William P. Benton was the first person in Wayne County, Indiana to respond to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops after the firing on Fort Sumter. He quickly raised a company of volunteers–including L.K. Harris–and led them to Indianapolis to join the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
The nation had been creeping toward war for many months, if not years. The hard fought election of 1860 demonstrated the divisions in American society. The success of Abraham Lincoln deepened them.
Under the leadership of Governor Oliver P. Morton (who incidentally was from Wayne County), Indiana had been preparing for war. He surrounded himself with people who had no sympathy for the southern cause (even though Indiana was filled with transplanted southerners and had the potential to be divided in spirit). He created a state arsenal and put people to work making munitions in preparation for war. He kept his state in a position of readiness.
All over the nation, people were preparing. In Cambridge City, a small town not far from Richmond, a volunteer military company had been organized as early as the summer of 1857. Political groups like the “Know Nothings” and the “Wide Awakes” were gathering to talk about the issues at hand. Newspapers were reporting about the bloodshed and the struggle in Kansas (an article titled “Will Kansas be a Free State” ran in the Richmond Palladium as early as April 1857).
On Monday, April 15, the very day Lincoln called for 75,000 troops, Benton spoke to a crowd that had gathered in Richmond and told them he was ready to serve. A local newspaper described the scene:
On Monday evening upon very brief notice the citizens of Richmond gathered en masse at the corner of Main and Marion streets to give formal expression to their feelings in reference to the war news…Next followed Judge Benton, in some eloquent remarks possessing the ring of the true metal, during which he expressed his willingness to volunteer at his country’s call. His remarks were well received; more so perhaps from the fact that he had once given a practical exhibition of his patriotism by following Gen. Scott in his campaign to the city of Mexico.
On Wednesday there was an almost total cessation of business. The foundries and machine shops were deserted, and all Richmond was on the streets. The Band was out discoursing patriotic music, and from a stand in front of Squire Lyle’s office, eloquent speakers harangued the crowd. Judge Benton, on being called for, said it was too late to talk now, the time for action had arrived. As for himself, he was going to tender his services to the Governor, and he had prepared a roll to which he wished all to sign who desired to serve their country. In a very short time one hundred thirty three good men and true affixed their signatures to the document.
The boys of Indiana were primed and ready to respond. Benton raised his company within days. All across Indiana similar scenes played out. Just three days after Lincoln requested troops, Morton telegraphed Lincoln to report that over 10,000 young men had joined the Indiana militia, exceeding the 6,000 Lincoln had requested.
Benton had been in the Mexican War. His experience in war and his position in the community (he was a well-known attorney) made him a natural leader. He received his military commission from Governor Morton on Wednesday, April 17 (the day of the rally mentioned above). The very next day, he took his company of volunteers to Indianapolis to join the 8th Indiana. Shortly after arriving in the state capital, Benton was promoted to colonel of the 8th and Mayberry M. Lacey was elected captain of the Wayne County boys (Company D).
These days must have been a whirlwind for L.K. In the space of less than a week he went from being a blacksmith in Richmond to training as a soldier in Indianapolis. He and the other young men from Richmond would never be the same.
For more about what was going on across the country in 1861, see the new book by Adam Goodheart called 1861: The Civil War Awakening.