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The Civil War Correspondence of James Penn Bennett

James Penn Bennett

James Penn Bennett lived in New Harmony.  A native of England, he was a teacher, member of the Working Men’s Institute and its librarian.  When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 25th Regiment Volunteers Infantry.  He served for three years and re-enlisted in 1864.  He served in Missouri and at the battles of Ft. Donolson and Shiloh.  While before Atlanta, he was hit by a stray bullet while standing outside his headquarters.

A portrait of James Penn Bennett hangs in the reading room of the Working  Men’s Institute.

Following are excerpts of his letters.  The full correspondence of James Penn Bennett can be seen by going to the archives section of our website and clicking on New Harmony Correspondence Series I.

29 Aug. 1861 Camp Veatch St. Louis, MO

My Dear Wife,

Sunday the 24th was the busiest we had in Camp Vanderburgh.  The preparation for departure took up all the time between drills.  The ground was thronged with visitors …
We got off on the railroad cars all right with exception of one man whom we suppose is a deserter.  The ride across Illinois was delightfully interesting to me.  Although I got no sleep overnight, our men was so much excited with anticipation of the journey that no one scarcely could and I felt rather fatigued yet my eyes were stretched to take in the vastness and grandeur of the great prairie.

At Vincennes in Indiana, which is finely situated on a plane by the Wabash commenced the interest of the journey.  Crossing the river we passed over a swampy prairie of luxuriant vegetation, the flowers among the tall rank grass gave a very rich and varied beauty to the extensive prospect.  The cardinal flower in full bloom … was very conspicuous in its brilliant scarlet.  After being shut up so long in Harmony amid its constricted views, I was inexpressibly charmed with the grandeur of the open country.

To travel slowly across the country would have doubtless been monotonous and tiresome, but in the rapidly moving cars [we] past through a splendid panorama…

Your affectionate husband,
James Penn Bennett

17 Feb. 1862
Battle of Fort [Donaldson] Donelson
Tennessee

Dear Wife,

We have been in the siege Donelson which lasted three days… Our company was the first to engage the enemy and we came out better than we could expect.  We have been in hard fights, great danger and seen the worst of a soldier’s duty.  Victory is ours! And the war will soon close.

Your affectionate husband,
James Penn Bennett

1 Sept. 1862

My dear wife,

Miles Wilsey returned last night.  He brought me the comfort which is very acceptable.  I recognized the  old pattern that made me think of home.  I am getting very proud of my daughter.  Her letters are well written and I am told she is quite a fine looking young lady… It is a source of intense satisfaction for me that you have such good children to comfort and sustain you in my absence.

Your affectionate husband,
James Penn Bennett

14 Sept. 1862
Bolivar, Tennessee

My dear wife,

The country is healthy and good water is to be had a luxury that we felt the enjoyment of greatly on our arrival for we had very indifferent water on the way.  The little streams are dry and the wells and cisterns are soon exhausted by so many men drawing supplies at one time.  On the first two days of the march soldiers were allowed to get water and fruit from farms, and when they took potatoes from patches it was indulgently looked over by regiment commanders. But as there are always among a large number of men some naturally bad and wanting opportunities only to gratify their evil propensities, in the excitement and confusion of getting watermelon and peaches, houses were broke open and robbed… [The general] got uneasy and indignant and issued stringent orders ….to stop all pillaging and disorder to the company.

But as we cannot draw regular supplies from the war department we must forage and draw subsistence from the enemy’s country.  It is right in principle and ought to have been done to a greater extent before this, thought it must be done the right way.  To trust this rule of war to the soldiers, unless under great restrictions, is subversive to all good discipline and efficiency.

This is a dark hour in the history of the war.  It is an ordeal the country is passing through that really looks like retribution.  The crime of human slavery is of so great enormity that time is sure to bring its punishment.  The cursed Institution has corrupted the United States almost to its foundation.

Your affectionate husband,
James Penn Bennett

13 Oct. 1862
Bolivar, Tennessee

My dear daughter,

The day after we returned to this place the weather that was as warm as June suddenly changed.  The sky from bright warm sunshine rapidly beclouded … sending chilling rain that kept falling a whole day and night that seemed to extract all the warmth from the earth… The men who were in battle have nearly all lost their blankets, a loss that to them is a great one for the nights are very cold.  The ground we had to travel over was so full of impediments to our steady progress and I knowing from experience how much the knapsack and blanket encumber a soldiers movements, urged our men to throw them away when they were going into action – which most of them did, but unfortunately was unable to recover them after the fight was over.  The stragglers and hospital attendants took all that could be found.

Your father,

James Penn Bennett

2 Feb. 1864
New Harmony, IN

Dear Father,

When you right us next I want you to tell us if you have reenlisted.  I don’t think I would tell you not to, but when I think of the separation it seems too hard.  But then it is you that has the hardship to bear.  If I was only a boy I would have been there with you all through your campaign.

Your affectionate,

Nettie

15 Aug. 1864
Before Atlanta

My dear wife,

There is a vast expenditure of ammunitions here, but very few on our side get hurt, only one of the 25th is wounded in the performance of his duty.  There is more danger in straggling than fighting on the skirmish line.

I am as hearty as ever,

Your husband

James Penn Bennett

16 Aug. 1864
New Harmony, Indiana

[Dear] Father,

We feel quite anxious about you again now you have moved and write as often as you can no matter how short and we won’t complain.  [W]hen you first left home the longest letter seemed so little, but now as we have got used to the letters again we would like them short and often as long as you are in front of Atlanta.

May God protect you father,

Your affectionate daughter,

Nettie

16 Aug. 1864 Before Atlanta

Dear Madam,

It becomes my painful duty to communicate sad intelligence to you.  Your dear husband and my inestimable friend Lt. Bennett is with us no more.  He received a gunshot wound at 2 p.m. yesterday which caused instant death … I dressed him in his nice uniform and buried him in the best possible manner under the circumstances.

Your sincere friend,

G. M. Smith

P.S.  I omitted to say we are not engaged.  Our position has been in the front for some days past.  Lt. Bennett was standing in front of his quarters at the time he received the fatal ball.