From Pauper to Private to Prisoner and Death; The Sad Life of Franklin T. Bentley

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!


First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016
The year was 1842; the story was just one of many that surrounded the towns of Stonington/North Stonington, Connecticut; men trying to support their families working on farms. The hours are long, the work is hard, the days can be hot or the days can be cold, but everyday is meant for one to toil and labor. Franklin T. Bentley was born to a father that was known as a “white laborer” or as some referred to him as an “indentured” In the 1860 census his children were recorded as “paupers that attended school” however education was less important than work (as you will discover) and supporting the family, especially for the Bentley’s that were living and working on the Ezra Wheeler farm.

A Governor Orders

Governor William A. Buckingham (1804-1875)
41st Connecticut Governor (1859-1866)

Public Domain

William Buckingham was born in New London County in 1804. He became a successful businessman when in 1848 he aided in the organization of Haywood Rubber, a company that was rapidly growing and his work provided him a comfortable life. In 1858, he was elected the 41st Connecticut Governor, and would be their “war” governor. He was a Republican, a strong supporter of President Lincoln and as the war erupted he had borrowed money in his own name to support the troops before the state voted $2 million in military costs.

On August 13, 1862 Governor Buckingham’s issued General Order #99 - - -

“Seven regiments will be organized from companies which now compose the active militia, and from those which may be organized under these orders prior to the first day of September next." {5}

The State of Connecticut promised fifty dollars at enlistment and thirty dollars for each year of a 3 years enlistment, to be paid in three installments of ten dollars each. How enticing this must have been to a young man that had only lived in poverty since birth.

“You’re In The Army Now - You’re Not Behind the Plow”*
65 man from North Stonington answered the call and one of them was Franklin Bentley. I can’t imagine the thoughts that went through many of those young men’s minds as they believed this may be there path out of poverty. A chance to make money, a chance to get away from the farm, maybe eventually meet a “pretty girl” marry and have a family. It’s an opportunity to leave an area that for many they had never journeyed outside its’ boundaries. Before long he was pledging his allegiance to the United States of America. He was now a boy in blue.

Franklin Bentley is now Private Bentley enlisted in Company G of the 21st Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. He was sent to Norwich, Connecticut and on September 11th was sent to Washington, D.C. He arrived on September 13th and assigned to the Army of the Potomac.

On the 28th of October, 1862 the Connecticut 21st began marching with General McClellan towards Virginia, leaving behind the last vestiges of autumn as they prepare for the coming of winter. By November 7th, they are running into snow and cold as they march, eventually staying at Waterloo for a spell. They will affectionately call their time stationed there as “Camp Starvation”, yet they all gave a “cheer” when General Burnside was placed over the Army of the Potomac.

By November 15th, they are again on the march leaving “Camp Starvation” behind them landing at Fort Falmouth on November 18th, they are without any tents and forced to make shelter with their blankets. From November 21st - 23rd they were under heavy rain and deep mud, and after the weather passed it left behind a great deal of sickness in the camp. As the Connecticut 21st searched for higher ground, they would always refer to this camp as “Camp Death” - so many died from illness before a shot was fired.

“The rebs fite well”

It was while at Camp Falmouth Private Bentley wrote a letter to his friend Ezra Wheeler back in North Stonington - - -

“Camp Near Falmouth, Dec. 2, 1862
Dear Sir

I should wrote before now but I have no paper an have been prety busy. I supose you are siten at the tabel eten a good brekfist. I think such times often, them times has gone by and I am afriad am afrid will ever come back again for there is no siens of help.

The rebs fite well, they did at the last batel. The batel raged hard and the roar of musketry was wors then hevy thunder. A batel is a much harder thing then I thought it was.

I have been unwell for 6 weeks and march 10 miles. I cannot tell what a soldier has to go through and I hope that you never will and if I ever get back home again I never will. We are all tired of it and wuld like to go back home but it is a dark look the rebels seem to be eager for another attact. The days are short and we have to drill four hours in a day, go after wood, and then cook and that takes much time.

Signed: Franklin T. Bentley, Friend of Ezra Wheeler

The Connecticut 21st covered the Union retreat at Fredericksburg; marched in Burnside’s “Mud March; participated in the Siege of Suffolk; and served as Provost and guard duty in Portsmouth and Norfolk** Virginia.

Another letter from Pvt. Bentley survives. Excerpts from Franklin’s second letter - -

“August 22, 1863, Portsmouth, Va.
Dear Sir,

I am in better health then when I wrote last winter, most of our company is well. Had a hard march to wite house landing..came back to York town, makes me think of fishers iland.. instead of seeing haystacks we see some stacks of ammunition.

