29 April 2014

Henry Kennerly: From the Upper Missouri to the Missouri Confederacy

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Henry Kennerly: From the Upper Missouri to the Missouri Confederacy

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
April 24, 2014

This is the twenty-fifth installment of a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who came to Montana after the war. This month features the adventures of a young man who had lived on the Upper Missouri before the Civil War, returned to “The States” to fight for the Confederacy, and then came back to leave his mark in frontier Montana. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861 the Upper Missouri region that became Montana was a vast land of many cultures. In addition to the thousands of Native Americans populating the dozen tribes, just a small number of American, Canadian, French, Metis, Spanish, and Mexicans were present, primarily involved in the fur and robe trade.

One of the Americans on the Upper Missouri in 1861 was Henry Atkinson Kennerly who was born at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis December 2, 1835, the son of George H. and Alziere Menard Kinnerly. His father had served as U. S. Army quartermaster-general before becoming a prominent merchant, while his mother came from the fur trading Menard family related through marriage to explorer William Clark. The Kennerlys were friends of another important fur trade family, the Chouteaus.

Nineteen year-old Henry Kennerly first came to the Upper Missouri in 1855 as private secretary and clerk for senior Indian Commissioner Alfred Cumming as Cumming and Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory negotiated a treaty with the Blackfoot Nation, Gros Ventre, Flathead Nation, and Nez Perce. This treaty began a new era for Native Indian-American relations in the Upper Missouri region. The treaty council culminated American efforts to impose peace and order among the Indian nations along both the east and west slopes of the northern Rocky Mountains.

Commissioner Cumming and his party departed St. Louis on June 6, 1855 on the steamboat St. Mary, commencing the long trip up the Missouri River. Accompanying Cumming were Kennerly, Charles P. Chouteau, son of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and director of operations for the American Fur Company, owners of the St. Mary, and Major Alexander Culbertson, supervisor of company operations on the Upper Missouri. St. Mary also carried American Fur Company trade goods as well as treaty annuity goods for the various tribes. In this early steamboat era, goods were off-loaded at Fort Union to proceed laboriously up river to Fort Benton by mackinaw boats.

The Cumming party proceeded by the Northern Overland route, arriving at Fort Benton on August 19th. There, couriers were dispatched to summon the tribes to a treaty council. Kennerly, with a guide, was detailed to search for the tribes of the Blackfoot Nation including chiefs Little Dog and Lame Bull. The council was finally convened near the mouth of the Judith River on October 16th, and the Lame Bull Treaty was concluded and dated the next day although the distribution of presents and annuities continued until October 20th. Two days later Cumming and Kennerly departed to return to St. Louis.

In the spring of 1856, Kennerly again ascended the Missouri to Fort Benton, this time employed by the American Fur Company. In the fall of that year he descended the Missouri to northern Nebraska Territory (which became Dakota Territory in 1861). By late May 1857, a new fur trade coalition was formed in opposition to Chouteau’s American Fur Company. Robert Campbell joined forces with Frost, Todd and Company. Daniel M. Frost and John Blair Todd established a trading post at Vermillion and hired Henry Kennerly to operate their post serving both the Army at Fort Randall and nearby Indian tribes. Kennerly was also named register of land with his office in Vermillion. Henry was reunited with his brother Lewis Hancock Kennerly was also working for Frost and Todd in the area.

As the dark clouds of the Civil War began to form in Missouri in 1859-60, both Frost and Lewis Kennerly returned to become leaders in the pro-secession Missouri Volunteer Militia. That brigade deployed to the Kansas border on the Southwest Expedition in November 1860 with both Lewis and another brother Samuel Kennerly in their ranks.

When the Civil War began in Missouri in May 1861 with the Camp Jackson Affair, Brigadier General Daniel M. Frost commanded the secessionist Missouri Volunteer Militia that included Lewis and Samuel Kennerly as well as their teenage third brother, James Amadee Kennerly. After the surrender of the Militia to Captain Nathaniel Lyon’s loyal Union regiments on May 10th, Frost and the three Kennerlys broke their paroles to join the Confederate-aligned Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price.

The Kennerlys all became commissioned officers with the 1st Missouri Infantry Regiment, one of the most effective regiments in Price’s Army. The 1st Missouri was composed largely of the young men who had been captured at Camp Jackson. The 1st Missouri fought in nine pitched battles including Shiloh, Corinth, Tuscumbia Bridge, Altoona, and Franklin. Commanding the 1st Missouri was Colonel John Stevens Bowen, married to Mary Kennerly, sister to the Kennerly brothers.

