OUTSTANDING PAIR OF 7th MICHIGAN CAVALRY LEDGER/DIARIES - 1ST LIEUTENANT JAMES W. BENTLEY, REGIMENTAL COMMISSARY OFFICER

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Lieutenant Bentley’s diaries contain his narrative of 7th Michigan regimental service between June 30, 1863, and April 17, 1864.  These diaries came in to The Horse Soldier along with a group of Bentley’s medals and a third late war diary which have already been sold. We guarantee the ID; one of these diaries contains Bentley’s initials.

Bentley was a resident of Hastings, MI when he enlisted on 8/12/61 at Grand Rapids, MI as a Sergeant. On that date he mustered into Co. K, 1st New York Cavalry. Promoted to 2nd Lieut. 10/15/62. Discharged for promotion on 12/5/62 and commissioned 1st Lieut. in the 7th Michigan Cavalry.  He was discharged on 11/7/65 at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Returned to Hastings, MI following the war.

(1) Diary number one is a small, lined ledger, 3 x 4.75,” w/ pebbled black leather w/flap. Exhibits light wear and scuffing at the extremities. Else VG. Entries are mostly in ink, and entirely legible, though somewhat faded.

This booklet treats the events of 1863, beginning with a note citing the regimental arrival in the Gettysburg area. To wit: “Hanover June 30/ skirmish 1st at Abbotstown/ Littlestown July 2/ Oxford and East Berlin.”

From here, for some reason, the diary skips to mid-September and into Virginia, recording activity near the Rapidan River. To wit:

Sept 14th…Up very early and off again. Soon we have the same old tune to guide our march. Canon. We always travel toward such noises. We drive the enemy steadily before us until they cross the Rapid Ann when the journey suddenly comes to an end on our part as they are well posted and plenty of artillery here. We halt and go out on picket. A line of dismounted men on the bank of the river. They keep up a steady and continuous fire on both sides. A man is not safe to show his head and their art are very generous with shell every time a squad of our men show themselves. Dr. Graff and I had a few close calls.”

Skipping then to September 29th, Bentley records a detailed entry summing the events of the previous 12 days:

The past twelve days have quickly passed. And I have been so much engaged in my (quartermaster) business that I have had no time to jot down events as they have occurred, but the most interesting portions of the history of the Michigan Brigade are still fresh in my memory.”

Following this late September entry, Bentley returns to July 8, to record the Union pursuit of Lee on retreat from Gettysburg. These entries run continuously into September, linking up with his September 14 to 29th entries, which conclude the 1863 phase.

Of perhaps greatest interest among these 1863 entries is the one for July 14, the momentous day Lee & the bulk of his army escaped south across the Potomac at Falling Waters, MD:

“Well here we are routed out of our comfortable beds and off we go. Last night our Kilpatrick went into the Rebs on his own hook. He sent dispatch to Pleasanton asking leave to attack the enemy. And before an answer could be received he made his assault on their works with a brigade of militia and drove the enemy out. Genl Meade said the assault had disarranged all his plans, that he intended to pierce the Rebs center, but on we cavaliers went for the rebs and on until we had passed through Williamsport and found them all across the river except a division or so which was down the river at Falling Waters and Kilpatrick went for them here and come up to them. Our brigade drove them. Took 1200 to 2000 prisoners, two parrot guns and four battle flags. Our regt. 300 strong took in one charge 500 hundred prisoners with 70 men and another parrot with 4 companies. Also in the first charge a battle flag was taken by orderly sergeant of Company A. Our regt. lost two killed. The 6th lost many. Among them Major Weaver, Capt. Royce, Lieut. Baldsey and other officers killed. I saw many rebs lying dead one the field and some with a blue Uniform. One cannot conceive how hideous they look with their ghastly faces upturned and eyes staring wide…”

Bentley’s second book is a small standard diary of the time (THE DIARY FOR 1864, NEW YORK), w/page dated entries, 2.375 X 3.875,” made of pebbled brown leather covers w/flap. Exhibits light wear and rubbing at extremities, else VG. All entries legible, written in pencil.

What makes this diary unusual is the clever but unorthodox manner with which Bentley makes it serve double duty for 1865 as well as ’64. This he does by turning the diary upside down at the end of 1864, and write back the other way on unused or partially written 1864 pages. Thus,, his 1865 entries begin on February 28 (on page print-dated December 6, 1864) and run in reverse to their close on April 17, 1865 (March 3, 1864.)

Bentley pencil dates these reverse 1865 entries so that one can follow their sequence by skipping intermittent 1864 entries met coming the other way. On pages that contain both 1864 and 1865 entries (up & down) entries, he inserts a pencil border between, making makes it possible to continue on, either way

As we say, a highly unorthodox, though clever means of getting two years worth of entries out of a single year diary. Lieut. Bentley was a clever, resourceful man. Obviously.

His January 1, 1864 entry open the year on a cheerful note:

“Everybody tight today. Had a grand time with Major H. Went the rounds at night. Some one got awful drunk, Fisher was along. Rebs on the other side not as Jolly as Christmas. I presume their whiskey had run short. The boys are building a place for horses to stand upon. And fixing up their quarters. All in good spirits. Old Brooks reenlisting.”

