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.

31 January 2014

The Adventures of “Sandbar” Frank D. Brown

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

“Sandbar” Frank D. Brown: From Plantation Boyhood and Confederate Soldier and Marine to Adventures Galore on the Montana Frontier

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
January 29, 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 colorful exploits of “Sandbar” Brown who blazed a trail from his family’s plantation in Virginia to boyhood service in the Confederate Army, the War Department, and Marines to adventures on the upper Missouri as a miner and leader in the United Confederate Veterans.  Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

John Francis Dean “Sandbar” Brown, a man of many names and adventures, fought for the South in the Civil War and left an indelible mark when he came to Montana Territory at war’s end. Born November 24, 1845 to socially and politically prominent parents in Bedford City, Nelson County, Virginia, Frank’s father Ludwell Harrison Brown’s great grandfather was Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and his mother, Margaret Washington McClelland’s great grandfather Richard Henry Lee also signed the Declaration.

Young John Brown was reared on Montezuma plantation in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Piedmont, and he little realized he was destined for remarkable pioneer experiences in the West. In 1850 John’s father worked as a civil engineer, and the family owned one household slave, Sarah Read age 30. His father died in 1859, and two years later in June 1861 at age fifteen John F. Brown joined Company D, 25th Battalion Virginia Volunteers, known as the Richmond Battalion. The 25th Battalion was responsible for local defense of the Richmond area and on constant guard duty throughout the city, capital of the Confederacy. While Brown’s enlistment in 1861 is documented, the 25th Battalion apparently was not organized until August 1862, thus his first year of service is unclear.

In November 1861 Private Brown was transferred to the Quartermaster Department under Capt. James R. McClelland, and the following April he was assigned to the Confederate War Department as Orderly under his cousin Secretary of War James A. Seddon.

In early 1863 Private Brown returned to the Richmond City Battalion. With the Union controlling much of coastal Virginia and North Carolina, inland cities like Richmond were starving. Much of the cropland in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley went unattended as soldiers left their farms to fight for their country. The rail system was overtaxed supporting the fighting forces, and food that did make it to Richmond was sold by merchants and speculators at rocketing high prices.

With the ranks of police depleted, order broke down. In the words of historian Michael Chesson, “Wartime Richmond had become a city of strangers and camp followers, some with criminal intent.” The Battle of Antietam, known as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South, during General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of Northern soil had ended badly for the Confederacy, providing a wake-up call for those who thought the war would soon end. The winter leading into 1863 had gone badly in Richmond with a devastating explosion of a major ordnance plant in March killing 45 women and girls working there followed by heavy snow and ice and a breakdown in the city’s water works.

On March 27, President Jefferson Davis blundered when he called on Confederates everywhere to spend the day in prayer and fasting. A clerk in the War Department wrote, “Fasting in the midst of famine! May God save this people!” Angry women took to the streets protesting against hoarders and grain speculators. Women from within the city and nearby counties descended on the Confederate Capital. The situation rapidly escaladed into violence. The Richmond City Battalion deployed to protect the Capitol. With President Davis on the scene, in the face of threats of troop commanders to fire on the rioters, the women fled with no shots being fired. Artillery was brought in to position to defend the Capitol and business district. The Confederate Army was placed on alert, but a second day of demonstrations was called off and the authorities rounded up riot leaders.

Secretary of War Seddon pleaded with city newspapers to suppress the story and telegraph operators to remain silent, yet the suppression did not work. Brief but clear reports of “Bread Riot” appeared in print, and city residents, both white and black, knew what had happened.

In September 1863, Private John Brown was discharged from the 25th Battalion. He immediately re-enlisted as a Confederate Marine. The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC), a branch of the Confederate States Navy, was established in March 1861. By September 1862 its manpower was authorized at 1026 enlisted men. The organization of the corps began at Montgomery, Alabama, and was completed at Richmond. Throughout the war the CSMC headquarters and main training facilities were located at Camp Beall on Drewry’s Bluff and at the Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk.

The Confederate Marines were modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps that had a tradition as a fine and well-disciplined organization. The CSMC never approached its authorized manpower and in October 1864 listed only 539 officers and men. CS Marine Corps units were stationed at naval bases and with garrisons at shore fortifications like Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Marines served on Confederate warships such as the open-ocean raider CSS Alabama. From mid 1862, the CS Marine Corps was broken into squad-sized units and dispersed throughout the South and aboard CS ships.

Private Brown served with a Marine Corps unit on the Steamer Powhatan, commanded by Lieut. William Severe. The Powhatan served as a tender to the ironclad Virginia until its officers destroyed the boat at the surrender of Richmond in April 1865. Brown’s Marine regiment assembled at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River, where they surrendered to the 15th Pennsylvania Regiment and were taken to Petersburg and paroled.

Defeated, but unbowed, Frank D. Brown would remain an unreconstructed Confederate for the rest of his life. About this time, Brown dropped “John” from his name through distaste for the Union Army’s marching song “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave. . .”

The Civil War brought desolation and insecurity to the southland and under these conditions the young veteran of the Confederacy decided to leave Virginia and seek his fortune in the West. At the time of his parole, Private Brown was given rations and transportation to St. Louis, Missouri. He later wrote a short account of his decision:
   “I was a young Confederate soldier after Lee’s surrender. I went to St. Louis and entered the employ of the American Fur company and arrived at Fort Union Feb. 12, 1865. Of an adventurous disposition, I went out of the service of the company the March following, with two halfbreed Frenchmen, to trap beaver and otter on the lower tributaries of the Yellowstone. I engaged in this work more or less profitably, but being bothered by the Sioux, went over to the Judith and Musselshell, where I traded at Fort Hawley and Fort Benton.