All of the Kennerlys, Sam, Jim, and Lew, served as officers in the hard fighting 1st Missouri Infantry Regiment. Eighteen-year-old James enlisted as a drummer boy, but soon became bandmaster of the regimental band. Later in the war, he commanded Company A. Following the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864, one of Lieut. Kennerly’s men in Company A wrote: “Our appalling loss was not generally realized until the next morning, when a ghastly sight was revealed to those still living.  . .  . Our regiment had but three officers left for duty, Capt. James Wickersham and Lieuts. James Kennerly and Patrick Collins. Our army was a wreck. Our comrades were lying in the embrace of death. So many young hearts were stilled forever which a few hours ago beat high in the prospect of soon being at home in Missouri.” On April 9, 1865 Lieut. James Kennerly and most his men of Company A were captured at the conclusion of the siege of Fort Blakely, Alabama. He was held at Ship Island, a desolate barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and at Parish Prison, New Orleans, before being paroled at the end of the war.

Lieut. Lewis Kennerly of Company D served as adjutant for General Bowen. Lewis was severely wounded in the hip and thigh in the Peach Orchard at the battle of Shiloh. Promoted to Captain, he was wounded again a year later during the 1st Missouri Brigade’s action at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. Despite his wounds, Lewis was promoted to Major, appointed Judge Advocate, and ordered to staff duty. He served to the end of the war.

Lieut. Samuel Augustin Kennerly of Company C mustered in to the 1st Missouri Infantry at Memphis on June 22, 1861. He participated in battles of Shiloh, Corinth, and Baker Creek, South Carolina where on May 16, 1863, he was wounded and left for dead until found on the battlefield by his sister, Mary Kennerly Bowen. Captured by Union troops, Major General Ulysses Grant ordered that 445 wounded rebel soldiers be paroled including Sam Kennerly. Sam was promoted to Captain and remained on sick leave from May through October 1863 and spent another six months in and out of military hospitals. Captain Samuel Kennerly rejoined the 1st Missouri and took command of Company A in time for skirmishes at Lovejoy’s Station, Clayton, Georgia during Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. There, on the final day of fighting on September 5th, he was killed and buried on the battlefield close to where he fell.

After John Bowen’s capture at Camp Jackson, his wife Mary Kennerly smuggled his unit’s flag out of camp by wrapping it around her waist as a sash. He then broke parole to secure a commission as a Confederate colonel and raised the 1st Missouri Infantry Regiment. A brigadier general, in March 1862 he was severely wounded at Shiloh. Recovering, Bowen took command of the 1st Missouri Brigade, when he distinguishing himself early in the Vicksburg campaign and was promoted to major general. He fell gravely ill during the siege of Vicksburg, and died nine days after the Confederate fortress surrendered July 4th. Wife Mary endured the long siege at Vicksburg to be with her husband and saved two 1st Missouri battle flags from capture by hiding them in her husband’s ambulance.

In September 1862, Henry Kennerly was elected to the Dakota territorial House of Representatives that met at Yankton on December 12th. After adjournment of the legislature January 9, 1863, Kennerly returned to St. Louis to join his three fighting brothers in the 1st Missouri Infantry of the Confederate Army. Little is known of Henry’s service except for the fact that he served as a staff officer for at least one year and suffered a wound below the knee before accepting a discharge.

In the spring of 1864, Kennerly returned to the Upper Missouri disembarking on the Fort Benton levee where he was engaged as clerk for the American Fur Company until it sold out the next year.

The mid 1860s began the wild and wooly days of Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Dozens of steamboats with vast quantities of cargo landed at the levee each summer. The rough streets of the town were roamed by the rich and famous, scoundrels and killers, fur and robe traders, merchants and gamblers, Native Indians and soldiers, Irish Fenians and exiled Metis, and, eventually by women and children. Henry Kennerly was in his element.

