Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiddler on the Minivan Roof

My last few posts have been devoid of any modern context, so...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

James D. Farris, Unbroken

James Daniel Farris (a.k.a. Faires)
Private, Company H, 18th South Carolina Infantry

In August of 1864, as young Fred Bentley signed up for the Union Army, far across the Mason-Dixon line another teenage farm boy was readying himself for war. Seventeen-year-old James D. Farris of York, South Carolina, cast his lot with the Catawba Light Infantry, Company H, 18th South Carolina and would soon be headed for the other side of no man’s land along the Petersburg front. Unlike the 185th New York , the 18th South Carolina was a veteran regiment that since 1862 had been involved in numerous campaigns spanning seven different states. At Petersburg, they served in Johnson’s division of Beauregard’s command. Farris and other new recruits and draftees helped fill the ranks of a regiment diminished by heavy casualties, desertion, and disease. As Farris and his colleagues would soon find out, the 18th’s service was far from over.

The days to come melted into a seemingly endless whir of battles, skirmishes, and periods of prolonged exposure to enemy sharpshooters and artillery. A little over two months in, Farris was shot in the chest and sent to Jackson Hospital in Richmond for treatment. He recovered and rejoined his unit on the front, only to find himself back at Jackson Hospital with a gunshot wound to the face in early March of 1865. Farris returned to his regiment in time for the Battle of Five Forks, where they left the trenches with Major General George E. Pickett’s Division to defend a vital crossroads southwest of Petersburg from the combined forces of Warren’s 5th Corps and Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps. Outnumbered and outflanked, the Confederates fought hard but were ultimately overwhelmed. In the maelstrom of battle, Farris was shot in the head and captured by Union soldiers.

Confederate prisoners after Five Forks

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was soon forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. While Grant’s forces cornered them near Appomattox Court House, a wounded James Farris was on his way to Lincoln General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was admitted with a fractured skull. Surgeon J.C. McKee reported removing depressed bone fragments from the wound on April 20. His wound proceeded to heal well.

By the time Farris posed for this portrait in his tattered shell jacket, the war was over. Though he served for only about eight months of a four year war, there is no doubt that the thrice-wounded teen was a veteran by this point. His body, like his clothes, is frayed and torn. But the look in his eyes says everything.

After signing the official Oath of Allegiance in June 1865, Farris was released from Lincoln Hospital. His descendants’ oral traditions hold that he bore an iron plate in his head for the rest of his life as a result of his third war wound. He returned to a life of farming and started a family in Steele Creek, North Carolina. He and his family later moved to Nacogdoches, Texas. By 1910 the lingering effects of his wound had caused him to go blind. James Farris died in 1914 and is buried in Christian Cemetery in Nacogdoches.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Frederick Bentley, Survivor

Frederick A. Bentley
Co. A, 185th New York Infantry

Frederick Bentley was 12 years old when the first shots of the Civil War were fired. He didn't vote for the politicians who started it, and he probably didn't write chickenhawk newspaper articles or deliver loud speeches rallying his fellow Yankees to fight their brothers down South. If this farmer’s son from Lysander, New York had strong opinions about slavery or states rights or tariff policies they are lost to us now. What we do know is that Bentley was determined to serve his country, and enlisted in the army in August of 1864 when he was only 15. The muster rolls list his age as 18, but multiple census records reveal his actual year of birth was 1849. It was not all that uncommon for boys to lie about their age to enlist. For all we know it may not have been Bentley's first effort. The skinny, 5’ 3” teenager may not have made the most convincing 18-year-old, but recruiters were desperate to fill their quotas.

After a stint of infantry training, the newly-formed 185th New York Infantry was sent to the labyrinthian front lines of Petersburg, Virginia on September 27, 1864, where they were attached to the Army of the Potomac’s veteran 5th Corps. One of Bentley's comrades described their new home: "This is what we call the front, and a muddy, gloomy place it is." On March 29, 1865 at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm, the 185th found itself in an exposed, unsupported position and was raked with “a regular blizzard of bullets.” Over 200 men in the 185th were hit. Among them was young Bentley, shot through the chest by a Confederate minie ball. Civil War gunshot wounds tended to be particularly gruesome. The typical minie ball was a .58 caliber chunk of lead which usually flattened on impact, causing it to tear an even wider hole through a person’s body. Bentley was lucky the bullet at least exited. He was sent to a field hospital and eventually made his way to Harewood General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he came under the care of Dr. Reed B. Bontecou. Bontecou had Bentley and many of his patients photographed to document their treatment and progress. This boy’s care was fairly minimal. In the days before penicillin and general anesthesia, there was not a whole lot that could be done for a wound like this. Bontecou’s note on the reverse of this photograph states simply, “He recovered under simple dressings, with very little stimulants, and no special diet.” After this miraculous recovery, Bentley returned home to New York, where he worked as a farmer and produce merchant until his death at the ripe old age of 71. He left behind at least one child, a daughter named Mary.

Though Bentley was extremely lucky to have survived his injury, this photograph gives us a faint glimpse into what he lived through. The physical pain, psychological trauma, and unimaginable grief and guilt over friends lost at his side reveals itself somewhere in those eyes. Above it all, though, Frederick Bentley looks to me like he is determined to live on. What nightmares accompanied his survival are lost to time. What remains is a lone image of a boy with a hole through his torso. He sits before the camera, his body and wounds laid bare.

I found the above image in this Flickr gallery of public domain photographs of wounded Civil War veterans from the National Museum of Health & Medicine. Though the photographs were taken for clinical reasons, they stand today as an incredible testimony to the wounded men and boys they portray, people exposed both physically and emotionally at the end of a long war. I hope to research a number of them and post what I find as I go. If anyone has more information, please feel free to share it.