BENTON BARRACKS, MISSOURI

(also known as Camp Benton)

Missouri's largest Civil War Training and Troop Deployment Encampment.

By Scott K. Williams



 
[Above illustration published 1862 by Jacob Endres, No. 52 Fourth St., St. Louis.
Artist: A. McLean Lith. Cor. 3d & Pine Sts. St. Louis.

Background Tune: "Benton Barracks Parade March", Composed by Julius Tenzler, dedicated to Miss Sadie Curtis. Midi courtesy of  Benjamin Robert Tubb  ]


During the Civil War, Benton Barracks was an encampment for Union troops and was located in north St. Louis County, 4-5 miles from the City of St. Louis. . "The facility, located on the outskirts of St. Louis, could accommodate 30,000 soldiers and contained a mile of barracks, warehouses, cavalry stables, parade grounds, and a large military hospital.  The hospital itself could...serve 2,000 to 3,000 patients."

Benton Barracks was situated on land once owned by John O'Fallon who rented the acreage to U.S. Army, and on the grounds of the old State fairgrounds. This area is now part of the City of St. Louis, in the location of Fairgrounds Park (at Grand Ave. and Natural Bridge Rd.) .  Camp Benton, which began operations in 1861 had numerous functions: a troop cantonment  (replacing Jefferson Barracks after it was converted to a hospital); a parole encampment; a military hospital; and a camp for contraband or refugee slaves. Refugee Unionist (whites) also found sanctuary here. There is also some evidence that a few Confederate guerilla POWs  were housed here for  a short duration,  perhaps awaiting the sentence of execution, in the camp guardhouse. 

Charles Van Ravenswaay in his book, Saint Louis: An Informal History of the City and its People, 1764-1865, states that work on the barracks began in August, 1861 when "workmen began building five barracks, each 750 feet long and 40 feet wide. Kitchen sheds, stables, warehouses, and other buildings went up nearby. Around this camp... sprang up a cluster of saloons, restaurants, and little photograph galleries." Many of the photographs taken of soldiers in uniform before going to the battlefields were made at these photo studios at Benton Barracks.

An account by F. F. Kiner, of the 14th Iowa Infantry gives the following description: "Benton Barracks is situated upon a very flat piece of land, but very suitable for a drill camp, for which it was originally intended.  The buildings, so far as comfortable quarters for the soldiers was taken into consideration, I think were well designed.  Good cook houses, with suitable furnaces for cooking were conveniently arranged in the rear of the Barracks.--As to water, nothing could have been better looked to than the water conveniences; and, no doubt, this was one of the reasons for selecting this piece of ground, as being sufficiently low to allow water to be carried into camp by the means of pipes leading from a large reservoir situated upon an elevated part of the city.  This water was, we might say, carried to the door of every cook house, and was in every way convenient.  The buildings for the Port commander, and for Regimental Head Quarters were also convenient and well arranged.  The camp was well drained, consequently it never remained muddy any length of time after heavy rains and spells of wet weather.  Upon the whole, I never saw any better in all my travels as a soldier, and doubt much if there is any better of a kind in the United States." (Thanks to Steve Kiner, gg grandson of F.F. Kiner for One Years Soldiering, published 1863 by F.F. Kiner; Republished by Morgan Avenue Press, Savage, MN)

 As a troop cantonment, new regiments were organized and mustered into service. Numerous Union troops were stationed here in white-washed wooden barracks and tents.  Troops were instructed on march and drill in preparation of deployment to fighting Confederate troops. The number of troops stationed at Benton Barracks varied considerably as some troops in transit waited only for a short duration before being moved by steamboat to battlefields in the lower South.  Besides functioning as a campaign "launch pad", the base was also used as an encampment for paroled Federal POWs released from the Confederacy. These paroled prisoners were released by Confederate authorities on the condition they would "not bear arms against Southern forces until the expiration of parole".  At least one regiment on parole, the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, was sent North on Aug 27, 1862 to put down the "Great Sioux Uprising".  

Dyer's Compendium records that the 29th Iowa Volunteer Infantry were stationed at Benton Barracks from Dec 19, 1861- Dec 25, 1862 during the time they guarded the post's prison.  This was probably a prison for the Barrack's Provost police which kept Union soldiers that violated regulations or committed common crimes. From Oct. 1862- April 1864, the 10th Minnesota Vol. Infantry provided garrison and provost duty. For the final months, Jan-July 1865, Co. H 39th Missouri Infantry was assigned garrison and provost duty.

