29 October 2012

Private John C. Lilly: His Montana Years—Part IV

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Private John C. Lilly: His Montana Years—Part IV

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
October 3, 2012

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. In Part I, German immigrant John C. Lilly, of Shelby County, Ky., joined the Confederate Army, and was assigned to Company A in Colonel N. B. Forrest’s Old Regiment. Part II continued Private Lilly’s wartime experiences as the action in the [then] western border states, Kentucky and Tennessee, went from mild to wild. Forrest’s Old Regiment fought gallantly in the battle leading to the Confederate surrender of Fort Donelson. Col. Forrest refused to surrender and led about 500 men from his regiment and other units in a daring escape. Part III continued Private John Lilly’s account as Forrest’s Cavalry regrouped, re-equipped, and then charged headlong into the vital battle at Shiloh. Part IV completes the saga of John C. Lilly as he headed west to leave his mark on Montana Territory.

John Carl Lilly [ne “Lillie”] was born in January 1844 in Hannover, Niedersachsen, Prussia (now Germany). He immigrated to America in 1858 and settled into farm life in Shelby County, in north central Kentucky. Throughout the Civil War he fought in Company A of Colonel N. B. Forrest’s Old Regiment of Cavalry and in Company #, 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. The end of the war and the defeat of the Confederacy brought many men westward, Private Lilly among them.

John Lilly came up the Missouri River to Fort Benton after the Civil War in the late 1860s. By 1870, he was working on a farm in the Sun River Valley. That same year Fort Benton had a dozen saloons and one brewery. A decline in steamboating hit the Fort Benton economy hard and by the mid-1870s there were only four saloons: John Lilly operated one of them, a popular dance hall; J. C. Bourassa and Phil Deschamps dispensed cards and whiskey at the Exchange; L. T. Marshall operated the Elite, where in 1872 with four well directed bullets he killed Dennis Hinchey, “a notorious character of the border” who “wouldn’t be missed,” as a coroner’s jury ruled by acclamation. The fourth place was the Extradition Saloon of John Evans and Jeff Devereux, famed for its celebration of the release of whiskey traders from Canadian custody.

In 1877 Lilly lived in Fort Benton and operated Brinkman & Lilly’s Billiard Saloon, featuring “the finest of wines, liquors, and segars.” While Fort Benton was beginning to evolve into a tamer town than it had been during the wild and wooly 1860s and early 1870s, it was still one rough place.

During the summer of 1877 the Nez Perce War involved both military and civilians in Fort Benton. That summer had seen a tremendous upswing in steamboat traffic at the head of navigation on the Missouri, and the resurgent activity brought a building boom to Fort Benton. Residents had followed closely the saga of the Nez Perce, and took keen personal interest when elements of the 7th Infantry including mounted infantry under First Lieutenant James H. Bradley departed Fort Benton and Fort Shaw to engage the Nez Perce in western Montana. All residents of Fort Benton knew and liked young Lieut. Bradley who had been stationed at Fort Benton Military Post. News of Lieut. Bradley’s tragic death on August 9th at the bloody Big Hole battle brought the war home to the town.

As the Nez Perce moved northward rapidly from the Judith Basin toward the Missouri River on their way to the Canadian border, they encountered elements from Companies B and F of the 7th Infantry Regiment, a mounted civilian volunteer company led by the Fort Benton Military Post commander, Major Guido Ilges, and freighters on the Cow Island Trail. Overall, these men constituted a small, dispersed force, and historians have largely ignored their actions. Yet, the encounters at Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon, coupled with the related decision by the Nez Perce to slow their pace of advance, enabled the pursuing U. S. Army cavalry and mounted infantry to catch and capture most of the Nez Perce at the Bear’s Paw Mountains.

Early on the morning on Friday, September 21, interpreter Cyprien Matt rode into Fort Benton with news from James Wells of Fort Clagett that the Nez Perce were traveling up the Judith Basin headed for Canada. Wells asked for help to protect the fort, a trading post at the mouth of the Judith 65 miles above Cow Island. Major Guido Ilges, commander of the Fort Benton Military Post with a depleted Company F, 7th Infantry garrison, directed Lieutenant Edward E. Hardin with thirteen men, plus two volunteer boatmen, to load a 12-pound mountain howitzer onto a mackinaw boat and set off down river to Fort Clagett.

