SOPO Editor’s Note: The Civil War diary of Orlando P. Benson of the 92nd New York was found and published in The Courier and Freeman (Potsdam, NY). I’ve chosen to publish the portion of the diary covering Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg, Salisbury prison, and his postwar experiences through the end of the diary. Check out this installment below, and be sure to look over the other installments as they are published. I’ve included a list of all published installments at the bottom of this and every post. MANY thanks to Jack Phend for transcribing this entire diary for me. It appears here solely due to his help. Are you interested in first person accounts at the Siege of Petersburg? Check out our Letters and Diaries page for more!
BENSON CAPTIVE IN REBEL PRISON
DESCRIBES THE HORRORS OF THE PEN AT ANDERSONVILLE [sic, SALISBURY]
The Courier and Freeman this week presents the 12th installment of the diary kept by the late Orlando P. Benson, of Massena [New York], while he was a soldier in the Union army during the Civil war. In this installment he tells of the falling to pieces of the old 92nd [New York] by men being mustered out. [Army of the James commander] General Butler allows the colors to be kept, however. An attack is made upon the rebel works at Fair Oakes [on October 27, 1864] and nearly all the Union soldiers are killed, wounded or taken prisoners. Sergeant Benson, with many others, is taken to Pemberton prison at Richmond, Va., later being transferred to Salisbury prison, Salisbury, N.C. He describes the terrible life in prison.1
October 1st, 1864—Go to fortifying amid cold and drenching rain. Terrible muddy. Have two men wounded. Bring in wounded and bury dead. Build a bombproof.2
2nd—Clears off somewhat. We are still fortifying. Have a terrible cramp after dark. It lasts about two hours. The same as I had once before at White Oak swamp.3
3rd—Rains in the afternoon. Captain Bice [sic, Augustus G. Brice] joins the regiment. Feel rather unwell. Our prisoners bury the rebel dead.4 Pits ankle deep with mud. Get fresh supply of rations for my own use in the shape of biscuits and cheese through Alick’s kindness.5
4th—All quiet. We are very busily engaged in fortifying. Men work both day and night. Weather fair.
5th—Weather still fair. Our troops all in the best of spirits. God only knows how soon we shall be called to see more blood shed. I am sick of it and long for peace.
6th—All still quiet. Captain B[r]ice and Lieutenant Thompson go to camp and return. Send in to headquarters a complete list of casualties since the 29th inst. Total loss in the regiment in killed and wounded 34.
7th—After dark all hands turn out and level down the works in front of Fort Harrison. Move off to the right about twelve miles and camp for the night near the First Pennsylvania Battery. Enemy shell us with four mortars in the morning, doing but little damage. Peter Morrison, Company A, killed.6
8th—Weather cool and chilly. Lines very quiet. Busily engaged in building abutments and strengthening the works. Alick sends up some codfish balls.
9th—Lines very quiet. Weather quite cool. See frost for the first time this year Get a letter from Emma. General [Gilman] Marstin [sic, Marston] relieves General Carr in command of the division. Lieut.-Col. Th[o]mas E. Barker, of the Second [sic, Twelfth] New Hampshire Volunteers, takes command of the brigade. He is a splendid man and is rising rapidly.7
10th—Three years ago tonight spent my first night in old Camp Union as a soldier. What changes since then. Dangers have surrounded me on all sides since then but still God has spared me to experience new scenes and dangers. See Captain Garvin. C.P. Gray and I over to the 142nd New York.8
11th—Promotions in the regiment numerous. Colonel [Newton M.] Curtis [of the 142nd New York, commanding 1/2/X/AotJ] comes over to see about getting us veterans into his regiment. Some are in favor of going while some choose light artillery. Captain [Harry C.] Fay sees General Butler’s adjutant-general but gets no information as to when, where or how the regiment is to be mustered out.9
12th—Receive orders about 3:00 p.m. to get ready to march. Start at once. Move off to the right and relieve the Tenth corps to make a demonstration on the left. They meet a flag of truce and turn back to wait for morning. Commences to rain about sundown. Spend a cold night.