Over 100 men of the 2nd Mo Colored Infantry died at the Barracks... the men,-- thinly clad... hatless, shoeless, and without food. Many suffered amputation of frozen feet or hands, and the diseases engendered by this exposure resulted in a terrible and unprecedented mortality.

Not all the troops at Benton Barracks experienced good treatment from the government. Lt. Col. William F. Fox, U.S.V. reported that for the 2nd Missouri Colored Infantry, "Over 100 men died at [Benton] Barracks before the regiment took the field, the men having been enlisted by the Provost-Marshals throughout the State and forwarded to this Post during an inclement season,-- thinly clad, and many of them hatless, shoeless, and without food. Many suffered amputation of frozen feet or hands, and the diseases engendered by this exposure resulted in a terrible and unprecedented mortality."

The winter of 1862-1863 was especially tough for all soldiers at the barracks. Besides being very cold, a small pox epidemic broke out and many of the sick soldiers were taken to the small pox hospital (on an island in the Mississippi River) to die .

 

The Hospital:

Benton Barracks was also home to a large hospital, with the large amphitheatre of the former State fairgrounds converted for hospital use. The hospital had a separate facility on base for black troops as well as sick or injured slave refugees. A 1864 description of the hospital reads,

"It was enclosed, thoroughly whitewashed, furnished with iron bedsteads and good beds, and converted into one of the largest, most thoroughly ventilated and best hospitals in the United States, capable of accommodating two thousand five hundred patients. Numerous other buildings, near the main edifice, on the same grounds, formerly used by the Agriculture Society for its exhibitions, were used for officer's quarters, medical dispensary, commissary rooms, special diet kitchens, &c., and the fine walks and splendid shade added much to the beauty and attractiveness of the place."

The hospital, under supervision of Surgeon Ira Russell, U.S.V., opened on March 1st, 1863. In its first three months it had received two thousand and forty-two patients. The hospital in its first three month only experienced a 4.5% death rate.  "From June 1st, 1863 to May 1st 1864, there were four thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight patients received, and the percentage of deaths was seven and one-tenth."

 Note: The colored troops were cared for by nurses of the Colored Ladies Union Aid Society.

 

The Contraband (Freedman or Refugee Slave) Camp:

A contraband camp of former slaves was also located at Benton Barracks.

During the summer of 1863, St. Louis was inundated by thousands of refugee slaves. The government had no way to determine which of these individuals were slaves or "freedmen", thus they were all treated as freedmen. On certain occasions slave owners (or slave catchers) tried to retrieve their subjects, but Union guards would only allow slaves to go willingly and without abuse.

James E. Yeatman explains the difficulties the newly freed slaves faced:

"Besides the fact that men are thus pressed into service, thousands have been employed for weeks and months, who have never received any thing but promises to pay. This negligence and failure to comply with obligations, have greatly disheartened the poor slave, who comes forth at the call of the President, and supposes himself a free man, and that, by leaving his rebel master, he is inflicting a blow on the enemy, ceasing to labor and to provide food for him and for the armies of the rebellion. Thus he was promised freedom, but how is it with him ? He is seized in the street, and ordered to go and help unload a steamboat, for which he will be paid, or to sent to work in the trenches, or to labor for some quartermaster, or to chop wood for the Government.  He labors for months, and at last is only paid with promises, unless perchance it may be with kicks, cuffs, and curses."

"Under such treatment, he feels that he has exchanged one master for many masters; these continued abuses sadden and depress him, and he sighs to return to his former home and master.  He, at least, fed, clothed, and sheltered him. Something should be done, and I doubt not, will be done, to correct these terrible abuses, when the proper authorities are made to comprehend them.  The President's proclamation should not thus be made a living lie, as the "Declaration of Independence" has too long been, in asserting the inalienable rights of man, while the nation continued to hold millions of human beings in bondage."

Yeatman continues: "The poor negroes are everywhere greatly depressed at their condition.  They all testify that if they were only paid their little wages as they earn them, so they could purchase clothing, and were furnished with the provisions promised, they could stand it; but to work and get poorly paid, poorly fed, and not doctored when sick, is more than they can endure.  Among the thousands whom I questioned, none showed the least unwillingness to work.  If they could only be paid fair wages, they would be contented and happy.  They do not realize that they are taken and hired out to men who treat them, so far as providing for them is concerned, far worse than their "secesh" [slang for "secessionist" or "Confederate"] masters did.  Besides this they feel that their pay or hire is lower now than it was when the "secesh" used to hire them.  This is true." (Bracketed comment by webpage author)

Many families were eventually forwarded to Illinois, Iowa or beyond, but many remained at Benton Barracks, "where there were many rejected recruits [for U.S. Colored Troops], and families of colored soldiers, to be assisted and provided for.  A school for colored children is now taught at that place, by Miss Knight, a lady employed by the Western Sanitary Commission, books are furnished, and a similar work of instruction is carried on for the colored soldiers while they remain."

