29 October 2012

Stephen S. Spitzley, Civil War Soldier and Proprietor of Fort Benton’s Crown Jewel—the Grand Union

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Stephen S. Spitzley, Civil War Soldier and Proprietor of Fort Benton’s
Crown Jewel—the Grand Union

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
October 31, 2012

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana.

This week as we celebrate the 130th anniversary of Fort Benton’s Crown Jewel, the Grand Union, we can commemorate also the life of brave Civil War veteran Stephen S. Spitzley, the first proprietor of the Grand Union Hotel.

Born in Mayen in the Prussian Rhine district in Germany, Steve Spitzley came to America with his parents at the age of nine on the passenger ship Luconia, arriving in New York harbor in October 1848. The family moved west and settled on a farm in Houghton County, Upper Michigan.

In the second year of the Civil War, Stephen Spitzley enlisted on August 18, 1862 in Houghton County as Corporal and was assigned to an unknown unit. His unit was incorporated into the 27th Michigan Infantry Regiment when that regiment was mustered into service April 10, 1863. The 27th Michigan, under command of Colonel Dorus M. Fox, started from Ypsilanti for Kentucky, April 12, 1863, with an enrollment of 865 officers and men. It occupied several towns in Kentucky after its arrival before fighting in its first engagement June 2nd at Jamestown. Later in June the 27th Michigan was assigned to the Third Brigade, First Division, Ninth Corps, and sent to Vicksburg, Miss., to support Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army during the siege of Vicksburg, June 22 to July 4, 1863.

The 27th joined in a blocking movement near Jackson, Miss., in the rear of Vicksburg, when General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to come to the relief of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, then closely besieged by General Grant. After the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th, the 27th was sent with the Ninth Corps across the mountains to take part in the East Tennessee campaign. After a long, arduous march over almost impassable roads, it reached Lenoir Station, Tenn., and was attacked by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's forces, then advancing on Knoxville. The Union lines were gradually withdrawn towards Knoxville, but it became necessary to halt at Campbell Station, to insure the safety of the trains. Here, the Confederates fiercely attacked the Union forces, and the 27th Michigan sustained heavy casualties in this engagement.

The Union forces rallied behind their defenses at Knoxville and in Fort Saunders, where they were repeatedly charged by the enemy, who were repulsed with heavy losses in every attempt to get possession of the Union earthworks. Despite their own heavy losses in the defense of Knoxville the 27th Michigan followed Confederate Gen. Longstreet as he passed into Northeast Tennessee. The 27th followed
him as far as Rutledge, and then fell back to Blain's Cross Roads, in January 1864.

The 27th Michigan suffered severe hardships during this campaign since they were poorly supplied with rations, tents, blankets and clothing, and their shoes were worn out by constant marching, either in deep mud or over frozen ground.

Gen. Grant withdrew the Ninth Corps, including the 27th, to send them East to join the Army of the Potomac. The 27th returned to Knoxville, and then marched some 200 miles across the Cumberland Mountains to Nicholasville, Ky. Ninth Corps was then placed upon rail cars and sent to Annapolis, Md.

At this point two companies of sharpshooters joined the regiment and were designated the First and Second Companies of Sharpshooters, The advent of these "sharpshooters," with their Spencer magazine rifles, the newest and most
destructive infantry arm then known, was hailed with delight by the 27th for they were the only Spencer rifles in the Ninth Corps.

The 27th quickly petitioned to arm the whole regiment with Spencers to make them all "Sharpshooters." To their surprise and delight, their requisition was rapidly filled, and the coveted Spencers graced the shoulders of "ye Twenty-seventh." These seven-shot, manually operated lever-action, repeating rifles had a sustainable rate-of-fire in excess of 20 rounds per minute compared to standard muzzle-loaders with a rate of 2-3 rounds per minute. For the rest of the war the challenge was to develop effective tactics for the much higher rate of fire.

The Spencer also proved a double-edged sword. With these rifles, the 27th Michigan simply dominated advanced picket or firing lines against Confederate muzzle-loaders. Yet because they were so well armed, the 27th found themselves in advanced positions on the firing lines for weeks at a time without relief. This brought the men to complaints like: "Damn old Spencer and all his inventive staff;
wish they were out here weeks at a time without relief;" "Well, it serves us jolly well right! If we hadn't been such fools as to want 'em 'cause they were new, we'd be used like the rest, but we got 'em--the damned sputter guns--and by G---,
we'll serve 'em!"