They say it is hard times in richmond and it is geting to be hard time for some of the inhabitants, their money is good for nothing, They draw their rations to our company and husbands and children in the rebel army fiting us and we feeding their familys. This shows what respect they have, they have none at all

Give my best to nathan and tell him if he wants to get him a wife come down.

My best regard to you and all the family, Franklin T. Bentley

For the rest of 1863/beginning of 1864 they reported in various North Carolina sites, until May of 1864 when they were assigned to General Benjamin Butler’s operations at the Bermuda Hundreds.

The Disaster on May 16th, 1864

General Grant is reported to have said when he learned that Butler was back at Bermuda Hundred, - - -

" I ought to have put McPherson in command of the Army of the James." Had McPherson assumed command at noon on the 16th of May, we should in all human probability have been in full possession of Fort Darling before nightfall. What we needed was a competent commander.” {5}

Without a doubt, the battle of Drewry’s Bluff/Fort Darling was the first major test where they came into contact with all the horrors that constitute war.

I have included portions of a letter from Colonel Thomas F. Burpee 21st Connecticut vividly describing the action that day - - -

“Bermuda Hundred, May 17, 1864.
Butler's Command on the James River.

We lay at rest, after reaching Drewry's Bluff, on the fifteenth, until four o'clock p. m., when we took position in front of the center of the rebel works, which position we were ordered to hold at all hazards. On the next morning we had a battle. The night had been foggy and wet, and at four o'clock the fog was so thick nothing could be seen two rods off. I had just sent out Captain Brown with his company in front of the Twenty-first as skirmishers, when a tremendous fire was poured on the right of my brigade, which was the right of the whole line occupied by our troops.

The enemy had turned our right flank, and were in our rear. The Ninth New Jersey and the Twenty-third and Twenty-seventh Massachusetts were almost used up by the suddenness and heaviness of the attack. I will not attempt to describe the whole fight now; suffice it to say that in an hour and a half I was left alone with the Twenty-first to cope with the enemy, who were in front, and both flanks and a thick swampy wood in our rear. The men fought well; in some instances, hand to hand with the rebels. We changed our front to rear and fought for five hours through the swamp and timber, gradually falling back, sometimes charging upon them when they pressed too hard upon us, and at last succeeded in bringing the regiment and most of the wounded on to the open ground, where we could get help. Our Brigadier- General was captured, and I received no orders at all until I had fought three hours, and when the fight commenced I could not tell how things were going on our right, and did not know that the enemy had got around us, until their bullets came from that direction.

I don't know what the Generals at headquarters think of our conduct, but I hear that we gained much credit and that the regiment was handled well. We were so long in the woods that they thought we had been captured. We lost one hundred and six men and four commissioned officers. As for myself, I received no scratch. A bullet struck the spur upon my heel and glanced off. God covered my head in the time of danger and brought me safely through. We were engaged from four in the morning until nearly noon, without an instant's rest, and had but little rest for the previous two days. Notwithstanding the hardships we have been through, we have very few sick men. I think it is their pluck which keeps them up.” {5}

By the end of the day, 13 men from the 21st were missing. From Company G the list included - - -

Co. G— Corporal M. V. B. Kinne ; Privates S. N. Billings, F. T. Bentley, A. D. Brown, E. M. Brown, George S. Congdon, John Dunham, Bradford Clark, Silas H. Main, Welcome Mofiiet, Latham H. Park, Robert Sutcliffe. {1}


Military Map of Bermuda Hundred Including Drewry’s Bluf
Public Domain

POW & Death
Private Franklin Bentley along with his friend, Pvt. Sanford Nelson Billings*** are taken to Libby Prison and within weeks would be housed at Andersonville. It was there he would be listed as dying on November 1, 1864, although official records indicate he died August 12, 1864 from diarrhea. He became one of the approximately 13,000 men that died from disease, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure at Andersonville. His friend Pvt. Billings lived and returned home. Pvt. Bentley did not. The young soldier known as a “pauper who attended local schools” is now known as F. Bentley marker 5452. But death is the ultimate equalizer and like his famous Commander-In-Chief; he too “belongs to the ages”.


The Andersonville National Cemetery landscape
is part of Andersonville National Historical Site.

NPS Photo

* * * * *

5. “The story of the Twenty-first regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, during the Civil War. 1861-1865”, by United States. Army. Connecticut Infantry Regiment, 21st; Hubbell, William Stone, 1837-1930; Brown, Delos D., 1838- [from old catalog]; Crane, A. M. (Alvin Millen), b. 1839
*Isham Jones lyrics 1917
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!