The Mystery of Jacob S. Bennett
By Ralph P. Bennett
Company "K" 31st Virginia Infantry, C. S. A.
By Ralph P. Bennett
A gravestone recently placed in a Barbour County cemetery reads, “To the memory of JACOB S. BENNETT, Sgt. Company K, 31st Virginia Infantry, C.S.A”. The last line states, “Jacob never returned home and is buried in a grave unknown, except to God”. Like tens of thousands of other Confederate soldiers Jacob was denied the honor of a known grave. This article discusses his life and my quest to discover his final fate.
Barbour County and Confederate Army service records indicate that JACOB S. BENNETT was born about 1813 in the Glade District of what is now eastern Barbour County.
Jacob was son to ASA and RACHEL (JOHNSON) BENNETT. A property appraisement in the Randolph County records (Elkins) indicates that Asa died in 1814, listing his brother WILLIAM BENNETT as the administrator and brother JESSE BENNETT as surety for the administration of his estate. Asa’s inventory shows him as a farmer with few assets and likely residing in the home of a relative.
JACOB S. BENNETT’s family moved to the area from Fauquier County, Virginia in 1806, following the death of his grandfather, also named JACOB BENNETT. An estate settlement for Jacob Bennett of Fauquier County (WB 4, p.138) indicates that he held a middling-sized estate with one male slave. Following Jacob’s death in 1805 his wife Sarah and children moved to what is now Barbour County.
REV. SIMEON HARRIS married JACOB S. BENNETT and ELIZABETH GAINER on November 6, 1833. According to Barbour and Randolph County census and land records, Elizabeth was the daughter of JOHN & SUSANNA GAINER. JOHN GAINER, a 1812 war veteran, was born in 1791 and died Barbour County May 6, 1880. Susanna was daughter to JACOB & MAGDALENA EASTER (OASTER)
JACOB S. BENNETT was apparently an industrious and successful farmer. Barbour County tax and property records at the Library of Virginia, Richmond, indicate he purchased 60 acres on Sugar Creek in 1838 and 400 acres on Laurel Creek in 1858 near Tacy, Barbour County. A Bennett family is still in residence in the immediate area. By 1860 Jacob and Elizabeth had given birth to eleven children including one daughter who had died in infancy.
As social and political tensions increased with the approach of the Civil War, meetings were held at the Valley Furnace iron foundry to promote the cause of secession from the Union. In response to directives from Virginia Governor Letcher, Company K, (‘The Mountain Guards’), 31st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, was formed at Meadowville, Barbour County on May 18, 1861. This company consisted of men from that village and well as Valley Furnace and Nestorville. The newly enlisted men elected JACOB S. BENNETT, then 48 years of age, Orderly Sergeant. (1st Sgt.)
When passions high and flags flying the men of Company K marched to Philippi to join other Confederate units. Jacob’s son, JONATHAN P. BENNETT, and a cousin, JESSE T. BENNETT (b. 1839, & son of WALDO J. & MARY ANN FITZWATER BENNETT) also enlisted in Company K.
Colonel GEORGE PORTERFIELD was sent to Philippi by the fledgling Confederate States Government to organize this poorly equipped force, consisting of five infantry companies and several units of cavalry.
In the early morning hours of June 3, 1861 Union forces routed Confederate troops at Philippi who retreated in disorder to Huttonsville. Philippi was the first significant land battle of the Civil War and perhaps the most exciting event in the city’s history. The Confederate flag that had flown above the Philippi Courthouse since January of 1861 was lowered for the last time. Except for a brief occupation by Confederate cavalry forces during the Jones-Imboden raid in May 1863, Philippi remained in Union control.
From the time of the retreat from Philippi, Jacob and the men of these Confederate regiments became refugees from their own homes. Family and loved ones lived within Union lines and were at the mercy of their enemies. An irregular Confederate postal service did exist and men often traveled obscure mountain trails to visit their homes and family at the risk of capture or death.
Jacob continued in his capacity as Company K, Orderly Sergeant. In the book ‘Samuel Woods and his Family’ by Ruth Woods Dayton, a letter written by Mrs. SAMUEL WOODS to her husband in October 1861, states that “Mrs. Bennett receives a letter from Jake every week or two”. The Roy Bird Cook Collection at West Virginia University contains a court marshal held by the 31st Virginia Regiment at Camp Allegheny, Pocohontas County, on January 28, 1862. 1st Sergeant JACOB BENNETT served as a witness for the prosecution against Private GEORGE KELLER of Company K, 31st Virginia for dereliction of duty.
