​                                                           The Teacher, the Preacher and the Prussian:
                                                     Officers of the 56th United States Colored Infantry 

   With few exceptions, officers of the United States Colored Troops were white. The 56th United States Colored Infantry was no different. Most of its officers served previously in cavalry and infantry regiments from Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri. The senior officers of the 3d Arkansas African Descent (56th United States Colored Infantry) were friends or colleagues of the departmental commander, the officers supervising the recruitment of black troops and influential politicians. Many of its junior officers didn’t just previously serve in the same regiment as their superior officers, they were in the same company and from the same hometown. There were three sets of brothers and two sets of fathers and sons. The oldest officer was 47, the youngest 15.[1]

   The first colonel was John Guylee, a 47 year old Methodist minister from Abingdon, Iowa (a few miles northeast of Ottumwa). In 1861, Guylee helped raise the “Sears Rangers,” which became Company A, 4th Iowa Cavalry. Three other officers of the 56th USCI were members of the same company – Thomas J. Abel, Daniel B. Baker, and Otho R. Sensibaugh. Guylee’s only experience leading men in the field prior to be appointed colonel in the USCI was as a lieutenant in charge of an escort for the paymaster taking the payroll to General Samuel Curtis’s army as it lay on the battlefield of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Shortly afterwards, Guylee became an aide-de-camp to General Curtis. The 4th Iowa, along with Curtis’s army marched from Pea Ridge to Helena, Arkansas in the summer of 1862. Guylee’s relationship with Curtis no doubt played a significant part in his appointment as commander of the first regiment of former slaves to be recruited in Missouri. Age and Helena’s weather got the better of Colonel Guylee. He resigned on March 16, 1864.[2]

   Guylee’s Lieutenant Colonel and successor as commander of the 56th USCI was William S. Brooks, a 24-year old teacher from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (about 50 miles east of Abingdon). Brooks fought at Wilson’s Creek as a private in the 1st Iowa Infantry. He was elected Second Lieutenant of Company D, 19th Iowa Infantry. Brooks distinguished himself at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas on December 7, 1862, when, despite a severe gunshot wound to his left thigh, he grabbed the regimental colors after the color sergeant was shot and saved them from being captured by the enemy.[3]

   Brooks and his family were well-connected politically and militarily. He was personal friends with Brigadier General William A. Pile, entrusted with supervising the recruitment of colored troops in Missouri, and Brigadier General Clinton B. Fisk, commander of the District of Southeast Missouri and later the District of North Missouri. Both Pile and Fisk had previously been colonels commanding the 33d Missouri Infantry, in which Brooks’ brother Joseph (discussed below) had served. William offered Generals Eugene A. Carr, William Vandever, and Francis J. Herron as references when seeking an appointment. The Brooks family was also well acquainted with Iowa Senator James Harlan, a fellow resident of Mt.Pleasant.

   Brooks no doubt obtained his position as Lieutenant Colonel at partly as a result of the influence of his powerful contacts. And he intended to use their help to further his career, for Brooks was, in addition to being quite brave, quite ambitious. In June 1864, Brooks persuaded all the field officers and detachment commanders at Helena, as well as the Treasury Department representative in charge of leasing plantations, to write a letter to Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas – the officer in charge of recruiting former slaves from the Mississippi Valley – proposing to raise up to four regiments of colored troops to be recruited (and impliedly, commanded) by Brooks. Brooks had, they wrote, the capacity, education and military experience that was “well adapted” to the organization of such troops.

