Round Table member John Hart lives in San Rafael, California. Since John is not able to attend our monthly dinner meetings, Dave Pattison e-mailed John and asked him to tell us about himself and why he decided to join our Round Table. John was gracious enough to e-mail Dave the following story regarding his great-grandfather, John Benton Hart:
A century-old manuscript led this California boy to Kansas City and to membership in the two regional Civil War Round Tables.
On an autumn day in 1946, my father, Lawrence Hart, received a huge box of papers containing, with much else, the Civil War memoirs of my greatgrandfather, John Benton Hart. A child of divorce and family estrangement, my dad knew little of his paternal family history. Through the manuscripts, sent him upon my grandfather’s death, he learned a great deal.
The Hart family had arrived in Kansas from the East in the 1850s, part of the influx of Northerners determined to make Kansas Territory a free state. In 1862, young John Benton Hart, of Grasshopper Falls, enrolled in the unit that would become the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry.
John Benton Hart was wounded in the Battle of Prairie Grove later that year. In the fall of 1864, as the invading army under General Sterling Price approached the border, his regiment hurried east to meet the vastly superior Confederate force, fighting in the engagements known as the Second Battle of Lexington, the Battle of the Little Blue, and the Battle of the Big Blue. After the culminating Battle of Westport. Hart’s company took part in the pursuit of Price toward Arkansas (but missed the Battle of Mine Creek).
Many cavalrymen shared these experiences; John Benton Hart was one of the few to record them. Around 1920, approaching the end of his life in western Colorado, he dictated his memories of the Civil War, and his later adventures in the Rockies, to his son Harry, my grandfather. On Harry’s death, unsure what else to do with it, the family sent the trove on to California.
Enthralled with what he found there, my father made numerous attempts to bring these significant and charming memoirs to publication, but never quite connected. In 2013, as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Westport loomed, it was my turn to take up the long-dormant project.
The obvious first step was to visit the scenes of the action and seek out the people who knew this history best. Soon I was in touch with Daniel Smith of the Kansas City round table, Mike Calvert of the Western Missouri round table, and Darryl Levings of the Kansas City Star. On a first visit I tramped the battlegrounds with these gentlemen and also sought the advice of Eli Paul at the Kansas City Public Library, Virgil Dean of the Kansas Historical Society, and others. In 2014, excerpts of the memoir appeared in the Star and in the journal Kansas History. I was on hand for the Battle of Westport celebration, of course, and had some trouble deciding which team to root for in that fall’s World Series [between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals].
Finally, in 2019, the University of Oklahoma Press brought out Bluecoat and Pioneer: The Recollections of John Benton Hart, 1864-1868.
John Monnett, son of Battle of Westport historian Howard Monnett, was kind enough to call it “perhaps the most important original memoir of an enlisted soldier and Plains frontiersman.”
I love the way that a box of almost-forgotten papers led me to reconnect with roots in the Midwest.
Here is John Benton Hart's report on a night-time skirmish west of Lexington MO:
It was almost as bright as day, when three companies emptied their rifles into that lane full of horses and men. Then the order came to empty revolvers, "Shoot low in there, every man," which we did. The Johnnies stopped crowding, they were down, horses and men. Everything in a bunch and the lane was blocked. It looked pretty hard from what we could see by the short glimpse of flash light from our guns, but it had to be done. Everybody had a chance after that to draw a long breath. Never again did they crowd us so fast and furious as that, especially after night.