In May 1862 Jacob and the 31st Virginia joined the army of General Stonewall Jackson in his Valley Campaign, in which Confederate forces fought in many actions and marched over 400 miles in 32 days earning them fame as Jackson’s ‘Foot Cavalry’.
On June 9, 1862 the 31st Virginia participated in the Battle of Port Republic, an action that cost the regiment over 50% casualties. Corporal JESSE T. BENNETT, the 21-year-old cousin of Jacob, was killed in action during this battle and has no known grave.
Jacob’s service record shows that he was medically discharged on June 14th at Camp Mount Meridian near Port Republic for general disability and “disease of the heart from which he often suffers very much”. He received his final army pay on June 16th as a Private, which may indicate that he had been reduced in rank due to his inability to carry out his duties as Orderly Sergeant for health reasons or was possibly voted out of office during a Regimental election held on May 1, 1862. At that time of our history 49 years of age was counted as old and Jacob had done well to survive a brutal winter at 4,400 ft. Camp Allegheny and the rigors of Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign.
The oldest member of Co. K was Jacob’s cousin, 63-year-old Fife Major GEORGE WASHINGTON GAINER (1799-1865 , son of BRYAN K. & RACHEL BLACK GAINER) of Montrose, Randolph County, who was medically discharged for “old age and debility”, the same day as Jacob. George had married PHOEBE SCHOOVER on July 8, 1823 and is buried in the Primitive Baptist Cemetery on Leading Creek near Montrose. The two men likely traveled together along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike to their Barbour County homes.
Following his army discharge Jacob returned home to his Laurel Creek farm but his return was to be brief. His C.S.A. record indicates that he surrendered himself at the Union Army command post in Philippi on July 3, 1862. Realizing that he would be liable to arrest he perhaps hoped that his medical discharge certificate would allow him to remain on his farm with his wife and children. This was not to be. On orders of the Union Provost Marshall Major JOSEPH DARR Jr. he was arrested on charges of “Belonged to the 31st Virginia Infantry”, and was taken to the Athenaeum Prison in Wheeling and then transferred to the Union POW facility at Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio.
By this time of the Civil War it was Union Army policy to arrest all individuals suspected of Confederate activity unless they made an oath of loyalty to the Union and posted financial bond. During the years of the Civil War families and neighbors were divided by their different loyalties creating a legacy of mutual distrust and hatred that would last many years.
There is no surviving evidence as to Jacob’s physical and emotional health at the time of his incarceration. Certainly it must have been devastating to be again separated from his home and family after a reunion of less than two weeks. It is clear that he chose not to sign the loyalty oath to the Union as a means of securing his freedom from imprisonment.
Fortunately for Jacob his stay at Camp Chase was to be short. On July 22, 1862 Union and Confederate governments signed the Dix-Hill Prisoner of War Exchange Cartel. Under its provisions all prisoners of war were to be exchanged at either Aiken’s Landing, Virginia, near Richmond, or Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Jacob and about 1000 other prisoners were paroled for exchange and left Camp Chase for Vicksburg on August 25, 1862. The POW’s traveled first by rail to Cairo, Illinois, and on August 28th, approximately 3,900 Confederate prisoners from Camp Chase and other Union prisons were loaded onto four paddle wheel steamers for their journey down the Mississippi River.
On September 11, 1862 the Union flotilla reached Young’s Point, Louisiana, 12 miles north of Vicksburg, the point designated for prisoner exchange. US National Archives (NARA, Record Group 109) sources state that Jacob and 1020 others were duly exchanged aboard the steamer John H. Done.
Mississippi State Archives (Jackson, MS.) tell us that the Confederate exchanged prisoners were then taken by rail to a camp near the fairgrounds in Jackson, Mississippi to be held awaiting completion of the formal exchange process. There were over 300 western Virginians held in Jackson.
In a letter (Official Records of the War of Rebellion, Series II-Vol. IV) written to the Confederate Secretary of War in Richmond, DAVID BOSTON STEWART (later Major 20th Virginia Cavalry, C.S.A.) of Monongalia County wrote; “ Sir: Having just returned from Camp Chase, via Vicksburg, Miss. Allow me to call your attention to a few facts regarding the Virginia prisoners who were released the same time as myself….These troops principally from the mountains of Virginia, are exposed to all the diseases incident to that climate at this season of year. Great numbers of them were already sick when I left and if anything could be done to alleviate their condition it certainly could do the service no harm.”