Major Ilges, with Private Thomas Bundy of Company F, and 24 citizen volunteers, known as Donnelly’s Company of Mounted Civilian Volunteers for their fiery Irish Fenian leader and Civil War veteran John J. Donnelly, departed Fort Benton at 7 p. m. Friday evening on horseback. The Ilges force traveled 24 miles to the springs beyond the Marias River, where they encamped at 1 o’clock Saturday morning. The Benton Record newspaper reported the movements and warned, “It is hardly possible that a handful of men sent to protect Fort Clagett and Cow Island can give them [the Nez Perce] a very serious check.”

Former Confederate cavalry private John C. Lilly with other ex-soldiers joined Donnelly’s Company looking for a fight. Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Company broke camp at daylight Saturday September 22, rode all day, and arrived at Clagett at 5:30 p. m. after covering 56 miles. On Sunday September 23, the Ilges, Donnelly, and Hardin forces remained at Clagett, awaiting the return of their scouts. Toward evening the command was strengthened by the arrival of six more volunteers from Fort Benton.

At 2 a.m. Monday morning [24 Sep] the scouts finally returned to report to Major Ilges that the Nez Perce were heading toward Cow Island. Ilges’ command left at daylight, traveled all day down river, reaching the banks of the Missouri opposite Cow Island by evening. Soon after going into camp Lieut. Hardin’s force arrived by mackinaw, bringing the mountain howitzer.
Tuesday daylight [25 Sep], the Ilges and Donnelly force crossed the Missouri by mackinaw to the north side.  At the landing they found that Cow Island depot had been burned with supplies strewn over the surrounding hills. The nearby rifles pits showed signs of a fierce struggle. Major Ilges dispatched a courier to Col. Nelson Miles and started on the trail leading up Cow Creek. His objective was not to intercept the overwhelming Nez Perce main force, but to locate and protect the slow moving ox-trains and a light wagon with steamboat passengers.
While Ilges’ command had been enroute Cow Island, the Nez Perce broke camp and moved up Cow Creek by noon Monday overtaking the Farmer & Cooper wagon train, slowed by a muddy trail, numerous crossings, and a herd of cattle. The Nez Perce went into camp near the train ten miles up Cow Creek.

Early Tuesday morning [25 Sep], Major Ilges moved with Donnelly’s Company up Cow Creek, leaving Lieut. Hardin, 25 men, and the howitzer at Cow Island. Scout Murray Nicholson spotted the Nez Perce camp, and apparently as the Ilges command approached, the Nez Perce took action against this perceived threat to their camp. Warriors shot and killed teamster Fred Barker, and the seven other teamsters fled into willows. The warriors ransacked the train and set fire to the wagons. Major Ilges halted his command as he observed the Nez Perce camp readying to depart. By noon the Cow Creek Canyon fight was underway. As the Nez Perce main camp moved away, warriors began firing on the Ilges command from the bluffs above. Ilges deployed his force into defensive positions. For over two hours, firing continued. Edmund Bradley, a black American volunteer, was killed by a Nez Perce sharpshooter. John Tattan, another volunteer, was almost killed when he was knocked down by a bullet strike to his abdomen, stopped by his belt plate.

As soon as Major Ilges decided to stand and fight, he sent Pvt. Bundy back with orders for Lieut. Hardin to bring up his men and the howitzer. Bundy safely covered the dangerous ten miles in less than two hours. After firing ceased about 2 p.m. in the canyon and the Nez Perce warriors moved north, while Major Ilges withdrew down Cow Creek, meeting Lieut. Hardin’s detachment. The small combined force continued back to the Cow Island rifle pits to defend if further Nez Perce attacks came, and to guard newly arriving steamboat freight, while awaiting arrival of Col. Miles. 

Wednesday, September 26, most of the volunteers returned to the Cow Creek Canyon battlefield to bury Ed. Bradley and Fred Barker. The remainder worked to strengthen and enlarge the rifle pits at Cow Island. In the evening the steamer Benton arrived and commenced unloading about 60 tons of freight.

At noon on Thursday Major Ilges with Donnelly’s Company departed Cow Island to return to Fort Benton. They passed the burned wagon train, and found the wagons and their contents entirely destroyed. The Ilges command made a night march reaching Bear Paw Springs about 11 p. m. After the volunteers left the canyon, the Nez Perce rear guard attacked H. A. Nottingham’s train enroute Cow Island from Fort Benton. He managed to escape and turned the train back to Benton.