During his long life Brown gave varying account of his activities in his early years in Montana. Perhaps Brown didn’t proceed overland up the Missouri to Fort Union until February 1866, and on to Fort Benton in the spring of that year. More likely, however, on his arrival at St. Louis, the Northwest Fur Company hired him, and he boarded the first company steamboat Hattie May to make its way up the Missouri River to the Montana mining frontier. His claim of employment with the American Fur Company no doubt blurred over the years. During the summer of 1865 the Upper Missouri operations of that company had been purchased by the Northwest Fur Company, thus Brown likely was hired and received passage up the river as an employee of the new company.

Reaching Fort Union on September 17, 1865, Frank Brown proceeded overland to Fort Benton arriving in December of that year. In Montana Territory he worked as wolfer, wood hawk, fur trapper, scout, and placer miner on the Yellowstone, Musselshell, Judith and Missouri rivers. In 1872 he was a scout under Colonel Eugene Baker at Fort Ellis on an expedition to protect surveyors of the first Northern Pacific survey up the Yellowstone River. In Brown’s words:
   “Felix Ingrem and myself were to furnish meat to the survey outfit of Colonel Hayden. We had our first brush with the Indians on a slough—an inclosed piece of land opposite the mouth of Pryor’s Fork, and it is my honest opinion that had it not been for the infantry, who constituted a part of the military command, there would have been another massacre to add to that of Fort Smith and Kearny.
   “As I have been in every valley tributary to the Yellowstone, I am familiar with the rich alluvial soils, its wealth of grass lands and its mineral possibilities. From 25-Yard creek to the Bad Lands, this great and noble river, dotted with islands ever green with cottonwood groves swiftly pursues its way to mix its pure waters with the muddy current of the Missouri, ever whispering of romance and tragedy, amid silences unbroken save by the lowing of countless herds of game, or the scream of thousands of wolves.
   “I have lain in my buffalo robes and looked up at the starlit heavens and whitened crests of lofty enclosing mountains, and wondered why the emigrant should wheel his way to more distant lands to find the home he sought. The Indian alone was the obstacle, and he would finally be removed by the tide of emigration flowing up the Platte and Missouri. And I am grateful to know that I have lived to see the day which I predicted would come, where the trails had given way to the railroad, where the schoolhouse, church, village and city invite you to tarry and abide, where fenced lands destroyed the primeval serenity. Prior’s Gap, and the immense area of lowly well watered valleys, within the last 50 years, have given homes to thousands.”

Frank Brown told varying stories of how he earned the nickname “Sandbar” Brown. At times his story was located on the Yellowstone River while other times the incident occurred on the Upper Missouri. Perhaps the most plausible account came when asked by a newspaperman to explain the peculiar significance of the name, Brown replied:
   “It was in 1866, with two other men I was riding along the Missouri, about seven miles above the Marias [River]. One of the men was across a ridge and my other partner had crossed the river and had disappeared from view.
    “I forded over a long sandbar, got the three horses hidden in some willows and backtracked, as we knew some Indians were following us. Hidden behind some sand, I saw three Bloods [Kainai Blackfoot] following our tracks. They had their guns ready, and you know Bloods never gave a white man a chance. They always killed from ambush. As the first Indian got over to the bar, I fired and he dropped. My partner heard the show and came running back. I got the second Indian and my partner got the third. We scalped them and threw their bodies in the river. I guess that’s how I got ‘Sandbar’ tacked to my name.”

In 1873 Andrew Jackson Davis hired Brown to locate mines in the early days of Butte, and his success in locating the Lexington and other substantial mines contributed to the early success of both the mining camp and Davis’ personal fortune.  That same year Brown married Anna Elizabeth Lentz in Helena in December. They had eight children: Francis Dean, Anna, Edward Wilhelm, Amy Frances, Albertina Nettie, Minnie Madeline, Angus, and James A. Murray. Francis Dean, Anna, and Angus died before age three. Mrs. Anna Lentz Brown passed away October 6, 1914.

Brown moved to Philipsburg in 1878 to join the Northwestern Mining Company. He owned and edited the Philipsburg Mail newspaper, and for the next forty years, he managed and developed many placer and quartz mines in the area.

Brown attended all Democratic state conventions for four decades, though he never ran for public office. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and served proudly as Major General in the United Confederate Veterans, commanding the Northwest Division for Montana, Idaho, Washington, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. He was known as a brilliant conversationalist and orator.

An active member of the Society of Montana Pioneers, “Sandbar” Brown was elected its historian in 1908 and its secretary in 1923. He played a key role in locating and promoted monuments to Lieutenant John Mullan and the Mullan Road, an early wagon road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory. The marble Mullan Monuments begin on the Levee in Fort Benton and extend across Montana in key points along the famed Mullan Military Wagon Road.

In his later years, Brown ranched and sold real estate and insurance. At the age of 85, Private Frank D. “Sandbar” Brown, veteran of the Confederate Army and Marines, and Major General in the United Confederate Veterans, passed on in Missoula on January 16, 1931. The old Confederate soldier rest today in Philipsburg Cemetery.

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