I have been unable to find any other evidence concerning Jacob’s life after his arrival in Mississippi. An exhaustive search of many years of primary and secondary sources, archives, family records and every other conceivable resource has revealed nothing. There exists a strong Bennett family oral history tradition that Jacob died of disease, but no other verifiable evidence is available.
C.S.A. service records for members of the 31st Virginia Infantry show that some of these POW’s had returned to their regiment at Port Royal, Virginia by October 1862, while others were admitted to Richmond military hospitals. The C.S.A. service record of Sgt. JOHN J. VINCENT, Co. A, 31st Virginia, shows he died of typhoid fever in Knoxville, TN. while in transit from Vicksburg, indicating the route taken by these soldiers to the Richmond area.
Research into Confederate records is always vexing and the unsettled social and political conditions within the new state of West Virginia following the Civil War make research difficult at best.
As Jacob’s memorial gravestone states, “Jacob never returned home and is buried in a grave unknown except to God”. The final fate of Jacob S. Bennett will very likely remain a mystery. Jacob was a man who probably never traveled far beyond Barbour County, yet his final journey from which he never returned, took him hundreds of miles to places he had never dreamed of experiencing. It is my hope that he died among caring friends. Yet, so many Confederate soldiers perished along a lonely roadside with no other person to witness their passing or hear their last words of love for their families.
So, my family mystery remains unsolved. Yet, in my lifetime, even within the last 20 years, the answer was available to me from my living relatives.
I will end with a plea for the great importance of recording the history and knowledge of those family members still among us. The knowledge they possess of those gone before often passes with them and will be lost to those of us who struggle to unravel the mysteries of our ancestors.
The children of JACOB & ELIZABETH GAINER BENNETT (all births, marriages & deaths in what is now Barbour County unless otherwise stated. Barbour & Randolph County Vital records and ‘Barbour Democrat’ & ‘Philippi Republican’ newspapers)
ELIZABETH GAINER BENNETT, (born c. 1815) remained on Jacob’s farm on Laurel Creek adjacent to the homes of several of her children until her death on February 1, 1884. Elizabeth is buried in the Crossroads Cemetery, Tacy, Barbour County.
(1) RACHEL BENNETT, born c. 1835; married 13 August 1854 VALENTINE BLACK POLING. Rachel died 14 January 1914 Philippi; buried Crossroads Cemetery, Tacy.
(2) EMERY B. BENNETT, b. c. 1837; married 26 January 1860 REBECCA STURM. Emery died 31 October 1922.
(3) JONATHAN P. BENNETT, b. 27 February 1839. Private, Co. K, 31st Virginia Infantry. Captured 23 September 1864 following Battle of Fisher’s Hill. POW, Point Lookout Prison, Maryland until paroled 8 May 1865. Married MALISA E. STURM 6 November 1866. Jonathan died 22 March 1928; buried Crossroads Cemetery, Tacy.
(4) ASA O. BENNETT, b.c. 1841; married 11 June 1865 LETTICE ANN POLING. Asa died 20 September 1919; buried Crossroads Cemetery, Tacy.
(5) MARY J. BENNETT, b.c. 1847; married 16 February 1865 FRANCIS M. POLING. ; Married 2nd MORGAN WEAVER.
(6) JOHN HOFFMAN BENNETT, b. 26 January 1849, married 9 May 1876 JERUSHA ICIPHINE TRIMBLE, (d/o ANDREW & BARBARA MARPLE TRIMBLE) on Ford Creek near Philippi. John moved from the Philippi area to Grafton, Taylor Co., where he was employed by the B&O Railroad until his death 26 December 1919 in Grafton; buried Bluemont Cemetery, Grafton. Jerusha’s brother, Alvin Draper Trimble, (born Barbour Co., 29 August 1845, died 05 July 1923) served the Confederacy as a Private, Co. D, 20th Virginia Cavalry. Draper is buried in the Criss Church Cemetery, Barbour Co.
(7) NELSON S. BENNETT, b.c. 1851; married ELLA F. SMITH. Nelson died near Davis, Tucker County.
(8) GREENBERRY C. BENNETT, b. 24 November 1853; married 2 December 1873 LOVERNA POLING.
(9) MINERVA CATHERINE BENNETT, b. 27 May 1856; married 1 January 1878 ISAAC REESE MATTHEWS.
(10) DAVID HESS BENNETT, b. 10 August 1859; married 12 September 1882 SARAH ELLEN MOATS. David died 5 December 1932; buried Masonic Cemetery, Philippi.