Erastus B Soper's History of Company D, 12th Iowa Infantry 1861-1866

From "Iowa Journal of History"; April 1958

[Note that Erastus B. Soper was later a lawyer and banker of Emmetsburg, Palo Alto Co, Iowa]

Camp Benton

Camp Benton, established by General Fremont and named after his illustrious father-in-law [Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton], was a camp of instruction for volunteers from the western States, and was located just without the suburbs of the City of St. Louis, and some five miles back from the river. It comprised some 1,200 acres, a portion of which was the well known St. Louis Fair Ground. It was enclosed by a high, tight board fence, and the grounds had been graded and leveled, and quarters for all arms of the service erected. In the center, occupying probably one third of the space, was the drill and parade grounds, bordering this was the quarters for the Line Officers and men; each barracks being partitioned through the center and constructed to accommodate four companies, or tow companies in each half, with two rooms at each end for Company Officers. Each half of the barrack was simply one large room with three tiers of bunks, head to the wall, on each side except a hallway through the middle, and an immense soft coal stove in the center, where the space between the bunks intersected the passageway through the room, the front door leading to the drill ground and the rear to the mess and cook room. Back of the cook and mess room was a labyrinth of stables, suttler shops, restaurants, &c. There were between two and three miles of these barracks and when the 12th Iowa arrived all were occupied by some twenty-five or thirty regiments of infantry numbering nearly 40,000 men. The camp was well sewered, and provided with plenty of water from the waterworks, and lighted with gas.

On the evening of the 29th of Nov., 1861, the regiment marched into Camp Benton, the entrance being through the old fair ground gate. After entering the gate, the buildings of the fair ground proper- the amphi-theater, aquarium, green houses, officers quarters of the fair association &c., were passed. It was dark and their faded splendors were not noted. Passing beyond the fair-ground buildings, among which were many ornamental trees, the barracks were reached and the Regiment was assigned quarters in the vacant stables of a Cavalry Barracks, all the barracks being full. All of the members of the Company accompanied the Regiment to St. Louis and all arrived in good health and spirits, 98 strong. Supper was speedily dispatched, and with straw and blankets, a fairly comfortable night was passed. With early morning the enterprising and restless ones reconnoitered the Camp, and the day was occupied in putting the quarters in the best order practicable, and in visiting and being visited by friends and relations in the other Iowa Regiments then in camp. The weather was fine for the season and the usual routine of a soldiers life in a camp of instruction was taken up and pursued.

We remained only one week in the vacant cavalry barn. On Dec. 6th we moved to the barracks assigned the Regiment, and on the following day exchanged quarters with the 2nd Mich. Cavalry. In these quarters, Companies D and F occupying the same room, we remained during the remainder of our stay in Camp Benton. At the time of our arrival the Department of the Missouri was commanded by Maj. Gen. [Henry W.] Halleck, the Camp by Brig. Gen. W.T. Sherman, then commonly called "crazy Sherman," on account of his supposed exaggerated ideas of the magnitude of the rebellion.

On Dec. 8th the regiment was furnished with muskets of an ancient pattern, but despite promises and assurances that they were only for use in learning to drill with the manual of arms, the men refused, after considerable discussion among themselves, to keep them and so stacked them. Another regiment was quite ready to take them, so the 12th Iowa remained without arms. It must be remembered that at this period of our late war men were far plentier than muskets. During the first year of the war many of the regiments were armed with Belgian and Australian muskets, and condemned ones at that.

At the time of our arrival measles, mumps and small pox were prevalent in camp. Many of the Company had never encountered either of these diseases. Vaccination proved a complete preventative for the latter, and many a boy today carries the scar on his left arm made by the working of the virus in the prick of the surgeon's knife, and retains a well defined recollection of the lameness of that arm while it "worked." But there was no vaccination for measles and mumps; one by one the boys did not turn out at roll call; and one by one, wrapped in blankets, the ambulance carried them to the hospitals in the City. Captain Stibbs was untiring in his efforts to have the boys well taken care of, but the boys did not, and could not, have such care in a barracks with 200 men in one room, as is essential with a disease like the measles. Pneumonia set in frequently, and those who survived were many of them rendered unfit for military duty. Those not attacked with either measles or mumps enjoyed good health; but the routine of barrack life grew tedious and uninteresting; and this was in no manner relieved by snoe followed by rain and freezing and thawing about the holidays, which made the barracks very disagreeable.

On Dec. 27th the Regiment was marched to St. Louis Arsenal, in the lower part of the City, and were there supplied with arms and accoutrements. The march of eight miles to the arsenal and the return gave the boys a taste of what to expect on a march. As to the character of these arms, we quote from the report of Captain Stibbs to Col. Woods:

        Received yesterday at St. Louis Arsenal, Fifty-one (51) improved rifled muskets made by Adam in the
        year one, and changed by Noah a few days after the flood from flint locks to percussion. Cleaned and
        rifled at St. Louis Arsenal, Anno Domino, 1861.
                                                J.H. Stibbs, Captain, Co. D

With them, however, the boys made rapid progress in learning the manual of arms and could soon go through the evolutions with the precision of armed soldiers.

Christmas and New Years came and went; no Christmas dinner, and no New Years gift; the boys never thought so much of their homes before, and were very sure they had never half appreciated them while enjoying them. On Christmas day we had for breakfast bakers bread, fried salt pork, and coffee. For dinner bakers bread, boiled fresh beef, boiled rice and coffee. Supper, bakers bread, fried salt pork and coffee. The above is a fair sample of our fare while we remained at Camp Benton. There was little variation; sometimes we had the beans for dinner and rice for supper, and perhaps once a week a mess of potatoes, and now and then a piece of raw onion.

There were several very good restaurants in the Camp; and now then when a boy received an enclosure from home, and especially after pay day, the became a favorite resort.