The 27th Michigan, now composed of twelve companies, 864 strong, in command of Major Moody, joined the Army of the Potomac, April 29, 1864, at Warrenton, Va., and was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, Ninth Corps. The regiment crossed the Rapidan with the Ninth Corps, the 6th of May, and was immediately engaged in the terrific struggle of the bloody Battle of the Wilderness, losing eighty-nine in killed and wounded in the different engagements.

The 27th scarcely emerged from the Wilderness before it was engaged in another bloody encounter at Spottsylvania, where its losses were 27 killed, 148 wounded, and 12 missing. During the month of May the 27th was constantly marching and fighting, sustaining frightful losses, and on June 3 fought the Battle of Bethesda Church, where sixteen of the regiment were killed, sixty wounded, among them a large number of officers.

From Cold Harbor the 27th crossed the James River, and during the 17th and 18th of June charged the enemy's works before Petersburg, meeting with severe loss from the fire of both musketry and artillery. During the months of June and July the regiment was constantly under fire, and on July 30 took part in the disastrous charge at the "Crater," when a mine was exploded immediately in its front. The 27th was in the advance of its brigade in this charge, and suffered severely from Confederate crossfire, meeting with heavy loss. Some time during the action at Petersburg, Sergeant Stephen Spitzley suffered a severe wound in his right leg.

During the siege of Petersburg the 27th held advanced positions, and took part in the numerous attempts to break the enemy's line at Weldon railroad, Peebles' Farm, Poplar Grove Church, South Side railroad, and helped to repel the Confederates when they charged Union lines. The regiment participated in the desperate charge to capture Fort Mahone, a strong work called the "Key," in the rebel line, and succeeded in placing its colors on the eastern wing, capturing three pieces of artillery and more than 150 prisoners.

When the Confederates finally evacuated Petersburg and Richmond, the 27th followed the retreating army until April 18, nine days after the formal surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, when it was ordered to Washington, D. C. to perform light guard duty for prisoners at Navy Yard.

On May 23, 1865 the battle-hardened 27th Michigan Infantry Regiment proudly marched in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac. That morning at 9:00 a.m. on a bright sunny day, a signal gun fired a single shot and Maj. Gen. George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, led an estimated 80,000 men of the Army of the Potomac down the streets of Washington from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue past crowds that numbered in the thousands. The infantry marched with twelve men abreast across the street, followed by divisional and corps artillery, then an array of cavalry regiments that stretched for another seven miles. The mood was one of gaiety and celebration, and the crowds and soldiers frequently engaged in singing patriotic songs as the procession of victorious soldiers snaked its way towards the reviewing stand in front of the White House, where President Andrew Johnson, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, senior military leaders, the Cabinet, and leading government officials awaited. At the head of his troops, Meade dismounted when he arrived at the reviewing stand and joined the dignitaries to salute his men, who passed for over six hours.

For three long years, Corporal and later Sergeant Stephen Sptizley fought bravely for the Union. He suffered a severe wound in his right leg, and on May 1, 1865 he was promoted to Full Sergeant. Sergeant Spitzley was mustered out of service at Delaney House, Washington, D. C. on July 26.

The 27th Michigan was one of the "Three Hundred Fighting Regiments" of the Union Army, receiving special mention by the War Department and Congress in 1866, for regiments showing casualty lists of over thirty per cent of total enrollment.
The impact on the 27th was staggering:
Total enrollment............................................................................1897
Killed in action--Officers, 6; enlisted men, 128...................134
Died of wounds--Officers, 3; enlisted men, 74.......................77
Died in confederate prisons--Enlisted men, 40.....................40
Died of disease--Enlisted men, 102..........................................102
Discharged for disability (wounds and disease).................181
Wounded in action--Officers, 27; enlisted men, 511........ 538
Missing in action--Officers, 4; enlisted men, 126................130

With the end of the Civil War and his discharge from the 27th Infantry Regiment, Stephen Spitzley returned to Michigan. Two years later Stephen, his sister Elizabeth, and her husband Conrad Schultz embarked a steamboat at St. Louis bound for Montana Territory. The small 140-ft. steamer Zephyr arrived at the Marias River on September 7, 1867 unable to proceed to the Fort Benton levee, and discharged Stephen, the Schultz, and nine other passengers.

