Frank T. Bennett, born on August 4, 1834, was the third of four children born to Daniel R. Bennett and Ann Taylor. The Bennetts lived outside Philadelphia, where Daniel served as president of the Little Schuylkill Railroad. Frank enlisted in the 55th Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was formed during the summer of 1861, and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel. After several months of drill and training, the regiment headed south in December of that year. It then became responsible for guarding several islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.
Frank Bennett and several of his men were captured on March 16, 1862, on Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia. Frank was subsequently transported to Charleston Jail and on May 2 was moved to a prison in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was held for several months. In early October Frank was taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, where he was paroled on October 10, 1862. During his imprisonment the regiment moved to mainland South Carolina, where it remained for quite some time.
Frank's brother, Capt. Horace Bennett, was killed in October 1862 while the 55th was attempting to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. The unit spent most of 1863 in Beaufort, South Carolina, then moved to Virginia in 1864, where it took part in the Wilderness Campaign. Frank was captured again in 1863 or 1864 and returned to Libby Prison. He mustered out in December 1864.
Frank Bennett married Englishwoman Eliza Langworthy, probably before the start of the war. The couple had at least two children, Richard and Alice. Eliza died around 1869 and Frank died in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1871.
Scope and content
Frank Bennett's diary was written on the pages of a softbound novel entitled Lotus-Eating: A Summer Book. This book was probably the only paper to which Bennett had access during his imprisonment. Entries, occasionally written in pencil and sometimes written in between the lines of the novel, were usually well written and sometimes rather eloquent. Lines of poetry can be found throughout Bennett's writings. The front of the volume has a Bureau of Pensions sticker on it, perhaps indicating that a descendant had submitted the diary in order to claim benefits.
Bennett and several men in his unit were captured on Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia, on March 16, 1862. He began his diary on March 18 with a description of how and why he was captured. Bennett placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of his unit's pickets, who had not kept a proper watch. He and his men were therefore caught "like mice in a trap." Bennett also commented on the kindness of his captors, one of whom shared food from his haversack with the prisoners. Bennett and the other prisoners were escorted to Charleston Jail, where they arrived on March 18.
Bennett wrote each day until March 23, then stopped writing until May 1. He described his first few days in Charleston Jail as not unpleasant. He was in better spirits than some of his comrades, although he acknowledged that "a glass of whiskey kindly given us by Captain Sage may have had much to do with this." Although he was aghast at "this narrow cell, the nail studded door doubly locked and padlocked upon us and the strangely barred windows," he was hopeful that the situation would be temporary and was generally impressed with the kind treatment he received upon arrival.
When Bennett again picked up his diary on May 1, he revealed that the five weeks since his last entry had not been as pleasant as the first few days. The brutal monotony of prison life had dampened his spirits, and he found that the visits of Sheriff Dingle, "a gentlemanly man" who visited on Sundays, were a unique pleasure. Bennett reflected that the half hour spent with Sheriff Dingle passed more quickly than a minute on other days. Prison life was a never-ending cycle: "eat, sleep and smoke, then sleep, smoke and eat."
Bennett got a change in scenery when he was transported to a Columbia jail on May 2. Although he had found Charleston Jail unpleasant due to the "Negroes and scum of the white population" that had inhabited it, he found the Columbia jail even less pleasant. The guards in Columbia were not as accommodating, and no one smuggled newspapers to him as they had sometimes done before. Bennett continued writing regularly in his diary, usually remarking upon his ceaseless boredom: "How long would it take to make a mere animal of me? There can be naught of the godlike inside the iron bars of a prison." Bennett felt increasingly disconsolate about his situation and his hopes of being released dwindled with each day. As his and the health of his men declined, he wondered if the government had forgotten about them, or if anyone cared about the prisoners' fate. He occasionally mentioned his wife Lizzie and his children, doubting that they received any letters that he sent and wishing he could see them.
It seems that Bennett tried to escape the monotony of prison life through his diary. He described and commented upon the conscription act, how presses on both sides grossly misrepresented the war, and spoke of the handsomeness of the southern ladies. He also pondered the alleged evils of slavery, stating that many white workers were in worse situations than the slaves, and that from what he had seen thus far in the South, slaves were not ill-treated or abused the way Northerners commonly thought them to be. In some passages Bennett even expressed some sympathy for the southern cause, declaring, "If we win this war and ever succeed in subjugating the South - their farewell to democracy and liberty - we will have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage." Statements like this may have reflected Bennett's diminishing faith in his own government, which did not seem to make progress in obtaining his release. Other passages condemn the South, and Bennett often complained about the poor conditions in the jail and the nastiness of several of the guards who watched them. At one point he stated, "The much boasted chivalry of the south does not certainly show itself in the treatment of these unfortunates who, by the fate of war became inmates of its prisons."
After writing sporadically throughout the summer of 1862, Bennett wrote a handful of entries in September, then picked up his pen in early October and described his delight at learning that he was to be released. On October 7 he and several other prisoners left for Richmond, Virginia. He arrived at Libby Prison on October 10 and was paroled that afternoon. He left early the next morning, and his last entry ends with the words "Home again!"
Also included in Bennett's diary are several newspaper clippings, including Bennett's obituary and an article entitled "Christmas in Captivity," which describes a Christmas Eve minstrel show performed by inmates in Libby Prison in 1863.
The collection is open for research.
Gift of Florence E. Taylor in memory of Alice H. Bennett, 1942.
Cite as: [Indicate cited page(s) here], Frank T. Bennett Diary (Collection 3041), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Processed by Leslie Hunt, 2003. Processing made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A manuscript copy of this diary is available at Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
Frank T. Bennett Papers, Duke University, Durham, N.C. [This collection includes a transcript of Bennett's prison diary, as well as a chronology of the Frank and Horace Bennett's service during the Civil War.]
Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869-71.
Bennett Family of Pennsylvania and England. Family Collections (FC Be), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.