   Brooks submitted this letter, along with his own moderately boasting letter addressed to General Thomas, to the local commander, Brigadier General Napoleon B. Buford, to be forwarded through normal military channels. But Buford turned Brooks down and refused to send the application to Thomas, even with an endorsement of disapproval. That did not deter the Brooks family. William sent the letters to Thomas anyway, complaining of Buford’s action, “taking the liberty (which I believe admissible in the circumstances) of forwarding to you direct.” In the meantime, brother Joseph wrote Senator Harlan apprising him of the situation, who in turn inquired of the War Department as to its position, noting that Brooks told him that Buford “bitterly opposed” the proposed measure. The War Department forwarded Senator Harlan’s letter to Thomas for comment. Thomas blasted Brooks’ scheme and the accusation (apparently made by Joseph Brooks) that Buford was a “copperhead.” Thomas said recruiting was going forward in Arkansas quite well “under a regularly organized system.” He characterized Brooks’ plan as “a mere effort to obtain the appointment of a Brig[adier] Gen’l.”[4]

   The effort came to naught when William Brooks was killed at the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry on July 26, 1864. But the bitterness between the Brooks family and General Buford (despite the praise in the latter’s report of the battle) did not subside with William’s death.

   Joseph Brooks, Sr. was born in Ohio in 1821. He was educated at what is now DePauw University and became ordained as a Methodist Episcopal minister at the age of 18. He rode the circuit for a few years in Iowa. After a stint at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Joseph moved to St. Louis. There he was editor of an antislavery newspaper. He became wealthy speculating in cotton but lost most of his money when the Civil War began. Joseph was Chaplain of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery, the 11th Missouri Infantry, and the 33d Missouri Infantry before being appointed Chaplain of the 56th USCI. As mentioned in the second installment of this series, Joseph performed admirably at the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry.[5]

   Joseph continued his dispute with General Buford at Helena after the battle. An anonymous letter from a “Loyalist” appeared in the Missouri Gazette headlined “Alleged Imbecile Administration.” The writer criticized Buford for failing to attack Dobbins and Shelby’s men when their force was small and sending out only 350 men to attack when the Confederates had amassed 2,500 men. And these Union troops (his brother’s regiment) were ones Buford had called “ungovernable, would not stand” and ones “he did not dare advance on the enemy.” The author continued: “Had they not stood with the bravery of desperation, the folly that thrust them forward would have sacrificed the last man.” He concluded: “Timidity, rascality and inefficiency generally have characterized the administration of this District for ten dreadful months.”

   Buford suspected that the author was Chaplain Brooks. When Brooks submitted his resignation, instead of simply accepting it and getting rid of a nuisance he had quarreled with for a year, Buford wrote a three-page endorsement in which he vented his built-up frustration.

   In his letter of resignation, Brooks complained that his pay had been reduced while his expenses increased. Buford pointed out that Brooks’ pay as Chaplain of the 56th USCI was the same as his pay while Chaplain of the 33d Missouri Infantry. He accused Brooks, his late brother, Major Henry Wells and regimental quartermaster Abraham Fulkerson of a conspiracy to do him injury by writing letters to members of Congress with false information. In addition to the Missouri Democrat letter, there was one with similar charges printed in the paper Brooks used to edit. Having laid out these allegations, Buford tried to claim the high road by asserting that he did not seek to court martial Brooks or his co-conspirators because the injury they sought to do was only personal. “I have no feeling in the matter,” Buford said, “and only intend to see that he does his duty while in the service.” Brooks was allowed to resign in January 1865.[6]

   But Joseph Brooks was hardly finished with the State of Arkansas. He leased an abandoned plantation near Helena and was able to save enough money to buy another one after the war. He became a strong advocate for seizing the land of former Confederates to parcel it out among former slaves. He campaigned for a constitution that would give blacks full civil rights, including the right to vote. Brooks was one of the leading spokesmen for the candidacy of Ulysses Grant for president in 1868. While on the campaign trail, he and Congressman James Hinds were ambushed. Hinds was killed but Brook survived.

