"Burning Rails as We Pleased"

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First Sergeant
Feb 20, 2005
Evansville, Indiana
Firsthand view from Union ranks

By Darl L. Stephenson

Edited by Barbara Bentley Smith and Nina Bentley Baker
McFarland & Co. $49.95, 226 pages, illus.

Rarely do we get something truly new in Civil War literature. Too often, we get rehashed accounts of great battles such as Gettysburg or biographies of familiar figures such as Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. "Burning Rails as We Pleased" provides a rare firsthand account of the Civil War in the Western theater.
William Garrigues Bentley of the 104th Ohio Infantry provides a fascinating account of soldier life. This book is based on about 140 letters he wrote home. However, Bentley also provides astute observations on the strategy and tactics of the North and the political situation at the time.
Like most Union men, he was for Abraham Lincoln. His letters also show how the troops loved Gen. William T. Sherman's army — they knew Sherman would not waste their lives.
This is perhaps one of the best accounts of soldier life since John D. Billings' "Hardtack and Coffee," written well after the war. These accounts were written at the time.
Editors Barbara Bentley Smith and Nina Bentley Baker have provided us great insight into the life of a soldier in the Union Army. William Bentley served in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and finally with Sherman's army as it made its final assaults through the Carolinas.
In Kentucky, the Union forces were marched round and round, rooting out Confederate guerrillas in the central part of the state.
On May 8, 1863, Bentley writes about his service in the army: "It was 9 months yesterday since I enlisted in the service of Uncle Samuel and tho I have seen some pretty rough times I do not regret it now. Though I think if I had to do it over again I shouldn't go into the infantry, it is the hardest branch of the service."
Perhaps some of Bentley's most astute comments are on the morale of the Rebel army and people of the South. Contrary to the Lost Cause mythology, there was very low morale in the South as early as 1863. The following passage is indicative: "They are very anxious to exchange bread and pies for coffee at any price. Some of them haven't seen coffee before for two years."
He also notes the constant stream of deserters coming into Union ranks.
Bentley is particularly scornful of those who have not enlisted as volunteers and says he hopes they will be drafted rather than sit at home. He also has some virulent words about the Copperheads who opposed Lincoln and the war.
Although Bentley was a Quaker, he was not against fighting for a higher cause. There is no doubt that he was against slavery and in favor of black soldiers being in the Army. He makes a couple of statements that would be considered racist today, but for the time in which he lived, he truly represented the Republican majority of the North.
A great myth has been propagated in recent years that the North was just as racist as the South. This comes largely from the Copperhead press of the time. If you read the Republican press and accounts such as Bentley's, it is clear that many in the North not only favored abolition, but also endorsed having black soldiers in the Army.
Besides Sherman, Bentley is fond of Ulysses S. Grant, for he knows that Grant will get the job done. The view of the ordinary soldier is different from that found in the press accounts of "Butcher Grant." The soldiers knew that Grant eventually would end the war and stop the carnage.
Perhaps the most stunning of Bentley's letters is his account of the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee in late 1864. This reviewer has read other accounts of how Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood threw his army away against an entrenched Union force. To get a firsthand account from a Union soldier is amazing.
Bentley mentions the Confederate dead piled in mounds before the Union trenches. It makes one wonder if Hood was crazy, or at least borderline, to order such a thing that late in the war.
This book was published by McFarland & Co. The cost is high, about $50, and the book does not have a dust jacket.
I think the editors, who did a remarkable job, would have been better off going to a university publisher. The presentation of the book would have been better, and surely the retail price would have been lower. I am not sure if the editors or the publisher fully realized what they had.
The book is a treasure — the story of a Western soldier and his views of the tactics and strategy of the war as well as the political climate of the time. Despite the cost of the book, it should be a must-read for all interested in the views of the Union soldier.
Darl L. Stephenson wrote "Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer's Independent Union Scouts" (2001, Ohio University Press).