The Ladies' Contraband Relief Society assisted the slave refugees as best they could but supplies and funds were always in short supply. Also the Freedman's Relief Society of St. Louis (led by Mrs. Washington King, President; Mrs. Lucien Eaton, Vice-President) provided assistance.

For more information regarding slaves in St. Louis, see "Slavery in St. Louis" by this article's author.  Also see my page on the

"U.S. Colored Troops and the Plight of the Refugee Slaves"

 

Benton Barracks Grounds 1875:

The following is from an illustrated map drawn approximately ten years after Benton Barracks was abandoned. Source is from Pictorial St. Louis, the great metropolis of the Mississippi valley; a topographical survey drawn in perspective A.D. 1875, by Camille N. Dry; designed & edited by Rich. J. Compton.

Each panel was drawn at differing dates, possibly even months or years apart. Because of this age difference, and due to differing viewer angles, the panels are not seamless. On the small overlap of the panels, occasionally a building is present on one and missing in the other. Even at this early date the area was undergoing considerable development, and the "flimsy" contractor-built barracks appear to have been removed.  The amphitheatre which was used as a military hospital is clearly present, and possibly other buildings are portrayed but are not recognizable at the present time.

 

Roads Renamed Since 1875:

The Barracks was bounded on the South by Grand Avenue; on the North approximately by  White/Newstead; on the West by Natural Bridge Road; on the East by O'Fallon/Warne and by the tree line along the property line of the O'Fallon estate.

Note: At the corner of O'Fallon and Florissant Road, a guard or pickett was posted. On the full 1875 image, a surviving guard house can be seen at this intersection.

Each panel is a thumbnail to a full size image.

 

Benton Barracks Today:

While none of the original barracks buildings survive, most of the grounds are preserved in Fairgrounds Park. Another  section of the barrack's grounds are now occupied by houses built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The author found a monument in the park, but the bronze plaque with its inscription was stolen. It is not certain what the monument memorialized. Unfortunately no known Civil War monument currently marks this important historic site. Below are photos taken by the author in February 2003:

Fair Grounds Park, former site of  Benton Barracks. This photo is taken from the southeast corner (from intersection of Grand Boulevard and Natural Bridge Road), looking northwest. [Enlargement]
 
Fair Grounds Park, former site of Benton Barracks. This view was taken from the corner of Fair Ave. and Grand Boulevard looking toward the northeast. [Enlargement]
 

Union Commanders at Benton Barracks:

Gen. John Fremont reviewing troops at the inauguration of Benton Barracks. Harper's Weekly Oct. 12, 1861.

 


Union Army Units Mustered into Service at Benton Barracks:

**For the 1st Iowa Colored Infantry, Companies A,B,C,D,E, and F were organized in Keokuk, Iowa. Company H was mostly Missourians; companies G, I, and K were entirely organized in Missouri. After final organization, the regiment departed Benton Barracks, Dec 19, 1863, bound for Helena, Arkansas.

 

 

Union Army Units Reorganized at Benton Barracks

 


Union Army Units Stationed at Benton Barracks

This is a listing of the regiments that were stationed at Benton Barracks (not including the units organized at the barracks, mentioned earlier).  Some units may have had detached companies that were not stationed at Benton Barracks. This is not necessarily a complete list. Information compiled from A COMPENDIUM OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION, BY FREDERICK H. DYER) and other sources.

 


Please contact the Scott K. Williams if you have any material pertaining to Benton Barracks. We are in need of lithographs, photographs or other illustrations. Pictures of the barracks, refugee camp, or hospitals. Wartime accounts like letters or diaries, or pre-1923 published accounts. 

During the Civil War, portrait studios at Benton Barracks photographed soldiers before they departed for the battlefield. If anyone has a portrait of a soldier that is marked with the words, "Benton Barracks", with your permission we would like to include a copy of that image on this website an for our permanent archives collection.

 

Sources:

 

Also thanks to:

 

Benton Barracks Links:

 

You are the 33279th Visitor to this Site. This page was last updated Friday, 29-Jul-2005 00:23:59 CDT

Scott K. Williams, all rights reserved 2005, Florissant, Mo. USA

 


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