   When the Arkansas Republican Party split into factions, Brooks became the leader of the so-called “Brindletails,” so named because his booming voice supposedly sounded like a brindletail bull. Brooks ran for governor in 1872 and lost. He disputed the results in a lawsuit that ended in a judgment in his favor in 1874. He demanded that his opponent, Elisha Baxter, leave the post in which he had been serving since his inauguration in 1873. When Baxter refused, Brooks’ supporters threw Baxter out of office by force. The ensuing “Brooks-Baxter War” continued for a month until President Grant stepped in and reluctantly restored Baxter to office. As a consolation prize, the President appointed Brooks Postmaster at Little Rock. Brooks died in 1877 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.[7]

   Like thousands of others, Brooks suffered greatly from the war. His brother was killed at the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry, his son Joseph Jr. – a lieutenant in the 56th USCI – died at the age of 23 from cholera contracted on the voyage home from Helena in 1866, and his nephew (also named Joseph Brooks), a lieutenant in the 33d Missouri Infantry, was killed at the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863.[8]

   There were other combat veterans among the first officers of the 56th USCI. Thomas Childs and Elliot Rogers were in the 14th Iowa Infantry. They fought at the Battle of Shiloh and were captured on April 6, 1862 at the “Hornet’s Nest along with more than 230 of their fellow soldiers of the regiment. Childs and Rogers were sent to a prison in Richmond and were exchanged in late 1862. John Robinson was a sergeant in the 2d Iowa – the regiment first commanded by Samuel Curtis (the victor at Pea Ridge in 1862 and Westport in 1864). He was severely wounded at Fort Donelson in February 1862. Aaron McMurray was a private in the 3d Missouri Cavalry. He was wounded in a battle at Mt. Zion Church in Boone County Missouri in December 1862 and fought at the Battle of Hartsville in January 1863. First Lieutenant Abraham Fulkerson, a lawyer from Jefferson City, Missouri, saw his combat during the Mexican War. He suffered a gunshot wound to his knee that still bothered him twenty years later.[9]  

   The saddest story is that of Second Lieutenant Drummond H. White. He first tried to enlist in the 37th Iowa Infantry – known as the Graybeards because its members were 45 or older (the oldest was 80). His father (age 48) was the regiment’s Chaplain. Drummond was rejected, perhaps because he tried to sign up when he was only 15. Somehow, he was appointed as a Second Lieutenant in Company C, 56th USCI the following year a month short of his 16th birthday. He was described by one of his fellow officers as a promising young man “whose worst fault was reckless daring.” On the night of April 17, 1864 Drummond set out to check on the pickets posted at Fort Pinney on Friars Point, a few miles south of Helena. Under instructions not to halt but to shoot anyone who tried to enter camp, Drummond’s own men mistook him for the enemy and shot him in the stomach. He lingered for a week in great pain and died April 24. Drummond was not yet 17 years old.[10]

   Two friends who immigrated to the United States from Germany were officers in the regiment. John (Johann) Christian Mohrstadt came to the America from Erfurt in 1854 at age 20. He met Francis (Franz) Paul Becker in St. Louis. Both entered the 1st Battalion, United States Reserve Corps Cavalry in 1861 as lieutenants. When that organization disbanded, they joined the 5th Missouri Cavalry. Mohrstadt was a captain and Becker a lieutenant in another company. Mohrstadt must have been a prickly commander, for he was dismissed from the 5th Cavalry for “mutinous conduct and disaffection of a majority of the members of the company.” Mohrstadt was appointed Captain of Company I and Becker Captain of Company G of the 56th USCI. Becker was well-acquainted with the Adjutant General at St. Louis. Perhaps this helped him gain the position with the regiment and get his friend appointed despite his troubles in his prior command.[11]

   Mohrstadt’s ability to irritate others did not dissipate with his joining the 56th. He made two trips to Hannibal in September 1863, returning with 110 men for the regiment and leaving behind several angry loyal slaveholders. One wrote General Schofield in St. Louis, pointing out that on the first trip the local commander at Hannibal, General Odon Guitar, had stopped Mohrstadt’s recruiting. Mohrstadt then returned with “unauthorized & suspicious papers” when he was again stopped. (Guitar arrested other officers of the 56th who were attempting to recruit in his district.) The owner complained that Mohrstadt told his slaves that if they did not come willingly, he would send soldiers to force them to go because “I fight for freedom.” The slaveholder went on to say: “If they must have . . . negro soldiers to disgrace our uniform & desecrate our flag, and I think they do, let them recruit them down in Dixie & not in MO, a legal state.”[12]