In November 1865, Acting Governor Thomas Francis Meagher and Gad Upson, Indian agent to the Blackfeet, arranged a peace treaty. Thousands of Blackfeet assembled at Fort Benton for the ceremony, camping out along the Fort Benton bottom. Two decades later the Fort Benton River Press of December 24, 1884 gave this account.
       A large train of the Diamond R transportation company was also camped on the flats. They had transported a four-pound howitzer on the back of a faithful mule from the steamer Shreveport that had unloaded her cargo at Cow Island. The howitzer had been left for the protection of the freight and came with the last of the supplies.
   The men in charge of the ‘little gun’ conceived the idea of showing the immense congregation of Indians its strength by discharging it from the back of a mule. The howitzer, loaded with grapeshot, was securely fastened upon the back of a large, sleepy looking train mule with the muzzle pointed toward the tail, and the patient, unsuspecting animal was led to the bank of the river near the present site of T. C. Power & Bro.’s store, and a target set up across the river. The rear of the mule was aligned with the target, and the train men, officers, curious old timers, and wondering Indians were arranged in a semi-circle around the mule.
   The appointed chief of ceremonies advanced and when all was in readiness inserted a time fuse in the touch-hole of the howitzer and then retired. In a short time the quiet, unruffled mule heard a fizzing just back of his ears, which made him uneasy, and he immediately began to turn his head to investigate. As he did so his body turned and the howitzer began to take in other points of the compass. The mule became more excited as his curiosity became more and more intense, and in a few seconds he either had his four feet in a bunch, making more revolutions a minute than the bystanders dared to count, with the howitzer threatening destruction to everybody within a radius of a quarter of a mile, or he suddenly would try standing on his head with his heels and howitzer at a remarkable angle in the air. The train men and Indians scattered pell mell over the flat toward the bluffs, running as if they thought that in flight lay their only safety, and that, too, at a rate of speed much greater than grapeshot. Judging from the alacrity with which Col. Broadwater, H. A. Kennerly, Joe Healy and Mose Solomon slid over the bank of the river, they were not opposed to immersion; Matt Carroll, George Steell and James Arnoux sprinted toward the store, Hi Upham, John J. Healy and Bill Hamilton began to throw up breastworks with their sheath knives, while I. G. Baker and one or two of the peace commissioners were turning back-springs toward the fort.
   While the mule, with his heels in mid-air, was shaken with the most violent agitation, there was a puff of smoke, a thud, and the mule—oh, where was he? Ask of the winds, for not a soul saw him, and they will tell you a lonely, forlorn mule might have been seen turning over and over until he tumbled over the bank with his howitzer and cast anchor in the river. The shot went toward the fort, striking the figure of a buffalo [weather vane] that was used as an advertisement at the fort, and which hung there until the last two or three years, and which many of the citizens of Fort Benton will remember was well perforated with balls. Further investigation has brought to light the fact that X. Beidler was the commander in chief elected, and that it was his first buffalo. [X. Beidler being the famed vigilante hangman and U.S. Marshall in the new territory.]
   Most other accounts have the Native Indian guests sitting stoically in their circle, wondering about the antics of the white man.

Henry Kennerly began as a clerk and over time became a trader in the Blackfeet trade, the agent for a succession of T. C. Power & Bro.-owned trading post in Blackfeet Country. Tom C. Power and his younger brother John arrived on the Upper Missouri in 1867 to form a powerful trading company. Kennerly operated Power’s Willow Rounds post on the Marias River. In 1872 Kennerly moved to Power’s Fort Maginnis on Badger Creek to capture more of the Canadian Blackfoot trade. About 1874 Kennerly married Mary Successful Kill or Good Killing, a Blackfoot woman, and raised their children Bertia, Perry, Hattie, Agnes, and Jerome, and adopted child Sarah Wright. Kennerly remained at the Maginnis post until 1880.

From his arrival in the new Montana Territory, Henry Kennerly took an active interest in politics and served as a Democrat in the territorial House of Representatives for three terms (1867, 1869, 1880). He continued his political years serving two years as Choteau County treasurer, four years as assessor, and a short tenure as sheriff. While holding county offices, Kennerly lived with his family on a ranch at the mouth of Kennerly Coulee on the Teton River, about thirty-five miles west of Fort Benton.

After his political years, Kennerly ranched on Birch Creek, a tributary of the Two Medicine River on the Blackfeet Reservation. In 1896 he remarried another Piegan woman, Marguerite “Maggie” Gobert., daughter of (Old) Mountain Chief “Neat-A-Sin-Ne.” To this union were born two sons James Otis and Leo Menard.

Kennerly keenly felt the responsibility to educate his children. In March 1890 he arrived in Great Falls with 39 multiracial children from the Piegan Agency including his two oldest sons. He put the children on the eastbound train destined for Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first native children to attend Carlisle from this region. Kennerly then placed his younger children at Holy Family Mission on the Two Medicine River on the reservation. To finance the education of his children, Kennerly secured a position (1890-1891) as Issue Agent on the Blackfeet Reservation, serving from the office at Piegan. From 1894 on he served as deputy U.S. Customs Officer, stationed at the Blackfeet Agency, then just east of Browning, where he also operated a trading post.

By 1899 Kennerly had lost his eyesight forcing his retirement. A letter of April 22, 1899 reported to the Great Falls Tribune:
   “Henry A. Kennerly, well known throughout the state, now resides at Blackfoot station; he is totally blind but is enjoying good health. Mr. Kennerly is an old confederate soldier who participated in several battles and was on the staff of one of the southern generals at the capture of Vicksburg, where General [Ulysses] Grant, upon seeing him, shook hands very cordially, as they were intimate friends before the war, the general having met his wife at the home of Mr. Kennerly’s sister.” [Henry Kennerly’s oldest sister Eliza Clark Kennerly Stevenson was one year younger than Julia Dent Grant and the two were prominent in St. Louis society.]

The aging Henry Kennerly moved to the home of adopted daughter, Mrs. Sarah Wright Allison, in Cut Bank. The Allisons cared for Kennerly for more than a decade, and during the winter of 1912-1913 they assisted him in recording his recollections of life on the Upper Missouri. Tragically, most of this manuscript later was destroyed by fire, with only his account of the Blackfeet Council of 1855 surviving.