13th—Early in the morning the Tenth Corps moves out and soon the sharp rattle of musketry is heard. Fighting more or less going on all day. At dark all the troops begin to return. Nothing more or less than a reconnaissance in force. Little loss on our side.10
14th—Move back to our old ground in the line. See Captain Garvin and show him Fort Harrison. Alick comes up and stays all night with Frank and me.
15th—Very pleasant. Colonel [Newton M.] Curtis [commanding 1/2/X/AotJ] comes over in the evening with his brigade band to serenade us, doubtless with the object of gaining our good graces. No sign of being relieved. Muster out papers will to be made out on the field. Rather difficult.
16th—Weather very pleasant. Prisoners come in daily. Lines very quiet. The boys are all in good spirits.
17th—Captain [Harry C.] Fay goes to depot headquarters and learns that there is no chance of our retaining our organization. We all hope we may. Draw clothing, two pair of pants and one shirt.
18th—Dr. Mansfield gives us some Union votes. Had we got them sooner we could have carried the regiment unanimously for old Father Abe. General Butler and family visit the front. The band plays “Hail to the Chief.” Some hopes now of the regiment being kept up.
20th—Prospects still for the regiment to be kept up. Glorious news from Sheridan in the valley. Have a sa[lu]te fired along the entire lines. Rebels dare not reply. The joy of the troops knows no bound. Our corps reviewed by regiments. Dare not spare more than one regiment at a time from the breastworks.
21st—Go with Sergeant Hawley and visit Butler’s [Dutch Gap] canal. Get some choice relics of petrified wood and clay of a peculiar kind. It is well worth one’s trouble. Additional news from Sheridan. Troops being reviewed throughout the army.11
22nd—Our troops reviewed by brigades. Weather cold and showery. General [Gilman] Marstin [sic, Marston] reviews the division. General Grant and staff pass along the lines. Hear him speak. Looks much better than when I saw him last. There was an old man along with him which I think must have been his father.
23rd—Service by chaplain. He comments upon the parable in the 13th chapter of Matthew. Captain Fay returns to camp. Sergeant Hawley receives appointment as [S]e[c]ond Lieutenant from General Butler in the Fifth United States colored regiment.
24th—Move to the left and occupy the ground vacated by the Eighth Connecticut in the Second brigade [2/1/XVIII/AotJ]. New light thrown at last upon the regiment’s being mustered out. They are to leave tomorrow.
25th—Forty-three of our brave comrades start for home. We are now left without an officer. Lieutenant [Myron N.] Dickinson, of the 118th New York Volunteers, assigned to the command of the detachment temporarily. We still hold the colors and our organization. We all find it hard to part with our old chums.12
26th—March at 6:00 a.m. about two miles to the rear and cook rations. Know nothing of what we are to do. [New Second Brigade commander] Colonel [Edgar M.] Cullins [sic, Cullen] tries to take our colors from us. Sergeant Pierce takes them to General Butler, who tells us that we can keep them at present. Hear bad news from Alick. Drunkeness.
27th—Take up the line of march at 4:30 a.m. and about 3:00 p.m. form a line of battle just through the woods of Fair Oakes [sic, Oaks] and charge upon the rebel works under galling fire. The charge fails and we are nearly all killed, wounded or taken prisoners. Twenty-six of my regiment taken. March to Richmond at once. About 300 taken from our corps.13
28th—Our names are taken on the upper floor of the Pemberton prison, where we are to be lodged for the present. Our greenbacks and canteens are also taken. Get rations at 10:00 a.m. and at 4:00 p.m. They consist of a small piece of corn cake (or corn meal and water) and a very small piece of meat for breakfast, piece of brown and a half pint of bean soup for supper. Just about half enough to quench hunger.
29th—A few prisoners put into our building. Several squads are lodged in Libby [prison in Richmond] during the day. Some of our keepers begin to show some of their fiendish Southern natures by kicking four innocent men and then drawing their revolvers on them for remonstrating.
30th—Take charge of the room and of distributing the rations. All quiet so far in our prison. Busy ourselves by looking down upon the almost desolate streets of Richmond. The sick are examined about 12:00 m. A call is made for shoemakers and mechanics of all kinds.
