannot be expected to be quite satisfied. But we hope for better things. Yesterday, we heard the booming of cannon almost all day, and it is reported that there has been another great battle fought terminating in our favor. You will probably know the truth sooner than we. George Hall, Odelle Chittenden, and Henry B. Dudly we left about tired our and when we arrived here several of our men were nearly exhausted. Henry Parmelie went to the hospital today but I think he is not dangerously sick, ditto Samuel Seward, Oliver Evarts also I am afraid will give out. But we hope for the best. We think and talk of and about the friends we love at home very very often and wish to be with them, but if it is the Lord’s will that we reamin (sic) here we are willing although we may be called to do and suffer. I hope and trust that you will daily pray for our reunion but if we meet not here I hope we meet in a better world where partners are unknown.
Yours truly,
R.W. Benton. 

Fort Ethan Allen
Friday, September 5, 1862
My Dearest Wife,

You will perhaps wonder why you have not heard before but there is difficulty in the way of my writing often that are (sic) not easily understood by those not used to Camp life. I consider it a great privilege to be able to write without molestation, but if could only leave this poor body in our tent and transport myself by telegraph or some other way to Ward Benton’s kitchen and sit down with my wife and family one short hour it would make me inexpressibly happy. My health still holds out, in fact I am healthier than at home and I wish I could hear as much from you. I hope you will write before long. I will give your (sic) my address at the close of this letter. I want you to write all how you get along in the house and out the door…I hope you all will succeed in being a blessing to each other and receive the blessing and favor of God who can and will make all things to work together for good to those who love Him....

“Dinner is now ready and I must close, I suppose it will be boiled ham which if well cooked is good enough as it is not the best. Not please write all of you when you can and tell any of my friends I would like to hear from them. Pray often that I may be returned safe home.”

 R.W. Benton

Camp Defiance
Sept. 7, 1862
I spent the few moments I have to spare in giving you a little information on our whereabouts and state generally. We had supposed that we were to stay at Fort Ethan Allen, but Sunday just as we were preparing to attend divine service there came a report that Stonewall Jackson was crossing into Maryland at Harpers Ferry and we received orders to march posthaste to Rockville, Md a little this side. So we packed up our blankets, took our guns, and a little past noon began to march. We marched all the afternoon and half of the night stopping occasionally to rest. About 2 in the night we bivouacked till sunrise and then commenced marching again reaching this place a little past noon pretty well tuckered I tell you, but it is was surprising how soon we got rested today—Tuesday—we feel quite current again. We have had not fighting to do yet, and where we shall be called to next I cannot tell. I wish you would not trouble yourself in my account as I am getting along quite well, much better than I expected—yesterday I felt a little of my old bowel complaint, but feel better today. When you write tell me how Arthur gets along with his farming and about your home affairs generally. I write a short letter for want of time, but not of inclination. Fiske remarked at night he would like his wife’s night cap with her in it. I second the motion. Your loving and never forgetful husband.

R.W. Benton

Clarksville, MD 
Sept. 11, 1862

The day I wrote you we again had marching orders. We bivouacked in night before last and also last night today we are in this and it is rumored that there is a prospect of a battle but I think it quite doubtful as there are so many untrue stories in circulation. I am at the present moment sitting in company with S.D. Crittenden in the commissary wagon. Last night I was quite weak on account of my bowel complaint and got excused by the surgeon from any duty but marching and happening to get a chance to ride I took advantage of it and now the army is a mile or two ahead. I feel better now and as I am afraid of being blamed I think I shall go on and overtake the Regiment this afternoon. I am told we are about half way from Washington to Harpers Ferry. As a number of the other men have been affected similarly to myself and after recovering were healthier than before to be affected in the same way myself. At least I am not discouraged yet. I should have started out before now—2 o’clock—but it rains and I preferred to run my risk and wait a little longer. And now my dearest wife I cannot but express to you my full conviction that if I ever should reach home you will all seem nearer and dearer to me than before. But some things that I expected to miss very much I find I can do very well without. For instance, I think that although the ground is very hard to sleep on at first if I ever return home and it was not for the musketos [sic] I would prefer sleeping on it to all the soft beds in the world and as for the musketoes [sic] there is none here. I can write no more now and don’t  know as I can send this. Yours now at all times and till death—for which I pray often that I may be prepared.