   Mohrstadt’s aggressiveness must have paid off, however, as a leader of African American soldiers. An inspection of the 56th USCI in August 1864 concluded that, while the men were good material, many of the officers were lax. The exception was Captain Mohrstadt, whose company was the only one in good order.[13]

   Becker was discharged in August 1864 due to poor health. Mohrstadt served until 1865. He returned to St. Louis and later moved to Danville, Missouri. He was a census taker for the 1890 Union Veteran’s Census in Montgomery County Missouri. He moved back to St. Louis in 1901. He and his wife Justine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in May 1907. One week later, Mohrstadt, suffering from locomotor ataxia, retrieved his revolver, put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 72. [14]

   By far the most important German officer who served with the 56thUSCI was Charles (Karl) Bentzoni. Bentzoni was born in Danzig, West Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). He claimed his father was a “gentleman,” and he have been a Prussian nobleman or of the Polish upper class. Bentzoni’s father participated in the 1848 uprisings. Charles served in the Prussian army and the British army in the Crimean War. He came to the United States in 1857. He enlisted in the 1st Infantry, where he saw duty against Indians operating from Fort Leavenworth. By 1861, Bentzoni rose to the rank of sergeant and fought under Captain Joseph B. Plummer at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. He joined the newly organized 11th Infantry and rose to the rank of First Sergeant. He was a harsh taskmaster who “whipped the new recruits into shape.” Steven E. Clay described Bentzoni and his fellow sergeants as “merciless in their labors to impose ‘Old Army’ ideals of discipline, drill, and dress on the 11th Infantry.  They set the standard for recruits to live up to and their efforts helped ensure that the regiment would weather all the bloody battles it would endure over the next four years.”[15]

   With the recommendation of several officers of the 11th Infantry, Bentzoni was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. He served briefly in the field and spent the next two years training troops at Fort Independence, Boston. In the spring of 1864, Bentzoni was appointed acting quartermaster and adjutant for the 11th Infantry during the Overland Campaign. He saw action at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. He fought with distinction, receiving a brevet captaincy for gallantry at the Battle of Peebles Farm (or Poplar Springs Church) as part of the Siege of Petersburg.[16]

   Bentzoni was commissioned as Colonel of the 56th USCI and took command in January 1865. The drillmaster no doubt imposed a new standard of discipline on a regiment that had been criticized for its laxity. Colonel Bentzoni’s role in building an orphanage outside Helena to accommodate black children whose parents were sold away, killed or otherwise disappeared was told in part three of this series.

   With the end of active combat in the war, several officers resigned. Most went with the thanks of the service, but there were a few that Colonel Bentzoni sought to bring to justice for stealing money from the men in their companies. Brothers William and David Kretsinger served in the 10th Kansas Infantry before being appointed Lieutenants in Companies I and G, respectively. In the 10th Kansas they fought in several skirmishes and the Battles of First Newtonia, Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. David was slightly wounded in the face at the latter action. William was commended by Major Reed for his bravery at the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry.


