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Distant Bugles, Distant Drums
The Union Response to the Confederate Invasion of New Mexico
By Flint Whitlock
University Press of Colorado Copyright © 2006 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
A USEFUL AND AGREEABLE ADDITION
It was Monday, May 27, 1861, and hotter than a cast-iron skillet on a wood-burning stove. Shimmering in the dry, afternoon heat on the flat, barren plains just east of where the prairie abruptly shifts upward and transforms into the Rocky Mountains, the rough-hewn frontier oasis of Denver City was abuzz with excitement and anticipation — the new territorial governor was on his way, scheduled to reach town on that afternoon's stage.
Handbills had been printed and distributed to many of Denver City's 2,000 residents, announcing the governor's arrival and inviting all to a welcoming reception at the Tremont House, one of the town's finer hostelries, at the corner of Front and Blake Streets. Men stationed on rooftops and along the wagon road that paralleled the South Platte River on its lazy journey to Julesburg, 200 miles to the northeast, kept a sharp lookout. Finally, late in the afternoon, a dust cloud was spied on the far horizon and the cry went up: "The coach is coming!"
The word quickly spread throughout the town, and merchants, miners, and ladies alike scurried to put on their best hats, brushed the dust from their clothing, and began streaming toward the Overland Express Stage depot at Jim McNassar's Planter's House, a whitewashed, two-story hotel at the corner of Blake and G Streets.
Among the throng was Mayor Charles A. Cook and a delegation of city and territorial officials trying not to appear nervous. With the war between the states only a month old, all were keenly interested in learning if this new governor was strong enough to resist the Southern sympathizers who were, even now, agitating in the territory and attempting — with a modicum of success — to recruit soldiers for the Confederacy.
Everyone in Denver City, it seemed, was anxious to see and meet this new governor, supposedly a well-bred Easterner personally appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. Rumor had it that he had been a lawyer, a member of the second Frémont expedition that had explored the West, a passionate advocate of America's doctrine of Manifest Destiny, an Indian fighter, an officer in the war against Mexico, an author, cartographer, geographer, geologist, philosopher, classical scholar, visionary, and bachelor. The rumors would prove true on all counts.
At last, the stagecoach rattled to a stop in front of the Planter's House, and the four-horse team, lathered from the journey, stomped and snorted in the afternoon sun. It was a full coach, loaded with nine stiff and sweating passengers, including Colorado's new surveyor general Francis M. Case, and Eli M. Ashley, Case's chief clerk.
The door swung open and out stepped a six-foot-tall, forty-five-year-old man with dark brown hair, a neat, close-cropped beard, and penetrating, hazel eyes. His name was William Gilpin, and he was the first governor of the new territory called Colorado. Had he been exhausted from the long, jolting trip, or discouraged by the fledgling, treeless town he found clinging precariously to its patch of barren land a million miles from nowhere, it would have been understandable. But he looked around at the crowd beaming at him, applauding him, and he humbly doffed his hat. Although he had never seen Denver City before, he felt as if he had come home.
* * *
The great maps of the United States hanging in the Washington, D.C., office of the honorable Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Secretary of War in the early months of 1861, conveyed an impression of the eighty-four-year-old republic being an incomplete work of art. Towns and cities from Maine to Florida, and from the Eastern seaboard westward as far as Missouri, dotted the maps. A spider-web of lines connected the dots, a graphic representation of railroads with such names as Baltimore & Ohio, Orange & Alexandria, New York & Erie, Nashville & Chattanooga, Boston & Albany, Richmond & Danville, and scores more. At the northwest corner of Missouri, the nation seemed to abruptly end, just as the line indicating the Hannibal & St. Joseph Rail Road terminated at St. Joseph.
Beyond Missouri on the maps lay a great void. West of Iowa and Missouri was a large, horizontal space labeled "Kansas," which had become a state on January 29, 1861. Above Kansas was Nebraska, an immense area extending northward to Canada and encompassing the space that would later be divided into Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas, and part of Colorado. The area south of Kansas that later would be known as Oklahoma bore the inscription "Indian Territory," for there the Federal government had been attempting for decades to relocate tribes from the East.
Some 2,000 miles west of Washington, a jagged line of mountains slashed southward from the Canadian border to Mexico. A handful of lonely military outposts — wind-blown forts with names like Breckinridge, Buchanan, Craig, Defiance, Fillmore, Garland, Larned, Leavenworth, Mann, McLane, Stanton, Thorn, Union, Wise, and Yuma — stood guard across the vast space. Here, too, in this great wilderness, a meager assortment of white settlements managed to withstand the elements, the harshness of frontier life, and the danger posed by warlike Indian tribes. Among these settlements were the old Spanish towns of Albuquerque, Tucson, Santa Fé, and, to the north, the new towns of Pueblo City, Colorado City, and Denver City.
Before 1858, Denver City did not exist. But that year the electrifying news of gold flakes sparkling in the clear streams of Colorado soon spread, and the rush was on. Men came in droves to stand nearly shoulder to shoulder with large, round pans to scoop water and silt from streambeds in hopes of finding a few particles of gold — a sure sign that great, unseen deposits of the metal were bleeding from the rocks into the waterways. A further discovery of gold to the west of Pikes Peak later that year triggered even more excitement for gold, and tens of thousands of men sold all their worldly possessions in order to head west and seek their fortune. More than one covered wagon bore the painted inscription, "Pikes Peak or Bust!"