On Tuesday, July 8, 1913, the old Confederate soldier, fur trader, legislator, and pioneer on the Upper Missouri, Henry Atkinson Kennerly died at the Allison home, at the age of seventy-three.

Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.

Photo: 1. A scene at the Blackfeet Treaty Council of 1855 where Kennerly served as secretary for Commissioner Cumming.

Photo: 2.  Kennerly with other Fort Benton traders at Sioux City in 1866. Back row left to right: Mose Solomon; African American Bob Mills; John Largent. Seated left is Joe Kipp; right is Henry Kennerly.

27 March 2014

William H. Buck: From the Cellars at Vicksburg to the Montana Supreme Court

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

William H. Buck: From the Cellars at Vicksburg to the Montana Supreme Court

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
March 26, 2014

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features young William Buck, a boy caught in the siege and surrender of Vicksburg before coming to Montana Territory where he became a political force. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

The devastating blows of Gettysburg in the East and Vicksburg in the West in early July 1863 sealed the fate of the Confederacy. Although the war would continue for almost two more years, the South had effectively lost the Civil War.

Both Gettysburg and Vicksburg were battles that affected more than Yankee and Rebel combatants—both directly impacted the civilian residents of the two towns. Fifteen-year-old Will Van Orsdel roamed the battlefield at Gettysburg dodging gunfire while carrying water to the wounded. Nine-year-old Horace Buck dodged artillery shells and lived underground during the long siege at Vicksburg. Both boys carried the mental scars of warfare for the rest of their lives. This is young Horace Buck’s story.

Horace R. Buck was born in Yazoo County, Mississippi, September 17, 1853, to Charles L. and Maria I. Barnett Buck, both of Huguenot descent. His father, a prominent lawyer, was one of the few members of the Mississippi convention to speak and vote against the resolution of secession from the United States. The ravages of the Civil War deprived the family of everything, and with the death of Charles Buck in 1862 the family struggled to survive. During the 47-day siege of Vicksburg from May 18 to July 4, the family remained in that beleaguered city. Young Horace later related how the shells ranged so close to the house his family occupied that they often were forced to take refuge in a neighbor’s cellar at night. Civilians as well as soldiers suffered from a lack of food and good drinking water.

As Grant closed in on Vicksburg in the spring of 1863, he knew the critical important of that fortress on the Mississippi. President Lincoln set the tone with these words, “Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. . . .We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.”

In addition, Vicksburg was strategically vital to the Confederates. President Jefferson Davis proclaimed, "Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South's two halves together." While held by the Confederacy, it blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi. Together with control of the mouth of the Red River and Port Hudson to the south, Vicksburg allowed communication with the states west of the river, upon which the Confederates depended extensively for horses, cattle, other food, and reinforcements.
With its natural defenses, Vicksburg earned the nickname "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy." It was located on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river, De Soto Peninsula, making it almost impossible to approach by ship. North and east of Vicksburg was the Mississippi or Yazoo Delta, described by geographer Warren E. Grabau as an "astonishingly complex network of intersecting waterways", some navigable by small steamboats.

Since May 18, Grant’s army had formed a tightening ring around Vicksburg, sealing it from the outside world. The city was under siege as the noose ever tightened. To hasten Vicksburg’s surrender, Grant ordered his artillery to shell it around the clock. With some 220 Union cannon firing at Confederate targets in and around the city, life was dangerous for both the military and civilians including their slaves throughout the city. Admiral David Porter’s navy joined in with another thirteen big guns firing from the Mississippi River. Militarily, the Vicksburg Campaign was a joint operation with both the Army and the Navy playing important roles. The campaign is still studied today for the bold and innovative joint serve tactics that Grant and Porter employed.
Life in besieged Vicksburg was not pleasant. In the words of historian Andrea Warren:
   “Shells flew fast and furious, sometimes crisscrossing in the air as they rained down death and destruction on the city and the Rebel soldiers. Cannonballs weighing as much as 250 pounds crashed through walls, tore up streets and yards, and exploded in the Confederate trenches. . . Civilian homes could not protect the families. Many families moved into large communal caves that had been dug into the hills.”

Other families, like the Bucks lived in deep cellars. House slaves either slept in their family’s quarters or near cave entrances as did wounded, recuperating soldiers. Children, like young Horace Buck played on the dangerous streets or underground while their mothers sought food, sewed, and gossiped by candlelight. Slaves tended fires and cooking stoves preparing meals for their masters while soldiers brought news to civilians in the trapped, troubled city.

All this time Mr. and Mrs. Barnett, Horace’s mother’s parents, supported the family, although it was all that they could do. When peace was declared, the Buck family removed to Bayou Teche in St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, to the heart of the region that Longfellow so beautifully portrayed in “Evangeline.” In 1869 the Louisiana plantation had to be sold, and Mrs. Buck took her children to the farm of John Barrett, a relative of hers, near Sedalia, Missouri. While there Horace attended the public schools for several years, and then by the generosity of his uncle Horace was sent to the Hopkins Grammar school in New Haven, Connecticut, to prepare for Yale College. Graduating from the grammar school in the class of 1872, he entered Yale’s class of 1876.