31st—Have 205 men on our floor. Things the same from day to day. All we can do is to walk the floor and form new acquaintances. Many of the men are coming down with the chills. Imprisonment is hard where one is shut up in a room like hogs in a pen.
November 1st—Feel rather unwell. Have a little hubbub about the rations. Adopt a more stringent rule about issuing. Have heard no grumbling since. The boys feel well generally and are in much better spirits than one could expect.
2nd—About 6:00 p.m. draw two days’ rations and lay down to rest as best we can to await the motion of our royal keepers. Anything for a change, although for the worse, is almost desirable. Most of the boys keep up excellent spirits. We expect to go south.
3rd—Rou[s]ted about 2:00 a.m. and hustled out into the streets. March at once to the cars and pile in, 62 into a car. Crowded almost to suffocation. Get under way bout 4:00 a.m. and ride all day. Never saw such railroading before. Two guards at the door and some upon the top of the cars.
4th—Still aboard of these horrible cars. Run out of rations. The codfish makes us all very thirsty. Prices along the route tremendously high. It takes a basketful of money to get a pocketful of grub. Remain all night in an open field near Green[s]borough [in North Carolina]. Suffer terribly for it is very cold. Very hungry.
5th—Take the cars early and resume our tedious journey. This is our second day without rations of any kind. Reach Salisbury [North Carolina] about 5:00 p.m. and enter the [Salisbury Prisoner of War] pen at dark. Cold and rainy. Hear terrible stories of our new home. Robbing and plundering going on all night. Blankets and cups stolen.
6th—Organize the men into squads of 100 each. We are the Tenth division. I have charge. Sergeants of divisions have plenty to eat and were it not for the human suffering outside one might enjoy themselves hugely. Draw the first rations for four days.
7th—It is absolutely horrible to witness the dead cart with its load of dead piled up in tiers like wood. They are taken out and piled into a large hole. Thousands are already just upon the brink of the grave.
8th—It is dreadful to hear the coughing these cold, rainy nights. Only three men from a squad are allowed to go at once for wood, so the poor fellows suffer dreadfully for fires. Some have no shoes nor stockings, without cap or coat.
9th—No pen can write or tongue express the suffering in this camp. The men are actually starved to death. But little pains is taken to clean the camp, The tents are insufficient to acco[m]modate all. Some make mud houses while others, too weak, crawl under houses.
10th—The men are being fed better now than previous. It is uncertain how long it will last. Saw one man whose head was literally covered with scabs and every hair standing on end covered completely with nits and lice.
11th—Our soup is made with rice and water without salt. There is but little nourishment in it. Draw rice once for my division, ten pints for a hundred men. If the men had salt they could make better soup than they draw.
(To Be Continued)14
SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jack Phend.
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Other Posts from Orlando P. Benson’s Diary While at the Siege of Petersburg:
- Diary of Orlando P. Benson, 92nd New York
- NP: February 11, 1925 Potsdam NY Courier and Freeman: Orlando P. Benson Diary, 92nd NY, Part 1
- NP: February 18, 1925 Potsdam NY Courier and Freeman: Orlando P. Benson Diary, 92nd NY, Part 2
- NP: February 25, 1925 Potsdam NY Courier and Freeman: Orlando P. Benson Diary, 92nd NY, Part 3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Pemberton prison in Richmond, VA started out as General Hospital #15. It was located northwest corner of 21st and Cary Streets. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Per a map of the situation on the night of October 1, 1864 from Richard Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, page 167, the 92nd New York and the rest of the First Division, Eighteenth Corps was holding the reversed line at Fort Harrison itself. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 92nd New York hadn’t been at White Oak Swamp in 1864 because the Eighteenth Corps had taken steamers from White House Landing to Point of Rocks in mid-June rather than marching overland from Cold Harbor to the James River. I am confident Benson is referring to his time with the regiment during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The “rebel dead” were still on the battlefield of September 29-30, 1864 from the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, or Fort Harrison. Benson’s regiment was in the thick of that fight, which was covered in the last installment. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: As I mentioned in the first installment, “Alick” is almost certainly Alexander M. Stevens. In a diary entry on February 2, 1863, Benson writes: “A.M. Stevens acts sergeant major. He is a noble boy and is of great assistance to me I could not get along without him.” If you look at the roster for the 92nd New York, page 1034, this must be Alexander Stevens. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: There are several curious portions of this day’s entry. First, Benson mentions moving “to the right about twelve miles.” “To the right” implies somewhere north/northeast of Fort Harrison. Twelve miles north/northeast of Fort Harrison is approximately due east of Richmond. On October 7, 1864 the Union infantry lines only extended to the New Market Road, only about 1.5 miles north/northeast of Fort Harrison. In addition, there was a division sized battle along the New Market Road on this day between the Field’s Division on the Confederate side and Terry’s Division on the Union side. I find it odd that Benson doe not mention this Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads, or First Darbytown Road. I suspect his unit was called to the right to serve as reserves in case Terry couldn’t handle Field’s attack. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This is one of those command changes which happen in the “in between times” between major battles. The Official Records OOB for October 31, 1864, which should have noted the comings and goings of regimental, brigade, and higher commanders, doesn’t seem to really do a good job of that for the Army of the James for that month. Richard Sommers’ excellent book Richmond Redeemed, which covers most of the Fifth Offensive, doesn’t cover the battles in mid-October and command changes in that time frame. Colonel Edgar M. Cullen is listed as the brigade commander for Benson’s 92nd New York both in the Official Records OOB I mentioned as well as in Hampton Newsome’s book Richmond Must Fall. They show the organization as of October 31 and October 27, 1864 respectively. I do not know of an order of battle for the Army of the James for early October 1864. This and other little tidbits will help me be able to create one from scratch. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 142nd New York was in the Tenth Corps, also in the Army of the James. It appears based on the next entry that Benson and Gray were on a mission to get the remnants of the 92nd New York placed in another regiment agreeable to the men. ↩
- Time was up for the veterans who had enlisted in 1861. When they were mustered out of the army, the remaining men in the unit were not numerous to continue on as an independent command. Ultimately, they would be integrated into the 96th New York on December 1, 1864. Curtis was the commander of the First Brigade, Second Division, X Corps, Army of the James. His old regiment the 142nd New York was a part of his brigade. Curtiss would be brevetted brigadier general of Volunteers October 28, 1864 for his actions at the September 29-30 Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the October 13, 1864 Battle of Darbytown Road, sometimes also called Second Darbytown Road. Robert E. Lee’s October 7, 1864 flank attack had failed to dislodge the Union Army from his outer line of works protecting Richmond. As a result, Lee instructed the divisions of Charles Field and Robert Hoke to build a new intermediate defense line between his old outer line, still held by the Federals, and Richmond’s inner defense line. The work on this new line attracted the attention of Union pickets and Kautz’s Federal cavalry patrols, and Grant determined to interfere. He sent the First and Third Divisions of the Tenth Corps, Army of the James, now under Alfred Terry, to reconnoiter and attempt to break up the Confederate work on their new line of entrenchments. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Dutch Gap Canal was a canal on the James River started by Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James during the Siege of Petersburg. It attempted to redirect the James to bypass the Confederate Howlett House battery and others along the James to the west. Butler attempted to finish the canal on January 1, 1865, but it ended in failure, at least for the purposes of the campaign. It would eventually become the main channel of the James River postwar. Here is a good description of the canal from a September 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: See page 231 of a regimental history of the 118th New York for details on Dickinson. It is not directly stated, but it seems Captain Fay was among the veterans who left on this day. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Benson was captured at the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, or Second Fair Oaks, or Third Darbytown Road, on October 27, 1864. See Hampton Newsome’s excellent book Richmond Redeemed for a detailed description of this fight. This was the end of Orlando Benson’s Siege of Petersburg. He would be taken to Pemberton prison in Richmond and then to Salisbury Confederate POW camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. I will continue his diary to the end of the war for interested readers, but I will not be commenting nearly as much from this point forward. ↩
- “Benson Captive in Rebel Prison.” The Courier and Freeman (Potsdam, NY). March 4, 1925, p. 3 col. 1-3 ↩