06 July 2012

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.: A Warrior For His Union and Lord Part II

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.:
A Warrior For His Union and Lord
Part II

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
July 11, 2012

This continues with the second part of the story of Civil War veteran Jacob Mills, Jr. Part I covered Mills’ early years and his service with the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Part II continues his story with the post-war years and his service in Montana Territory as a Methodist minister.

A veteran of the Civil War, Jacob Mills, Jr. bore his wounds for life. At age nineteen, Jacob Mills, Jr. had joined the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment in December 1861. He served in two important theatres, the campaign to secure New Orleans and the Mississippi River and with the Army of the Shenandoah in Virginia, and rose through the ranks to 1st Sergeant. During the Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1964, Mills suffered a shattering wound and went through a near death experience during surgery to remove his left arm. Mills remained in the hospital in New Orleans for more than a year.

He was always grateful to the surgeon who recommended retaining an additional “pound of flesh” on his shoulder, for without it wearing a coat would have been difficult. He became very adept in the use of his one arm and was able to do most things that were possible for those who had two good arms. In later years there were only two things Mills admitted to being unable to do with only one arm – to drive four horses and fasten his own shirt cuff.

After his discharge from the army on October 12, 1865, Mills returned to Topsham, Vermont. There he entered business in partnership with Duncan Stewart for three years and was elected to several political offices, county clerk, county treasurer, Justice of the Peace. Mills was a good businessman, and his early training had made him frugal. His savings were invested and increased in value. Likely as a result of his Civil War service Mills was appointed to the federal customs service on the border between Vermont and Canada, living part of the time in Island Pond, Vermont and six years in Sherbrooke, Canada. He remained with the customs service for eleven years.
During those years Jacob Mills concluded that his life had been spared, when so close to death, for some purpose other than advancement of his own personal interests and fortune. He decided that the ministry offered the best opportunity to satisfy his desire to serve. But Mills had no desire to serve a settled parish in a settled community in the settled East. He wanted the challenge of the frontier west. At this time the Methodist Episcopal Church was the only Protestant denomination offering frontier mission work so the Reverend Mills went out under its auspices.

In 1870 Jacob Mills married Jeannie Forest, who became in immensely important part of his life and his work for the next 55 years. She was in every way an assistant pastor. She often took church group meetings into her own home. She helped organize children’s work and various women’s organizations. She was largely instrumental in organizing the Conference Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, and was a leader in its work after it was formed. Many young preachers and their wives found in her a true friend.

Mills had been raised a Christian in the Advent Christian Church and early had learned lessons of devotion. This strict regiment had trained his young mind in the fundamentals of ethics and religion. He was taught to be diligent and thrifty and that to waste anything was wrong. These principles remained with him throughout his life.

While still in Vermont, Mills read a New York newspaper article written by Col. Wilbur F. Sanders, extolling the opportunities for investments in Montana Territory. After careful thought Mills placed his money in a horse ranch in Montana. He then saw another advertisement in the Christian Advocate in which Methodist Rev. F. A. Riggin stressed the need for ministers to care for the expanding work of the church in Montana. These two items impressed Mills. If his money was invested in frontier Montana, then his life should be at work there too, serving the Lord and his new Church.

Mills had already been licensed as a local preacher and had done some preaching in his hometown. At once he wrote to Rev. Riggin, Superintendent of the Mission in Montana, and after some correspondence during the following year, Mills, age 40, set out for Dillon, Montana Territory on March 23, 1882.

Mrs. Mills and their two boys remained behind in Vermont, until Mills was satisfied that his family’s future belonged on the frontier. Dillon at that time was the terminal of the new Utah and Northern Railroad that made connection with the transcontinental Union Pacific at Corinne, Utah. Arriving at Dillon, Mills hired a livery rig and proceeded to Fish Creek where he was to meet Riggin. There he found not only Rev. Riggin, but also Rev. William Van Orsdel, a traveling missionary gaining fame as Brother Van.

Jacob Mills was homesick, missed his wife and family, and was not impressed with the country. He wondered whether he should return to Vermont, “but after prayer and fasting” he decided to remain. In April 1882, Superintendent Riggin took him to the rough and tumble riverboat town of Fort Benton. By November he had broken through Fort Benton’s tough outside crust enough to prepare for the organization of the church. Among his other problems, the town was over-churched, with three other Protestant denominations trying to get a foothold—Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches.

Few men could have kept the work going in those first trying years in Fort Benton. Only a man with an independent income and a strong fortitude could have held on to organize a church. The first members of the Fort Benton Methodist Church were: H. T. Hepler, Hannah Hepler, J. F. Keilhauser, Lizzie Smith, Zinia Wamer, Marcella D. Rosencrans, Hannah Evans, S. A. Kanouse, Jennie F. Mills, Libbie W. Evans, W. C. Evans, Edward L. Mills, Lurina Keilhuaser, Gibson Finn, May Evans. The last five were probationers. Finn, an African American, became a founding member of the church.

Church services were held in the wood-frame Court House until it burned down January 5, 1883. In June of that year, Mills organized a Sunday school with about 25 members for the growing congregation. After the loss of the old Court House, church services were held in various buildings around town. At one time he and the Congregationalists rented a downtown room jointly. On one side was a saloon and on the other a tailor shop, occupied by the tailor and his family. The partitions were thin and “spirituous fumes not spiritual” came in from one side, and through the other side the angry tailor could be heard berating his family. During the spring of 1884, services were held in the basement of the Record Building.