At Yale College Horace Buck flourished, and in the words of classmate and lifelong friend William R. Hunt, Horace had “great breadth of mind, mature judgment and conspicuously quick perception . . . No member of his class was more beloved.” After graduation in 1876 his uncle was no longer able to assist him financially, so he moved on to St. Louis where he taught night school to earn a living. There he studied law at St. Louis Law School and in the office of John W. Noble of St. Louis, a brevet general in the Union army. General Noble regarded him as “the best student he had ever known.”

Admitted to the bar of Missouri in 1878, Buck joined Hunt in Dakota Territory the following year in search of a place to settle. Being out of money he found employment as a harvest hand on a large wheat farm. He earned the usual harvest hand’s wages, but found the work on a threshing crew very hard. In the fall of 1879 he became principal of the public school in Shakopee, Minn., and remained there until just before Christmas, when he started for Fort Benton to join Hunt, who had already opened up a law office there, and established the firm of Buck & Hunt. He made the trip from Shakopee to Helena as an emigrant, and “reached Fort Benton hanging to a pile of mail sacks on the coach one bitterly cold night about the holidays, with a capital of $7.00.” [p. 41 in Justices of the Supreme Court]

Buck immediately showed his talent and ambition taking part in political as well as legal affairs. During 1881-1882 Buck edited the Fort Benton Record, a staunchly Democratic newspaper, and he married Mary Jewett, of New Haven.

Buck as managing editor of the Record had Hunt as an associate editor, and, as the Anaconda Standard later recalled, “the ‘boys’ made the Record ‘howl’ during the boom days of Benton . . . Buck devoted his talents in those days to grinding out long and dignified editorials, on intricate financial and social problems of a national character, while Mr. Hunt roamed the streets . . . startled the good people of the town by [uncovering local stories] . . . and other sensational facts of a like nature that always interested patrons of ‘the largest newspaper published in the territory’—a nine-column folio.”

In November 1884, Buck was elected to the 14th Territorial Legislative Council, defeating popular pioneer Robert Vaughn. In the Council he became one of the leading members. Buck was elected Fort Benton city attorney in 1885, serving two years, and he led the effort to draw the town’s first charter and organize city government.

While Buck & Hunt built a successful business in Fort Benton, the limits of the old river port town were too restrictive for the ambitious young lawyers so they moved their firm to Helena in 1887. There they joined former territorial governor B. P. Carpenter, forming Carpenter, Buck & Hunt. Buck also reported decisions of the Montana Supreme Court, while Hunt was made a District Judge. Four years later, Governor Joseph K. Toole appointed Buck as judge for the First Judicial District in Lewis and Clark County. For the next decade Buck served as district court judge until he was elected to the Montana Supreme Court in 1896, joining Hunt on Montana’s highest court.

On December 6, 1901, newspaper headlines in Helena read, “Judge Buck Is Dead! Last Night He Sent a Bullet Crashing Through His Brain.” A hastily assembled coroner’s jury heard testimony and reported a verdict, “He came to his death by his own hand, namely by shooting himself in the head with a 38-calibre revolver, but whether the same was accidental or intentional we have no means of knowing.”

In a tribute to his friend W. H. Hunt wrote, “The inexpressibly sad death of Justice Buck, occurring as it did when he seemed in ordinary health and vigorous mind, bids us to remember ‘what shadow we pursue.’ In his death the state has lost one whose pleasing presence was long familiar to those who have had to do with lawyers and courts, for he was in active practice and judicial service since 1879 . . .”

The long and close friendship between Judges Hunt and Buck was remarkable considering the fact that the one had always been a republican and the other a democrat. They were at school and college together, were law partners for years, were associated as district judges for a long time and were together again as associate justices of the Supreme Court.

Another tribute to Horace Buck came from a committee of six of Montana’s leading lawyers:
   “To the discharge of the duties of this office (associate justice) he brought legal learning, broad general culture, judicial experience and unswerving impartiality . . .”

Judge Buck was a conspicuous figure in the jurisprudence of the state. The boy from the cellars at Vicksburg was no more, yet he left a lasting legacy in Montana. Today, Horace R. Buck rests in Forestvale Cemetery in Helena.

Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.

Photo: 1. The Siege of Gettysburg (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

24 February 2014

Joe Wells: A Slave and His Confederate Master Go To War

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Joe Wells: A Slave and His Confederate Master Go To War

By Ken Robison
The River Press February 26, 2014

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features the fascinating story of a slave who followed his master into service of the Confederacy before coming to Montana’s gold mines to make and lose his mining successes.  Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

When General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox in April 1865, thirty-six African-Americans were listed on the Confederate paroles. Most served as servants, musicians, cooks, teamsters, or blacksmiths. Throughout the Civil War thousands of blacks accompanied Confederate Army regiments though only a handful were accepted and armed as combat soldiers until the last months of the war. The Confederate fighting force was white but much of its support was black.