The entries to follow are somewhat sporadic as the 7th regiment, a component of the Michigan Brigade, along with the 1st, 5th and 6th Michigan, gears up for Grant’s Overland campaign, scheduled for May. On the eve of the Campaign they are issued Spencer repeating carbines in place their old Burnsides. Through the summer of ’64 the 7th was involved in numerous cavalry fights and skirmishes, and in the fall was with Sheridan at the Battle of Cedar Creek, recorded by Bentley as follows:

October 19…Quite a large fight to day. The trains coming back on the double quick. The infantry behaved very badly at first, but the cavalry rallied them with the sabre and gun. Sheridan coming up soon (Sheridan’s famous 20 mile ride to the front) put things to rights….Very early this AM (4 ½ ) [the] attack was made on our regiment which was on picket on the right of the line. They were attacked in the rear, the enemy having come in through the infantry line.

Our boys were partially ready however and gave them a pretty warm reception. Lt. Boughton was missing with 30 men, many of which came in afterward. W.B has not been heard from and is reported drowned. About the time the attack was made on us, a very sharp fight was commenced on the extreme left in front of the 8th Corps. The 8 & 19th Corps were driven back in great confusion. Our cavalry was immediately massed in the center and stood pale but firm knowing that work would be expected from them at least. Things looked blue. Our army finally fell back and took a position in the rear of Middletown which they managed to hold until about 2 pm. When Sheridan came up, having bee absent, and then we assumed the offensive. The 6th Corps was first advanced and after a pretty hard fight the cavalry was ordered to charge en masse on the rebel centre which they did with their usual impetuosity. And after one unsuccessful attempt broke the enemy line and turned their previous success into a complete route in which captured all our guns back (21) and 30 of the enemies. Together with ambluances, wagons and many prisoners (4000). The guns recaptured were those lost by the 8th & 19th Corps. We also captured an ambulance containing 3 officers & the body of Maj. Gen. Ramseur, C.S.A.

To much praise cannot be given to our Gen. Sheridan or to much honor accredited to the cavalry. The Gen. first and the cavalry next. Saved the nation an ignominious retreat the consequences of which cannot be now known..”

In a skirmish in the Luray Valley in late October, Lieut. Bentley reports Gen. Custer in action…”Seeing this, Custer ordered the Mich. Boys Forward...” Coming up to the 7th, Custer tells the major to hurry up “or the 5th & the 1st will get across the creek before you do.” During this charge “the Spencers were brought into use by the boys on their own hook…

This was called the “Charge of the Hard Tack” on account of the command being told that they must fight their way through the gap before they could get any rations. They had been out there three days and when the order was given the boys cried ‘come on this is the charge for the Hard Tack.’”

Bentley and the 7th make it through the end of the year, and the diary (now turned upside down) resumes entry on February 28, 1865 (December 6, 1864).

The most interesting 1865 entries in this second diary are those treating the Appomattox Campaign and the Lincoln assassination:

April 5…..[April 24, 1864] Man proposes and God and General Sheridan disposes. Our hopes of a peaceful and refreshing slumber in our beautiful camp proves to be without foundation. At 11 pm yesterday night suddenly heard sounding through the camps…

April 7…..[April 8, 1864] Boots and saddles did not sound this morning for the reason that we did not unsaddle. We camped just in front of a rebel division of infantry and skirmished all night…

April 9…..At 9 am precisely Gen. Lee surrendered his army. Some cheering and racing are the consequences. I believe that Custer has the honor of receiving the flag.Our colonel was the first man in the rebel lines to commicate with Gen. Gordon CSA. He also spoke with Gen. Longstreet and others. They appeared rather down in the mouth. Gen Lee and Grant are in consultation. The final terms are agreed upon at 3.15 pm.

April 15…..Nothing going on. Except we have rumor of the assassination of the president of Willard Hotel.

April 16…..The astounding information of the death of the president Lincoln 7.22 am. John Wilkes Booth the Tragedian was the assassin and place Ford’s Theater. Seward and his son also assassinated at the same time by another party. All supposed to belong to the K.O.G.C. [Knights of the Golden Circle]. We first supposed it to have been some more of the southern chivalry but find it to have be the developments of the principals of Copperheads. Such cowardly enemies have not the courage to fight us manfully or even avow their position or calling

April 17…..We have news that Washington is under martial law. No man allowed to leave or enter the place…”

The Seventh Michigan participated the Washington Grand Review, and the Michigan Brigade was afterwards ordered to Fort Leavenworth, KS, for frontier service through the remainder of 1865. Indian hostilities west of Fort Leavenworth required additional cavalry and so the Michigan Brigade traveled west in the month of June, via the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

A remarkable pair diaries of Lieut. James W. Bentley, whose 7th Michigan Cavalry had the unusual experience serving at the Battle of Gettysburg and on the later Indian frontier.  [jp]

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