Mills lived in a rented shack until his family arrived. It was cold, and often he wore an overcoat and overshoes while studying during cold weather. Living expenses were high, with poor quality wood $16 a cord. Coal was $23 a ton, eggs $1.50 a dozen, and rent of his two room shack, $18.50 a month. He received $110 for his first year’s services. He paid out of his own pocket $5.00 a month for the rent of the room in which he preached and for the fuel to warm it as well. All told, his fuel bill for the year was $150, much more than he received from the church, and there were other expenses as well. His financial independence kept him going.

Anticipating the arrival of his family Mills secured lots and built a parsonage and intending later to build a church. The total cost of the parsonage was $1490.93. Of this sum $1076 came “out of the Lord’s money,” in other words out of Mills’ own pocket. This sturdy parsonage stands today at 1512 Franklin Street.

Jacob Mills was ordained a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Butte on August 18, 1883. Rev. Mills intended to build a church in 1884, but the steamboat trade was fading rapidly with the arrival of railroads in Montana Territory. Within a few years, most business has been diverted from Fort Benton devastating the local economy. A new school building was being built, so the Methodists rented the old “L-shaped” schoolhouse. They continued to use this building for church services until their church was completed at last in 1898.

Because of Rev. Mills’ out-spoken ways, some members left his congregation. One Sunday morning Mills saw a young black man sitting at the back of the church. He called out, “Come on up here, Brother; I want to shake your hand. I gave my arm for you.” When he gave the young man a seat near the front, some members of the congregation got up and walked out and never came back again. But in spite of such setbacks Rev. Mills never compromised the principles he believed to be right.

In addition to his church, Rev. Mills had a circuit of unbelievable distances, with the only means of conveyance being by teams or horseback. He held regular services each month at Highwood and Sun River—the latter requiring four days each time he went there. At Sun River he built the first Methodist church in northern Montana. Outside points included Shonkin, Belt Creek, Sand Coulee, Stanford (then Wolf Creek), Chestnut Valley, Augusta (then South Fork), Choteau (then Teton), Philbrook, Utica, and Otter Creek. He tried to go wherever he though he was needed.

The last of March 1883, he was called to Rock Creek, about 100 miles distant on the Helena-Benton Road, to perform a marriage ceremony. Quoting Mills: “A heavy storm was raging, the driver got lost between Fort Shaw and Browns’ and traveled nearly half the night without knowing whither he went. It was an exceedingly hard journey and notwithstanding the fact that a fee of one hundred dollars was received, I would not again venture in such weather for that or any other sum . . .”

When Rev. Mills first went to Fort Benton there was no sign of a settlement at Great Falls. A ford served to cross the Missouri River at about the place where the present railroad bridge crosses the stream. Rev. Mills preached the first Methodist sermon in the store of W. D. Beachley on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Fourth St. This sermon was preached in 1884 and thereafter Great Falls and Sand Coulee were added to his circuit, and Sun River was dropped.

After three years in Fort Benton, Rev. Mills was assigned a pastorate at White Sulphur Springs, but before going he donated to the Fort Benton parsonage the stoves, lamps, furniture, dishes, bedding, carpets, tools, and nineteen good chairs, with the stipulation that they were to be used only at the parsonage

Moving on from White Sulphur Springs after he’d served there two years and built a fine brick church, Mills occupied several other pastorates: Butte, Bozeman for two terms, and Billings. His principal contribution to Methodist growth, however, was as presiding elder. In 1887 he was appointed presiding elder of the Bozeman District that included all of Montana Territory east of Helena to the Dakota line, with all the communities on the Northern Pacific and Great Northern lines. The railroads had opened up parts of Eastern and Northern Montana and development was progressing rapidly in these sections.

In 1914 at the Methodist conference meeting at Forsyth, Rev. Jacob Mills retired. After he giving his retirement speech, the floor was open for others to make remarks. Rev. Robert M. Craven came forward and grasped his hand. Jacob Mills was a veteran of the Union Army, and Robert Craven a Confederate. Once they had met in mortal conflict but for years they had worked as good friends in the army of the lord. In fact it had been Mills, as presiding elder, who had given Craven his first appointment in the Conference. Craven said, “Hello Yank,” and Mills replied “Hello Reb.” With hands clasped they faced each other with smiles. It was a heart-warming scene to see these two men, once enemies, now with old memories of war forgotten, brothers in Christ and veterans in the army of the Lord.

Civil War veteran Rev. Jacob Mills passed away October 28, 1925. The old soldier rests in the family plot in Forestvale Cemetery in Helena.

[Sources: “Diamond From The Rough” A History of The Fort Benton Methodist Church; GFLD 14 Jun 1915; Great Falls Yesterday; Progressive Men of Montana; Sanders’ A History Of Montana; Plains, Peaks and Pioneers Eighty Years of Methodism in Montana by Edward Laird Mills; Religion in Montana Pathways to the Present edited by Lawrence F. Small; The Jacob Mills Family Pioneers of Montana 1882-1928; When Wagon Trails Were Dim . . . portraits of pioneer Methodist Minister who rode them by Paul M. Adams.]

Note: 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 and photographs that we can share with our readers. Send your Civil War stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442.


1.     Reverend Jacob Mills, Civil War veteran.
2.     Methodist Church Parsonage built in 1884 by Mills at 1512 Franklin Street.

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