On Friday September 28, the Ilges command marched until midnight, reaching 24-Mile Springs. Early Saturday afternoon [Sep 29] about 1 p.m., Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Mounted Company with John Lilly reached Fort Benton “tired, worn, but cheerful, and ready to start again if their services are needed.” In the words of The Benton Record, the “Bold Volunteers . . . fully deserve the gratitude of this community and the General Government. They have not annihilated Joseph and his band, but they have accomplished a great deal of good. They relieved Fort Clagett, they relieved and strengthened the party at Cow Island. They have by their action saved two steamboats and 100 tons of government freight. They have fought the Indians on their own ground and harassed them in their movements. They have developed the enemy’s position and strength, they have saved the lives of the trainmen by their prompt advance, they have buried the dead, they have demonstrated to the Indians the fact of our strength should mischief be intended in this direction, and by their return they have gladdened the hearts of our people beyond expression.”

For the rest of the 1870s John Lilly remained in Fort Benton, and in 1880, the less than politically correct Benton Record described Lilly’s new business:

“Lilly’s Billiard Hall was opened to the public last night. The best music of the town entertained the visitors. An elegant supper was furnished in the rooms in the rear of the hall. Several new bartenders volunteered their services, many of whom added tone to the house, while others were entirely lost amidst the multitude of glasses and bottles. The opening was one of the grandest ever witnessed in Benton. Yogoites, Mongolians, Greasers, Coons, Whoop Uppers, Assinaboins, Coal Bankers, book fiends, lawyers, kickers, mule-skinners, bullwhackers, rangers, cow boys, Indian-traders, and butchers, were all represented.” Three months later Lilly added a piano to his Billiard Hall.

In 1881 Lilly moved and renovated a bar on Main Street formerly kept by Lee Isabell into “a neat and attractive resort.” Each evening a string band played “sweet music” for the patrons of Lilly’s Barker District Saloon, named for the recent rich silver strikes at Barker in the Little Belt Mountains.

In January 1882, John Lilly started for Barker, the silver mining camp. For the next year he spent time in both Barker and Fort Benton before settling down for a long residence in Barker. Lilly opened a brewery to supply the thirsty miners and began ranching. In 1884 he married Miss Katie Henn, and they raised a family of seven children. By 1886 Lilly was also postmaster at Barker, a post he retained until 1906 when the post office was closed. At various times Lilly also operated a hotel at Barker and served as Justice of the Peace and Notary Public. Unlike most residents of the once lively camp that had lost its luster in the Panic of 1893, Lilly and his family continued to live at Barker and manage his ranch several miles from the town. Even though the mining camp had closed, the diggings abandoned, and the railroad taken out, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Lilly never lost faith in Barker and were among a handful of remaining residents.

By the winter of 1906-07, Lilly’s health was failing, and he died at age 63 at the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls in May 1907. The old Confederate veteran Private John C. from Company A, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry Regiment, who left an impressive account of the wartime exploits of his hero and himself was first interred at Cavalry Cemetery in Great Falls and later reinterred at C. E. Conrad Cemetery, Kalispell. Montana. With the passing of John Lilly, the United Confederate Veterans lost a fierce fighter in the “War of Northern Aggression” and Montana lost a colorful pioneer.

Note: Private Lilly’s commander and hero, Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest settled in Memphis, Tennessee after the Civil War. Antebellum slave trader Forrest lost most of his fortune during the war. He found employment with and eventually became president of the Marion & Memphis Railroad. Less successful in business than in war, Forrest’s railroad went bankrupt. By early 1867, Forrest was active in the Ku Klux Klan and may have been the Grand Wizard of this infamous night riding quasi military white supremacy organization.

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.     Scout John C. Lilly [Courtesy of Overholser historical Research Center.
2.     Private Lilly’s hero and commander Colonel Nathan Before Forrest’s memorial and grave in Memphis, Tennessee. [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Sources: [BRW 2 Apr 1880; FBRPW 27 Apr 1881; BRW 21 Jul 1881; BRW 12 Jan 1882; GFTD 7 May 1890; GFTD 23 May 1907; GFLD 25 May 1907; “Facing Danger Down: Fort Benton Men in the Nez Perce War—Part 2,” FBRPW 2 Aug 2006; So Be It A History of the Barker Mining District Hughesville & Barker, Montana by Donna Wahlberg; Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography by Jack Hurst]

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