One young slave, Joseph Wells, went into the Confederate Army early in the war as a “body servant” for his master, Colonel Benjamin G. Wells. He would not have worn the “gray,” yet on occasion he may have fought alongside his master though we simply don’t know. We do know that Joseph remained in company with his master throughout the war before coming to Montana Territory.

In Joseph’s own words, Col. Wells was “a confederate soldier, and I went to war with him, waiting on him during his service in the army. He was with General [Sterling] Price. The first place we fought was at Blue Mill Landing. We had a little skirmish there. We had a scrap at Lexington, Missouri, where General Price, with 40,000 men, dislodged 3,000 Union soldiers, but not until he cut off the water supply. We had brushes at Elk Grove and Oak Hill and a battle right at Vicksburg. I went with the old man to Texas, from there we returned home” to Buchanan County, Missouri.

The slave that was to become Joseph Wells was born in 1838, the “property” of prominent John Fry of Lexington, Kentucky. His mother was sold shortly after his birth so another slave woman raised him. When he was ten years old Mr. Fry took Joseph with the Fry family to live near St. Joseph, Buchanan County, Missouri. The U.S. Census in 1850 recorded 57-year-old farmer John Fry living in Buchanan County with his wife Mary, four sons, and one daughter. The Slave Schedule of that census listed one 12 year-old Black Male slave (Joseph) in the household, and some 25 other slaves spread around other parts of Missouri.

When John Fry died his widow married Colonel Benjamin G. Wells in 1856. The U.S. Census of 1860 showed the family of Wells with one 22 year-old male slave living at Rushville in Buchanan County, and one year later off to the War of Southern Independence went Col. Wells and his young slave. While Missouri did not secede to join the Confederacy, a large segment of the population centered in northern Missouri and Little Dixie along the Missouri River favored secession and many men joined the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price to seize control of the state.

In September 1861, the pro-secession State Guard were ordered to recruit more troops from northwestern Missouri and concentrate at Lexington. Col. Benjamin Wells raised a company in Rush Township in southwestern Buchanan County and with other recruits departed to join Gen. Price. Some 4,000 State Guard troops including Col. Wells passed through Liberty to cross the Missouri River at Blue Mills Landing and proceed eastward to Lexington. A Union force of 600 men under Lt. Col. John Scott was sent to intercept the State Guard troops at Blue Mills Landing, arriving after most of the State Guard had already crossed the Missouri. Scott’s troops moved to engage the remaining 600 State Guard soldiers, including Col. Wells and his servant, who were positioned in the brush on both sides of the road leading to the landing. In mid afternoon on September 17th, Col. Scott’s troops marched into the ambush. In the one-hour skirmish that followed Price’s men held the advantage with 18 Union soldiers killed and 80 wounded, at the cost of just 3 State Guard soldiers killed and 18 wounded.

With this minor victory at Blue Mill Landing, also known as the Battle of Liberty, the northwest Missouri troops proceeded on to join General Sterling Price at Lexington, on the Missouri River twenty miles east of Kansas City. This First Battle of Lexington, known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales, was an engagement from September 13 to 20, 1861 between the Missouri State Guard and a Union garrison of some 3,500 men under Col James A. Mulligan holding the town. Over the next several days General Price’s Guard received ammunition wagons, other supplies and reinforcements including those from Buchanan County.

By the 18th, the State Guard now numbered more than 15,000 men, and Gen. Price ordered an assault on Lexington. The State Guard moved forward into the face of heavy artillery fire, pushing Union troops back into their inner defenses. On the morning of the 20th, Price’s men advanced behind mobile breastworks, made of dampened hemp that was immune to Union shells. By early afternoon, Col. Mulligan’s men stacked their arms and surrendered. Lexington, the Union stronghold had fallen, bolstering southern sentiment and briefly consolidating Confederate control of the Missouri Valley.

Further details of the activities of Col. Wells and his servant Joseph are sketchy although for the rest of the Civil War though they apparently remained part of the Missouri State Guard. Gen. Price with his men formally joined the Confederate cause in Neosho, Missouri on October 30, 1861. Despite his early victories in Missouri, Gen. Price did not have dominant popular support to hold the state in the face of Union determination to control this vital Border State.

By early 1862, Union forces had pushed Price out of Missouri, and with their defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas March 6-8, Confederate hopes of occupying Missouri ended. For most of 1862-1863, the Missouri State Guard fought small skirmishes in Missouri and major battles in Arkansas and Mississippi. Missouri remained threatened by guerrilla warfare from southern bushwhacker raids throughout the war.