                                William Kretsinger                                            David Krestsinger

Despite their sterling combat records, the Kretsinger brothers got into trouble as they left the 56th USCI. After their departure, Bentzoni discovered both had taken money from the men in their command. David owed $75.00 he supposedly “borrowed” from Sergeant Alex Armstrong. William’s defalcations were even more serious. Bentzoni discovered he had taken $275.00 of his men’s money. The final pay for both officers was suspended until they made good on what they stole. William wrote a letter to Bentzoni pleading for him to provide the necessary certificate to the War Department authorizing his pay. He claimed had “endeavored to act in good faith towards these soldiers,” without explaining why he had taken their money. He said it was “utterly beyond my power to pay the men until I get my pay” – this at time when he was safely home in Kansas and his men still in Helena. “Please do not consider me a villain, Colonel,” he wrote, “and act as the cause of humanity would dictate.” Bentzoni was unsympathetic. He suggested that Kretsinger send the money by express to Helena. Then, and only then, would he provide the documents required to release his pay. Whether either or both Kretsingers resolved their debts is not reflected in the military records.[17]

   A third officer who took advantage of his men was Captain Alden Patten, Company A. He had been a wagonmaster for General Samuel Curtis before joining the regiment. Bentzoni arrested Patten on April 28, 1865 – the same day Patten wrote his first letter of resignation. Apparently, he was released from arrest, for he submitted a second letter of resignation May 15 and was allowed to leave. By June 2, Bentzoni learned that Patten had absconded not only with $100.00 of his company’s accounts, but also $355.00 of his men’s personal funds. He asked St. Louis authorities to detain Patten. Unfortunately, he had already left town, supposedly heading the Wheeling, West Virginia before traveling on to California. Bentzoni asked the army military police in Wheeling to arrest Patten. Again, the military records do not disclose whether he was ever apprehended.[18]

   After he was mustered out of the 56th USCI, Bentzoni requested that he be reassigned to a Regular Army unit. He was sent to the 29th Infantry, which had been created from the 3d Battalion of his old regiment, the 11th Infantry. Subsequently, Bentzoni (now in the Regular Army rank of Captain) was assigned to the 40th Infantry, one of the new black regiments authorized by Congress in 1866. Bentzoni transferred to the 25th Infantry Regiment, another black unit, when the army reorganized in 1869. He completed the next 25 years in the 25th Infantry, stationed in Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota and California. Bentzoni was the only German-speaking officer of the United States Colored Troops to spend the rest of his career serving with black units.[19]



                                                               Charles Bentzoni and Gertrude von Slutterbach

After his retirement in 1894, Bentzoni moved to Los Angeles. He married Countess Gertrude von Slutterbach. They embarked on a much-publicized trip around the world in 1897. Upon their return in 1900, the couple lived in Los Angeles, where they frequently appeared in the city’s society columns until his death in 1907.[20]  


[1] Only about 100 of the 7,122 officers of the United States Colored Troops were black. All receive their commissions under unusual circumstances. Most of the line officers were free blacks in New Orleans serving in an already established Louisiana militia unit which General Benjamin Butler incorporated into the Corps D’Afrique. They were removed by Butler’s successor. Senator (and General) James H. Lane appointed black officers for the regiments he raised in Kansas. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew sought permission to appoint a few black officers, but the War Department refused. The government, motivated as much by racial prejudice as anything else, took the position that blacks were not competent to lead men into battle. Moreover, it did not want a situation where white men might have to follow the orders of black officers. The War Department did allow a few African Americans to serve as chaplains or surgeons, who were not in the chain of command. Joseph T. Glatthar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Free Press, 1990), 176-182. Glatthar has a list of black officers in ibid., Appendix 3, 279-280. Sergeant Major Benjamin Ownsby from Mexico, Missouri was the highest ranking African American in the 56th USCI. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Belonging to the 56th through 138th infantry units, United States Colored Troops (USCT), 1864-1866. [hereafter cited as CMSR 56th USCI], National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 94, M1818, roll 25, available at Fold3.com.

[2] William Forse Scott, The Story of a Cavalry Regiment: The Career of the Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers, From Kansas to Georgia, 1861-1865 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 32; William Forse Scott, Roster of the Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers, 1861-1865 (New York: J. J. Little & Co., 1902), 25, 27; Guylee, CMSR 56th USCI.

[3] Report of the Adjutant General [Iowa], vol. 1 (Des Moines: F. W. Palmer, State Printer, 1863), 19; J. Irvine Dungan, History of the Nineteenth Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry (Davenport: Lush & Griggs, 1865), 19, 57; William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 171.

