Saturday, July 11, 2015

8th Connecticut Corporal John Bentley: A father's revenge

Corporal John Bentley's grave in Antietam National Cemetery.
No photo is known to exist of the soldier from Sterling, Conn.
After a Rebel artillery shell had shattered his legs and mangled his chest and wrist at the Battle of Oak Grove, near Richmond, on June 25, 1862, William Bentley was placed with other Union wounded under a massive, tall tree that also was used as an observatory during the fighting. Initially refusing painkillers, the mortally wounded corporal/musician in the 2nd Rhode Island asked his comrades to pray for him and dictated a note to his mother.

"What heart-rending scenes did I witness in that place,” a Massachusetts chaplain recalled, “so full of saddened memories to me and to others.”

8th Connecticut monument at Antietam.
One of six Bentley children, 21-year-old William met his “his death as cheerfully and bravely as he had lived,” it was later noted, “leaving a large circle of friends to mourn his fall and cherish his memory.” His demise was well-chronicled in Rhode Island newspapers.

Nearly three months later, at the Battle of Antietam, his father desperately wanted to get even with the army responsible for his eldest son’s death. A 42-year-old private in the 8th Connecticut from Sterling, near the Rhode Island border, John Bentley had enlisted in October 1861, four months after William joined the Union army.

"Since the death of his son a settled gloom has ever rested upon his once pleasant countenance," an 8th Connecticut comrade using the intitials “W.P.M.” wrote to the Hartford Daily Courant, "and the great object of his life seemed to be to revenge his death, fearing that he might die of disease or be killed early battle, before he should know that with his own arm he had caused at least the death of one of the murderers of his noble boy."

Described as an excellent marksman, Bentley was so eager to get a shot at the enemy that he vowed to fight in the front ranks and perhaps, he reasoned, spare the life of a younger man in the regiment. "If I can only live to kill one rebel," Bentley's comrade recalled him saying, "I shall be revenged on those who have brought our country to ruin, and made life a burden to me by causing the death of my ... son, and am then ready to die, for at the longest an old man can live but a few years."

Late in the afternoon on Sept. 17, 1862, the 8th Connecticut pushed up a ridge near the village of Sharpsburg, Md., far ahead of the faltering 4th Rhode Island and overmatched 16th Connecticut, a regiment in its first battle of the war. Nearly cut off from the rest of the IX Corps, the regiment soon was forced to retreat back toward Antietam Creek.

Carefully aiming and firing during the onslaught, Bentley "displayed bravery second to none,” his comrade recalled, and "... after each discharge of his piece, he would watch eagerly the effect of his charge, and several times was heard to exclaim, 'I hit him! I hit him!' "

Among the last of the regiment to leave the field, Bentley fired one, final shot, shouting “I fetched him!” as the bullet hit its mark. But moments later, a bullet tore through his ankle bone, staggering him and adding his name to the 8th Connecticut’s lengthy list of casualties. (Eight soldiers from Bentley’s Company F, comprised of soldiers from eastern Connecticut towns, were killed or mortally wounded at Antietam.) Carried by comrades to a field hospital, probably on the nearby farm of Henry Rohrbach or John Otto, Bentley was not considered dangerously wounded.

Document in Bentley's widow's pension file notes that he died at Big Spring General Hospital,
 one of several names for the hospital near the Antietam battlefield. In 1868, 
Bentley's wife married a man named David Hicox.

"I visited him three weeks after he received his wound," his comrade wrote, and "he appeared very cheerful." Although Bentley's leg wound was painful and his mouth was so sore that he couldn't even eat hard crackers, he was optimistic and was told by a doctor that his foot could be saved.

But Bentley's optimism proved unfounded. The wound became infected, and on October 17, 1862, a little more than one month after he was shot, he died at Crystal Springs Hospital in Keedysville, Md., two miles from the battlefield. A farmer, Bentley left behind a wife named Zilpha and five children ranging in age from 2 to 14.

"But, poor man, he is gone, and we hope is now at rest with his son, where there are no wars," the soldier in his regiment wrote to the Hartford newspaper. "Long will he be held dear in the hearts of every member of his company, as a faithful friend and brave soldier.

"He should not be forgotten by his country."

No image of John Bentley -- "another victim of this wicked rebellion," according to his 8th Connecticut comrade -- is known to exist. He lies buried in Antietam National Cemetery under grave No. 1117.


Hackett, Horatio B., Christian Memorial of the War: Or, Scenes and Incidents Illustrative of Religious Faith and Principle, Patriotism and Bravery in Our Army, Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1864), Page 111

Woodbury, Augustus, The Second Rhode Island Regiment, Providence: Valpey, Angell and Company, 1875, Page 386

Hartford Daily Courant, Oct. 31, 1862.

1860 U.S. census

John Bentley's "widow's" pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.

Corporal John Bentley, wounded at the Battle of Antietam, died at Crystal Springs Hospital near
 the battlefield. This is the back of the farmhouse that in 1862-63 was part of the hospital 
in Keedysville, Md. It is privately owned today. (Read my Q&A with the current owners here.)


  1. Interesting story, John. I wonder if the soldier who wrote to the Hartford Daily Courant may have been William M. Pratt and the paper simply mixed up his initials. Quite an interesting possibility and a great story nonetheless.

  2. There were at least four soldiers in the regiment who had initials "W.M." Further research could probably nail down who the Hartford Daily Courant letter writer was. JBANKS