Although Joseph Wells does not mention whether Col. Wells and he participated in the Battle of Pea Ridge, he does state that they “had brushes at Elk Grove and Oak Hill and a battle right at Vicksburg.” Wells’s mention of Oak Hill is intriguing. The first major battle of the Trans-Mississippi was the Battle of Wilson’s Creek fought on August 10, 1861, near Springfield, Missouri between Union forces and the Missouri State Guard. That battle is also known as the Battle of Oak Hills. The battle led to the death of brilliant Union commander Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and the retreat of Union forces resulting in the battle also being called the “Bull Run of the West.” Col. Wells’s role, if any, in the battle is not known.

During the decisive Vicksburg Campaign from May 19 to July 4, 1863, Missouri infantry and cavalry fought in the 1st and 2nd Brigades of Major General John S. Bowen’s Division of the Confederate Army. As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began to move to capture Vicksburg, Gen. Bowen was assigned a division in Gen. Pemberton’s Army defending Vicksburg. After uniting with Pemberton’s Army, Gen. Bowen’s Division fought at the battle of Champion Hill, where their counterattack almost split Grant’s army in half. When the rest of Pemberton’s army failed to support Bowen’s attack, his Division was forced to retreat. Bowen’s Division suffered defeat at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, retreated to Vicksburg, and took part in the final defense of Vicksburg. The surrender of Vicksburg July 4, 1863 was a devastating blow to the Confederacy. Not only were 2,872 men killed and wounded and 29,495 taken prisoner, but the Confederacy strategically lost control of the Mississippi River and was cut in two.

Details about the end of the war and surrender of Col. Wells and Joseph are sketchy. Joe Wells claimed that toward the end of the war, “I went with the old man to Texas, from there we returned home.”  It is likely by May 1865, Joseph Wells, now a freedman, returned briefly to St. Joseph, Missouri. There he was warned by his former mistress to leave because of his Confederate Army service. In turn, Col. Wells offered Joseph a span of mules worth $500, a wagon, and provisions for a year if he would stay and haul timber from the river bottoms. But Joseph listened to Mrs. Wells.

Like many white Confederate soldiers, Joseph headed west in early summer 1865, stopping along the Overland Stage Line near today’s Cheyenne, Wyoming to work as a cook before proceeding on to California. Wells then decided to move on to Denver, Colorado, where he worked at odd jobs. From there he move northward to Alder Gulch, Montana Territory, to try his hand at placer gold mining, with some success accumulating $10,000.

By 1870 Joe Wells lived at Fort Shaw, a servant working for Brevet Major S. A. Russell, 7th Infantry Regiment, helping care for Russell’s four-year-old son Louis. Six years later, Joe Wells stampeded to the Black Hills gold rush, where he claimed that “Nigger Hill,” was named for him.

The Negro Hill district, as it is now known, is a section in the western part of the Black Hills that derived its name from a mountain that rears its head some 6,400 feet above sea level, and whose top is high above the surrounding peaks of the rugged neighborhood. The steep slopes of Negro Hill form the heads of various gulches—Bear, Mallory, Negro, Sand and Beaver—from which hundreds of thousands of dollars in placer gold were taken.

Negro Hill and Negro Gulch were named for several African Americans, including Joseph Wells, who owned an immensely rich placer claim from which they took a fortune during the summer of 1876. Four of these black miners took out $1,700 in a single day, hauling their gravel hundreds of yards to wash it. Several other black miners built a dam to accumulate water for sluicing and washed out $1,500 in one remarkable half day.

The reputation of these black miners was so colorful that the mountain was named to commemorate them. These were the first placer gold strikes discovered in the Northern Black Hills in the summer of 1876, and led to a stampede to the area. Joe Wells successfully mined Negro Gulch and accumulated $30,000. Unfortunately in just three months he squandered his riches, drinking and gambling before moving on to Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

In the early 1880s, Joe Wells returned to Montana to lived in poverty and ill health in Billings. Some years later he regained his strength and went back to mining with six placer claims on Williams Creek on the Shoshone Reservation.

By the early 1900s Joseph Wells arrived in Missoula to become a favorite of Missoulian reporters. In August 1910 the Missoulian told “Uncle Joe’s” story. Joe claimed an age of 120 years, perhaps identifying in his mind with the age of his older former master Col. Wells. His actual age was about 72 years. Other details of his story ring true and are consistent with facts that can be checked. He told about his early years in slavery, his service in the war with his master, and his migration westward.

The Missoulian reporter assessed Uncle Joe:  
   “There is no more unique citizen in western Montana than Joe Wells. The general impression among his acquaintances, both white and black, is that he has slipped a cog or two on his age . . . His warped limbs, his wrinkled face, and his white hair indicate that he is close to the century mark. In appearance he is scrawny and sharp. . . He is as cunning as a fox.”

