On this day in 1819, Union General Benjamin Prentiss is born in Belleville, Virginia. Prentiss served in a variety of capacities during the war but is best known for defending Arkansas during the Vicksburg campaign.
Prentiss was raised in Missouri and moved to Quincy, Illinois, as a young man. He joined the Illinois militia, and was active when tensions arose between the Mormon andnon-Mormon residents of the area after the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was lynched by a mob.
When the Mexican War began in 1846, Prentiss raised a company of volunteers and served under General Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista. Upon his return to Illinois,Prentiss practiced law until the outbreak of the Civil War. He remained active in the militia and rose to the rank of colonel.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Prentiss was placed in charge of Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In August 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general and charged with protecting the Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railroad across northern Missouri. His brigade was sent to join General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, and he was elevated to divisional commander. Prentiss fought at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee,and was caught in the infamous Hornet’s Nest. He and part of his force were captured, and Prentiss spent six months in a Confederate prison. He was exchanged in October 1862 and later served on the court-martial board that convicted General Fitz John Porter, who was tried on charges of insubordination during the Battle of Second Bull Run, when he refused to conduct an attack ordered by his commander, John Pope. Porter was found guilty and cashiered from the army, but he said that Prentiss was “supposed unprejudiced, and acted so.”
After the Porter case closed, Prentiss commanded the District of Eastern Arkansas at Helena. He sent raids into the interior of the state and recruited escaped slaves into military service. On July 4, 1863, Prentiss’s command held off an attack by General Sterling Price, who was trying, belatedly, to rescue the Confederate force inside of nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. That garrison had already surrendered, but Prentiss emerged as the victor in the Battle of Helena. Despite this success, Prentiss found himself without a command when the Union reorganized the theater after the fall of Vicksburg.
Prentiss requested a leave from the army, citing ill health and family concerns, as his wife had died in 1860 and he had young children. Prentiss spent the rest of his life as a land agent and postmaster in Missouri until he died in 1901.