29 December 2011

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes

Since April 2011, the beginning of the first year of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, I've been watching to see what Montana is doing to commemorate that transforming struggle. While the Billing Gazette published a good early one-time article, I decided Montana needs to do better that that. I have begun writing articles for two separate Montana Civil War series. Both, focus on Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, who came to Montana after the war. Each article tells about their early life, their experiences during the war, and their new life in Montana. The first series began in the Great Falls Tribune in September, 2011 and is published the last Sunday of each month in the Sunday Life section. This series focuses on Civil War veterans who came to Montana and settled in the north central Montana area. My second series started this week in the Fort Benton River Press and will focus on Civil War veterans who came to Chouteau County area.

Both of my Montana Civil War series are available on-line with the Tribune carrying a link to each article in the series. You can access the Tribune series by entering "Remembering our Civil War heritage and heroes - Great Falls Tribune" in Google.

An electronic edition of the River Press is now available, through subscription, on-line. Since the River Press requires subscription, I'll be posting these articles on my blog with the first in the series below:

Chouteau County Civil War Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
December 28, 2011

This begins a series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

From April 1861 to April 1865, our nation fought the most brutal and decisive war in our history—the American Civil War. This year, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, let us pause to reflect, “How did the Civil War affect us?” Some might think this is a curious question since that monumental struggle was fought between “The States” more than two decades before Montana became a state. Yet, the real answer lies in the profound impact the Civil War had on our state, our country and its people.

The Civil War answered vital fundamental questions—there would be a unified United States of America, and there would no longer be millions of enslaved Americans. The Civil War directly affected every section, every community, every family, and every individual. The war came at a time when the American West was undergoing settlement by non-natives although Fort Benton had long been a fur trading outpost on the Upper Missouri. Gold strikes in western Montana (then Washington Territory) in 1862 led to the rapid formation of Montana Territory in 1864, and the extracted gold and other mineral wealth helped pay the costs of war. The Civil War dislocated and relocated countless Americans from North and South—many came to the new Montana Territory to escape the ravages of war and to seek a brighter future.

The old saying that Montana was settled by “the left wing of General Pap Price’s Confederate Army,” was true only in part. Many veterans, both Union and Confederate, came to head of navigation on the Missouri to start new lives. In the coming months, this series of articles will showcase Union and Confederate veterans that had an impact on Chouteau County in the aftermath of the Civil War. Names like Robert S. Culbertson, Thomas A. Cummings, Dan Dutro, Thomas Coatsworth, John J. Donnelly, Winfield Scott Wetzel, George Crane, and others will be featured with their stories. Who were these men, how did they participate in the war, and what do we know of their lives and the lives of their families here in Montana?

By 1885, Fort Benton was home for many Civil War veterans, and in early August of that year, Union veterans signed a petition to form a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) post. Signing this list were the following veterans with their rank and regiment:
J. J. Donnelly, Lieut. Colonel, 14th Michigan
M. J. Leaming, Major, 6th Tennessee Cavalry
J. H. Rice, Captain, 27th New York
William McQueen, Regimental Quartermaster, 1st Iowa
J. L. Stuart, Command Sergeant, 6th Ohio
Max. Waterman, Sergeant, 35th Iowa
Dan Dutro, Musician, 150th Illinois
W. S. Wetzel, Corporal, 25th Iowa
George W. Crane, Corporal, 26th Illinois
T. A. Cummings, Battery C, 1st New York Artillery
E. W. Lewis, Private, 113th Illinois
George M. Bell, Private, 13th Maine
Thomas Coatsworth, Private, 46th Wisconsin
Frank Coombs, Private, 129th Indiana
James Werrick, Private, 129th Indiana
R. S. Culbertson, Private, 6th Ohio

The Fort Benton post was approved by the Montana G. A. R. and designated the G. K. Warren Post No. 20, G. A. R., Fort Benton. The name honored Brigadier General G. K. Warren, a hero at Little Round Top durig the Battle of Gettysburg.

At a critical point in the battle Union General Meade sent his chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, to find a way to block the advance of Confederate forces on the flank of Union forces. Climbing Little Round Top, Warren found only a small Signal Corps station there. He saw the glint of bayonets in the sun to the southwest and realized that a Confederate assault into the Union flank was imminent. He hurriedly sent officers to find help from any available units in the vicinity. Col. Strong Vincent, commander of the Third Brigade seized the initiative and directed his four regiments to Little Round Top. Upon arrival, Vincent received fire from Confederate batteries almost immediately. On the western slope he placed the 16th Michigan, and then proceeding counterclockwise were the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and finally, at the end of the line on the southern slope, the 20th Maine. Arriving only ten minutes before the Confederates, Vincent ordered his brigade to take cover and wait, and he ordered Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, to hold his position, the extreme left flank of the Army of the Potomac, at all costs. Chamberlain and his 385 men waited for what was to come. For their heroic actions Chamberlain received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in the defense of Little Round Top. The citation read the medal was awarded for "daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top. The 1974 novel The Killer Angels and its 1993 film adaptation, Gettysburg, depicted a portion of the important Battle of Little Round Top.

In December 1890, G. K. Warren Post No. 20, G. A. R., of Fort Benton inaugurated a series of campfires for social enjoyment during the winter. Lecturers from other parts of the state were secured at intervals to entertain the members. At a meeting held December 8, 1890, the following comrades were elected to the stations of office: John C. Duff, Commander; George W. Crane, Senior Vice Commander; Daniel Dutro, Junior Vice Commander; Thos A. Cummings, Officer of the Day; C. B. Hamilton, Quartermaster; Patrick Whalen, Officer of the Guard. The post was inspected by Assistant Inspector John J. Donnelly and everything found in regulation order. Col. Donnelly delivered a brief speech to his veteran comrades, which was highly appreciated and applauded.

The G. A. R was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, US Navy, US Marines and US Revenue Cutter Service who served in the Civil War. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member died. Linking men through their experience of the war, the G. A. R became among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, lobbying the US Congress to establish veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates. Its peak membership was more than 400,000 in 1890, a high point of Civil War commemorative ceremonies. The G. A. R was organized into "Departments" at the state level and "Posts" at the community level, and military-style uniforms were worn by its members. There were posts in every state in the U.S., and several posts overseas. The G. A. R. maintained a strong presence in the Fort Benton community for many years as the aging veterans of the Civil War slowly passed from the scene. As this series develops, we hope to determine the last Civil War veteran in this area.

We have identified some 64 Civil War Union and Confederate veterans who lived in the Fort Benton, Big Sandy, Highwood, and Geraldine areas. We’ll begin next month with one of the most colorful Union veterans, John J. Donnelly. If you have Civil War veterans in your family, who settled in this area, we would be pleased to hear from you with copies of stories or photographs that we can share with our readers and add to our Research Center. We heard recently from Edward J. Snider who shared some great stories and photos of his Civil War ancestor Chapman Pennock, who is buried in Riverside Cemetery. We’ll feature Private Pennock of Company C, 18th New York Cavalry in the coming months. In addition, we’ll share photos of Civil War veterans with Muncie Morger for her Veterans display project. Send your Civil War stories or comments to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442.

1. Brig. Gen. G. K. Warren, hero of the battle of Little Round Top, Gettysburg, and namesake for Fort Benton G. A. R. Post 20.
2. The menacing heights of Little Round Top in 1863.
3. G. A. R. Medal authorized by Congress for members of the G. A. R.