In the interview the reporter quizzed Wells about his Black Hills experiences:
   “’I went into the Black hills and crossed to Nigger gulch, where I lifted $30,000 inside a month.’
   “’What! You took out $30,000 worth of gold?’
   “’Yes, sir, and the gulch was named after me. I had $30,000 in clean cash at one time.’
   “’What did you do with it?’
   “’Squandered it,’ said he, indifferently as he looked down at his frayed trousers. ‘In them days I did not know the value of money. I drank and gambled my $30,000 away in three months.’
   “’Were you not afraid somebody would rob you.’
   “’Not a bit. I carried the best of arms and could use them like a man. I went with an English bull [Dog pocket revolver], a dangerous pistol, up my sleeve all the time.’
   “’Where did you keep your money?’
   “’With me. I wore two pairs of pants, one over the other, and had secret pockets. My outer garments were of buckskin.’
   “’What sort of gambling did you do?’
   “’Faro. That was the game them days.’
   “’How long ago was that?’
   “’Thirty years.’
   “’Soon after the Nigger gulch find I went to Billings. I was broke, and sick. For two years I lay there in the Sisters’ hospital. Every now and then I would tell the nurses that I was burning daylight. As soon as I was able to travel I secured me a horse—a white one—and went to Copper mountain. After three weeks of prospecting I sprung off to Shoshone reservation and located six claims on Williams creek. I have them yet.’
   “’Some fellow tried to get them out of me but I told him that I was from Missouri. He was tricky.’
   “’What are you doing now?’
   “’I am on the way to Flathead to prospect. If I get up there, and find anything I will go to work.’
   “’How do you go about it?
   “’I have done my work along. I cut the timber, and go in with my wheel-barrow. Give me a bit of giant powder and I can do the rest. I know how to handle that, boy.’”
In the opinion of the Missoulian reporter, “There is no more unique citizen in western Montana than Joe Wells. The general impression among his acquaintances, both white and black, is that he has slipped a cog or two on his age but all agree that he is far beyond the three score and ten milepost. His warped limbs, his wrinkled face, and his white hair indicate that he is close to the century mark. In appearance he is scrawny and sharp. On his face there stands, at irregular intervals, bunches of whiskers--sagebrush—and on his head a scanty stand of hair. On the point of his little black chin there hangs, like a bit of Florida moss, a tuft of beard done in a three-stand plait. The Missoulian man, when trying to locate him, asked a neighbor if she had seen him. She looked into space, in an effort to recall him, but the moment the twig of whiskers was mentioned, she smiled, and said: ‘He’s right there—next door.’
   “Two friends Joe Wells keeps near him, a pocket magnifying glass to help in his search for gold, and Nailer, a big, shaggy dog. With these he roams in search of a fortune. The old fellow’s heart is full of hope and so long as he is able to move he will hunt for gold. News of strikes at Dixon has reached his ear and he is eager to get back in harness.
   “’Oh, but if I could make one more lucky strike,’ is his song.
   “If Joe Wells were to step into a Kentucky street some old-time southern man would greet him: ‘Good morning Uncle Joe, how are you?’ and he would respond: ‘Thank you, Marse John; poly thank Gawd.’ But out here, he is as gay and chipper as a tree frog, and knows all of the up-to-date vernacular. He is as cunning as a fox.”

Ten years later in 1920 Joe Wells remained in Missoula renting a house with a white lodger who worded as a barber. In December 1922 Joe Wells died at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. His death was noted with a short obituary with more exaggerations and a photograph published by the Montana Newspaper Association on January 8, 1923:
   “Missoula Centenarian Dies. Joseph Well, colored, once winner of the Kentucky derby, believed to be the oldest inhabitant in Missoula, died at St. Patrick’s hospital a few days ago.
   “‘Uncle Joe’ as he was best known in the city, claimed to have been born at Louisville, Ky., in 1807, placing his age at 115 years. His mother, a slave in the southern city, was sold shortly after his birth and . . . [he was] reared by another colored woman. The aged negro often narrated the vicissitudes of his fortune during early slavery times, the stirring days of rebellion and the new era following the Civil war. He made many trips up and down the ‘ol’ Mississippi’ with traders . . .
   “His story of once winning the Kentucky derby as [a Negro] jockey, strapped to the back of the winner of the blue-grass classic, was one worthy of literary prominence. To have heard old ‘Uncle Joe’ tell it himself in his own mannerisms was still more interesting.“

Oh, to have been able to interview Joseph Wells, learn more details, and probe some of his stories. From the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 until Jim Crow laws ended it about 1900, almost all Derby jockeys were African American. Thirteen of the fifteen riders in the first Kentucky Derby were black jockeys, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight runnings of the Derby featured blacks. The names of these early day black sports superstars are readily available . . . and, sadly, Joseph Wells is not among them.

Former slave Uncle Joe Wells and his dog Nailer on the streets
of Missoula shortly before his death. (Courtesy of The Missoulian) 

Despite his exaggerations, Joseph Wells, slave, Confederate service soldier, gold miner, servant, rich man, poor man, drinker and carouser, and finally kindly “Uncle Joe” the story teller, lived a more than full life before passing on in Missoula December 16, 1922. His burial location is unknown.

Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.