[4] The letters are in the file of William S. Brooks, CMSR 56th USCI.

[5] http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1602.

[6] Joseph Brooks, Sr., CMSR 56th USCI.

[7] http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1602.

[8] Joseph Brooks, CMSR 33d Missouri Infantry, roll 628.

[9] Thomas Childs, Elliot Rogers, John Robinson, and Aaron McMurray, CMSR 56th USCI. For the prior service of Childs and Rogers, see Report of the Adjutant General [Iowa], vol. 2, 790, 834; for the prior service of John Robinson, see ibid., vol. 1, 60. McMurray described his prior service in detail in a letter appearing in his Compiled Military Service Record defending his conduct against charges that he failed to attack Confederate guerrillas when the opportunity offered – a charge he strongly denied. He nevertheless resigned from the service when it became apparent that Colonel Brooks would not support him. After the war McMurray was a respected attorney in Quincy, Illinois.

[10] Drummond H. White, CMSR 56th USCI; Report of the Adjutant General [Iowa], vol. 5, 830; Letter, Thomas H. Childs to Annie [Anna Billingsley Childs], April 23, 1864 at http://iagenweb.org/civilwar/regiment/infantry/14th/childsth.html.

[11] Martin W. Őfele, German-Speaking Officers in the U. S. Colored Troops, 1863-1867 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 81, 98; John Mohrstadt and Francis Becker, CMSR 1st Battalion, U S. Reserve Cavalry, 5th Missouri Cavalry and 56th USCI. Like many Germans, Becker and Mohrstadt Anglicized their names upon joining the army.

[12] Mohrstadt, CMSR 56th USCI.

[13] Őfele, 149-150; Glatthar, 106.

[14] Becker and Mohrstadt, CMSR 56th USCI.  Persons with locomotor ataxia walk with the feet wide apart, slapping them clumsily to the floor with each step, and depend on visual cues to maintain balance. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/locomotor+ataxia/. The details of Mohrstadt's death are given in a St. Louis Globe article that may be found in http://www.appel-pointerfamily.com/uploads/1/2/7/6/12767086/john_mohrstadt_death_article.pdf.

[15] Őfele, 43, 191; http://www.americancivilwar101.com/units/usa-troops/usct-inf-reg-01.html#top; Notes on Charles Bentzoni, courtesy of Steven Clay.

[16] Letters Received by the Adjutant General’s Office, 1861, RG 94, M619, roll 7, at Fold3.com; 1st Lt. Charles Bentzoni, 16th Infantry Regiment Association, Officers of 11th Infantry Regiment, at http://16thinfassn.org/?page_id=3419; James B. Fry, The History and Legal Effect of Brevets (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1877), 316. Brevet or honorary ranks were awarded to officers for gallantry and for meritorious service because there was no system of medals to recognize outstanding conduct. Bentzoni also received the brevet ranks of major and lieutenant colonel for his wartime service effective March 30, 1865.

[17] Kansas Memory, Descriptive Roll, Tenth Regiment, Infantry, Kansas Civil War Volunteers http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/227679/page/5 (William) and http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/227679/page/8 (David); David and William Kretsinger, 56th USCI. Perhaps William Kretsinger did finally make good on his embezzlement of company funds, for he was among the officers invited by Bentzoni to a reunion at the Palmer House in Chicago on June 30, 1893. Those who attended were all from Iowa – Surgeon Daniel LaForce, Captain Thomas Abel, Captain Otho Sensibaugh, and Captain William Jacques. Kretsinger (then living in Texas) and several others sent their regrets. National Tribune, August 10, 1893.

[18] Alden Patten, CMSR 56th USCI.

[19] Őfele, 208.

[20] Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1907.

                  Charles Bentzoni

James W Erwin


         Joseph W. Brooks, Sr.

       William  S. Brooks