Spitzley worked for the North West Fur Company from 1867 to 1869, until the dissolution of the company. He then moved on to Helena where his sister Elizabeth was living with her husband. Stephen Spitzley drove a stagecoach for Wells Fargo & Co., before taking charge in March 1869 of Wells Fargo’s home station at Bird Tail on Montana’s Benton Road. In the fall of 1869 Wells Fargo sold their stage line to Salisbury and Gilmer. The 1870 census recorded Stephen Spitzley “keeping a hotel” in the Sun River Valley, likely the Bird Tail station.

In July 1876, Sergeant Sptizley received an Invalid Pension for wounds suffered while serving with Company B, 27th Michigan Infantry Regiment. While Spitzley lived for many more years, he never married and news reports on several occasions mentioned his ailing health. For the next several decades, Spitzley seemed consumed by wanderlust and poor health as he moved around central Montana.

In the fall of 1880 Spitzley moved to Fort Maginnis, then under construction in central Montana near today’s Lewistown. Two years later in September 1880 as the Great Union Hotel in Fort Benton was nearing completion, Spitzley leased the new hotel and became its first proprietor.

When it opened November 2, 1882, the Grand Union was widely regarded as the finest hotel between the Twin Cities and the Pacific Coast. Completed at the height of the steamboat era on the Upper Missouri, the Grand Union welcomed weary travelers to spend a few nights in its luxury before they set out to less “civilized places” like Virginia City and points west. The architectural character of the Grand Union was unique with bricks carefully fitted into excellent bold decorations. Its extensive corbelling, wrought iron balconies and ornate chimneys were an impressive sight. Furnished with Victorian appointments, the dining room’s silver service, white linen and Bavarian china served the rich and famous. An elegant ladies parlor on the second floor, with a private stairway to the dining room, saved ladies from exposure to the rowdy crowd in the saloon and poker rooms. The ornate lobby desk and broad black walnut staircase highlighted the fine carpentry work throughout. No wonder that the opening ball for the Grand Union was “the grandest affair of its kind ever witnessed in Benton, and most probably in the Territory.”

In February 1883 Michael C. Travers arrived in Fort Benton and joined Spitzley in management of the Grand Union. Seven months later, Spitzley’s health was failing, and he retired from the Grand Union, succeeded by John Hunsburger. The firm of Hunsberger & Travers continued for several years.

From 1884-86 Steve Spitzley operated the Rock Creek station on the Benton Road between Birdtail and Wolf Creek. After a trip back to his home in Michigan in early 1886, Stephen Spitzley settled in the new town of Great Falls, then beginning to show signs of growth as James J. Hill’s Manitoba railroad built westward.  With Henry Ringwald in December 1886, Spitzley opened the Cascade restaurant and hotel on First Avenue South between Third and Fourth Streets, featuring “The Squarest Meal in Great Falls.” In less than a year, the Cascade Restaurant failed financially, and Spitzley moved on to establish a halfway station on the new Montana Central rail line at Craig, between Helena and Great Falls.

In preparation for Memorial Day in Great Falls in 1889, Spitzley met with other veterans, members of Grand Army of the Republic Sheridan Post No. 18. Later that year, wandering Spitzley located a ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains in what the River Press called “the Detroit settlement, as there are so many old Detroit citizens bunched together on the head of Eagle creek.”

The old soldier was back in Great Falls in 1900 recorded in the census in the household of prominent Great Falls businessman, H. O. Chowen; Mrs. Chowen was a niece of Steve Spitzley. For the next two decades he continued to board with the Chowens until 1923, when his healthy failed seriously. He returned to Michigan to make his home with relatives in Detroit where he remained until January 1925 when he went to Chicago to visit a niece. Sergeant Stephen Spitzley, who saw as much combat action in the Civil War as any man, died in Chicago, Illinois on March 9, 1925.

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.     Vicksburg Campaign April-July 4, 1863.
2.     Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac May 23, 1865 in Washington, D.C.
3.     Grand Union Hotel, the Gem in Fort Benton’s Crown.

Sources: [Luconia Passenger List; U.S. Civil War Soldier Records; Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers 1861-65; 1890 Pension Record; Robison Upper Missouri River Steamboat Passenger List; U.S. Census 1870/1900/1910/1920; FBRPW 6 Sep 1882; BRW 12 May 1883; FRRPD 21 Sep 1883; BRW 22 Sep 1883; 1885 History of Montana by Michael Leeson; FBRPW 10 Sep 1886; GRTW 24 Sep 1886; GFTD 14 Sep 1887; GFTD 14 Sep 1887; GFTD 15 Nov 1889; GFLD 30 May 1908; GFTD 30 Apr 1920; GFTD 11 Mar 1925; GFTD 5 Jul 1939;

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