One of most horrific moments in the battle was when the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry charged a Confederate artillery battery, executing many of the Confederates after they had attempted to surrender (slicing off ears, cutting throats; all while the soldiers were still alive, begging for mercy). The 2nd Kansas called what they did revenge for what the Confederates had done to members of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry days earlier at the Battle of Poison Springs. If you’ve watched the opening scene from the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” then you’ve recognize the gruesome battle depicted in the film – this was supposed to represent the charge made by the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. But did it really happen the way history has described it?
Colonel Thomas Benton commanded the 29th Iowa US Infantry during the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. He was an eyewitness to the events that occurred in the Saline River bottoms that day. Following the battle, Colonel Benton wrote the following letter to the National Democrat newspaper in Little Rock:
[LITTLE ROCK] NATIONAL DEMOCRAT, May 21, 1864, p. 3, c. 1
We publish the following letter from the Unconditional Union, with a correction added by permission.
Little Rock, Ark., May 11, 1864.
Editor of Unconditional Union:
I observe a slight error in your account of the battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, on the 30th of April, 1864, given in your paper of the 10th inst., which justice to my officers and men demands that I should correct. The paragraph to which I allude is as follows:
“The negroes particularly, deserve great credit for their gallantry. They repulsed charge after charge from the enemy and no sooner was a command received than obeyed. They charged a battery and captured three pieces of artillery and two battle flags, which inspired them with confidence, and urged them on to the bloody contest, pouring death and destruction before them.”
Now the facts are these: On the right of our line of battle, which rested on the road from Princeton to the Ferry, my regiment was the first that engaged that enemy, and after a severe contest of an hour, was relieved by the 9th Wisconsin and the 9th Wisconsin was subsequently relieved by the 2d Kansas, (colored) infantry. The action had lasted some two hours before the 2d Kansas came up. After the 2d Kansas had been engaged about half an hour, Gen. Rice ordered me to relieve them and charge the batter; (which had taken position in the road about one hundred paces in front of our extreme right;) but afterward so modified his order as to have the charge made jointly by the 29th Iowa and 2d Kansas. I ordered my command to advance with a shout, which was promptly done, until we arrived at the line of the 2d Kansas, when the two regiments were blended into one, my own, being the largest, extending beyond the 2d Kansas on either flank. companies “A” and “D,” and part of “I” of my right wing, (“F” having been previously posted across the Bayou to our right,) extending across the road, immediately in front of the guns, with their left resting on the right of the 2d Kansas. In this order the two commands moved gallantly forward, and captured the battery; (two guns instead of three,) and eight prisoners, including one Lieutenant, but no battle flags. The prisoners were taken to the rear and across the river in charge of four of my men. There were two or three miniature flags taken from the guns by my men, one of which that I examined, was about five by nine inches, with blue field and three bars, and bearing the inscription, “God and our native land.” My command advanced beyond the guns about sixty or seventy paces, and held the ground while the 2d Kansas, whose ammunition was exhausted, withdrew and aided a detail of my men in taking the guns to the rear. I then fell back slowly to our regular line of battle, and was again relieved by the 9th Wisconsin, Col. Salomon, who had held himself in readiness to support us.
In making this statement, I have not desire to detract in the slightest degree from the 2d Kansas, nor to claim any undue credit for my own regiment. My sole object is to do exact and equal justice to all, and hence I cannot silently permit my command to be totally excluded from an act of gallantry in which it suffered so severely, having lost some of my best men, and had two officers wounded: Capt. Mitchell severely, and Lieutenant Johnson slightly. It affords me the greatest pleasure to say that the 2d Kansas, under its gallant leader, fought bravely, and although my men were first at the battery and actually took the prisoners, we cheerfully concede to it an equal share of the glory of the charge. All the regiments engaged fought with a heroism unsurpassed in civilized warfare. It is also worthy of note that the 50th Indiana infantry, and named in your account, was in the thickest of the fight.
I am very resp’t’y, your ob’t, serv’t,
Thomas H. Benton, Jr.
Col. 29th Iowa Inft.
I recall after the movie came out, there were several internet threads. Among the most common were the ones asking (1) What/Where is Jenkins’ Ferry and (2) Why, with all of the “big” battles, would Stephen Spielberg choose such an “obscure” battle as Jenkins’ Ferry? The writers of the movie obviously utilized the Official Records of the battle where they read the reports of those who participated in the charge. Some of the eyewitnesses may have seen the battle from a different perspective from what is depicted in the film, among them Colonel Benton.
Sometimes….in the heat of battle, facts may be skewed. Perhaps it takes cooler heads after the guns have fallen silent to provide a different perspective. Colonel Benton certainly thought so.
Regardless, it was a horrific moment in our history.