R.W. Benton

September 17, 1862
My Dearest Wife

I hardly know how or what to write for we have been marched from one place to another with such rapidity that I have almost forgot the day of the week and month and everything else but I can assure you I have seen all of the horrors of war that I ever wish to and I sincerely hope that it will soon be over. Tuesday night—I believe—when we were lying at Yatesville (Keedysville) we had ninety rounds of ammunition dealt out to us and we were told we would soon be called to use it. Wednesday we lay along behind the hill where we were Tuesday a severe battle going on all the time the shot and shells flying around us thick and fast but fortunately none of us were hut. But soon we were called on to march on to the field about a mile distant. We were soon in battle array and charging along through fields of corn. The enemy commenced pouring in on us a tremendous fire—the shots fell like hail in a few minutes I was struck by a Minnie ball in the side of my neck several of my comrades laid me on my blankets and carried me from the field since that I have been lying with the other wounded in a  field about a mile distant where I with some difficulty walked—I think my wound is not a bad one but I bled so much and being rather weak before I have but little strength but I begin to feel better and hope soon to be able to be about. I hope you will not be discouraged about me. I am so much better off than hundreds of others I feel great cause for thankfulness. Richard Hull was shot dead at least so the other boys told me. Poor man! E. I. Field was badly wounded and died last night. The other Guilford men I have not heard from. Oh you don’t know the dreadful scenes we have passed through. The dead, the dying, and wounded are lying all around me, and I think may about to thousands. Pray the Lord that this war may soon end. We have it is said gained a great victory, at least—we have plenty of prisoners. They almost all say they are willing to give up but the officers will not permit it. Ozias Leffingwell and Wm. Jones of North Madison have taken care of me they are both very kind. They lent me this paper. Mine is all lost and everything else I brought with me.

Yours affectionately,

R.W. Benton

For Raphael Benton, who prayed that the horrors of war would soon end, the war ended at Antietam. In the days following the battle, he suffered in a field hospital, eventually walking over 20 miles to Frederick with other wounded soldiers who sought help. His wounds and the trip to Frederick combined to be too much for him to handle; on September 25, 1862, Benton died in Frederick, Maryland. His much hoped and prayed for reunion with his wife was not to be. The following letter was written by one of Benton's friends.

Sept  26, 1862, Frederick, MD

Dear Friends,

I once more sit down to write sad news to you. Mr. Benton is dead. He died last night at 6 o’clock. I have been staying with him since I found him in the hospital. We did not think his condition immediately dangerous unless he should take to bleeding. The Dr. told me to watch the wound and if it set to bleeding he would not stand it long. But it had not bled since and the nurses thought he might get along. He has never complained of the wound but of pain in his limbs. I have stayed by him and rubed [sic] him with liniment. He thought I could cure him if I could be allowed to stay with him. He seemed to [get] be easyer [sic] throughout the day. He would look at me and say , “Oh, Henry you can’t think how much better I feel. If you can stay with me I shall get along first rate.” But it proved to be that he was Dyeing [sic] gradualy [sic]. He passed away without a struggle at 6 o’clock last night. I held his hand in mine and he appeared to know me long after he could speak. I would speak to him and he would answer by a slight pressure of the hand. The Doctor says his death was probably caused by not being taken care of. HE was allowed to walk here from the Battlefield. The day he arrived here he had walked 8 miles and had lost so much blood that he was very weak…
I took the things from his packets [sic] and have kept them myself. HE had about Twenty dollars with him. I have had to use some four dollars sending telegraph dispatches and probably may have to more as I have spent nearly all of my own. I thought likely you would be anxious to get the body brought home, but find it cannot be unless it is embalmed and enclosed in a matalic [sic] coffin which will cost some $80.00 Dollars and the Express Company charges some $25.00 which makes a cost of $105.00. This I could not do and I did not know what you thought about it so I Telegraphed last night to find out. I shall come on with it if it means I get a pass. If I do not, I will send his things the first opportunity. I will write again soon fi I do not come and let you know about it. If I do not send the money to you I will write to our folks and have them pay it do you.

From your true friend,

Henry B. Dudley

This weekend, as we go about our busy lives, seeing friends, concerts, and enjoying barbeque, remember that it is because of men like Raphael Ward Benton of the 14th Connecticut, who died from his wounds at Antietam, never getting to speak with or see his beloved wife again, that we have the freedom to enjoy all that we have today.

Here is wishing all of you a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend, where I hope every American will pause to remember those who gave their lives that this nation might live.

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