To feed the national hunger for gold, which sold then for the extravagant sum of eighteen dollars an ounce, the mountains and hills and streams and gulches west of Denver City were alive night and day with the sounds of pick on stone, of blasting powder thumping deeply underground, of hammers nailing together sluice boxes and shaft houses and temporary towns even more boisterous and untamed than Denver City — all for the fabulous wealth that would be theirs if only the next shovel or pan-full of ore brought indications that they had struck the mother lode.
Gold miners, of course, required vast amounts of food, lumber, nails, hammers, blasting powder, picks, shovels, whiskey, and a thousand other things. It wasn't long after the first discoveries were made that, on a few square miles just east of the foothills of the Rockies, at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, hundreds of merchants went into business selling all the supplies the miners would need in their pursuit of gold. The settlers named the rough-hewn place first St. Charles, then, on November 22, 1858, changed it to Denver City, in honor of James Denver, then governor of Kansas Territory.
In the short span of three years, Denver City, on the high plains one mile above sea level, had sprouted weedlike from the barren confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte — from 300 flimsy tents and crude log cabins in the spring of 1859 to a population of more than 2,000. Once one of three tiny towns struggling for supremacy, Denver City was now a prosperous, bustling, Wild West frontier town in a territory called Jefferson.
The United States in the mid-1800s was a nation built on gold. There were gold bars in every bank vault, gold coins circulating in abundance, and every paper dollar was backed by an equal amount of gold in Federal vaults. Indeed, the preferred medium of exchange in Jefferson Territory was gold dust, not paper currency; every store, shop, saloon, and emporium possessed a brass scale on which bags of gold dust could be weighed and valued.
In 1858, $5 million worth of gold was extracted from Colorado's mountains, hills, and streams, followed by $8 million the next year; geologists of the day made the sensational estimate that at least $50 million worth of the yellow mineral could be pulled from the territory annually. The lure of all this gold (and, not inconsequentially, vast, untapped reservoirs of silver) brought people from all over the world to stake their claims, work someone else's claim, or get rich selling to (or bilking) the other two groups. Walking into any saloon, one could hear, over the banging cacophony of the piano, German being spoken, along with Welsh, Irish, and British-accented English.
The only handicap to the development of the area was the region's remoteness. In the mid-1800s, a journey from the East to the Rockies could take weeks or months, and surviving such a journey was by no means guaranteed. Traveling into this wild and remote land was a perilous adventure not to be undertaken lightly. Despite the availability of large tracts of farm- or ranchland for pennies per acre, and the gold and silver deposits available for the taking in the mountains, only the hardiest (or foolhardiest, as some opined) would ever embark on such a trip. Using even the most modern of conveyances available — a train as far as St. Joseph, a stagecoach thereafter — the wearying journey from the East to Denver City was a time-consuming undertaking.
But the expenditure of time was the least consideration. Beyond St. Joseph, the comforts of civilization were virtually nonexistent, and the rough prairie accommodations gave new meaning to the word "primitive." In most places, a rutted road bounced the poor traveler from one stage stop to another. A horse going lame was commonplace. Bridges did not exist; rivers were crossed by raft, where rafts existed, or by fording — when the depth and current permitted. And everywhere lurked dangers. Massive herds of stampeding buffalo could be encountered on the plains without warning; mosquitoes swarmed in numbers too enormous to count; and rattlesnakes were a constant hazard. Savage blizzards, from October through April, lashed the open spaces, blinding horses and oxen and exposing coach drivers to the bitterest of winds and bone-numbing temperatures.
Crossing the Great Plains during the summer was also no picnic. Searing heat, tornadoes, and lightning-laden thunderstorms — along with raging, wind-whipped prairie fires — often brought tragic ends to many brave souls. Except for groves of cottonwoods hugging the banks of streams, few trees offered shelter from the broiling sun and, in many areas, there was no water for miles; and when water was found, it was often brackish or poisonous.
Then, of course, there were the Indians. In the latter part of the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth, the sight of a white person west of the Missouri River was considered by many Native Americans to be a curiosity. In the beginning, a handful of trappers and traders moved easily among the tribes, causing little concern. But, by the 1850s, the novelty had worn off, and the whites were often seen as invaders and threats to the natives' way of life — fair game for any roving band of Indian warriors defending their territory. Many a wagon train met its doom in the middle of nowhere, the horses, livestock, and household possessions stolen; the wagons burned; the men, women, and children killed, scalped, mutilated. Many graves, or piles of sun-bleached bones, marked the trails westward.
To protect the white immigrants from the land's original inhabitants, the Federal government erected forts. With the forts came long columns of blue-coated soldiers with cannon and musket, determined to claim by force this territory for the Great White Father in Washington, D.C. Treaties were signed and quickly broken by the government. Angry and frustrated, the tribes struck out violently against the invaders. Keeping the peace in the West was an annoying and an increasingly expensive proposition for Washington, especially as the likelihood of war between North and South loomed ever larger.
To Lincoln's cabinet, the Colorado and New Mexico Territories presented a conundrum. They were too far away for the hard-pressed Federal government to provide aid in the event of a Confederate invasion, yet too valuable in their mineral resources to ignore. And to the average Denverite of the day, the rest of civilization might as well have been on the moon. In 1862 no trains puffed into Denver City; it would be another eight years before rails connected the town with the outside world. The telegraph line from the East ended at Julesburg in the northeast corner of the territory; when telegrams arrived for anyone in Denver City or the mountain communities, they were bundled up and brought to town by Overland Express stagecoach, a journey that took two days, sometimes longer, depending on the weather and the Indians. Cut off as they were from "the States," the citizens of Denver City nevertheless managed to remain as well informed about events elsewhere as was possible. Two newspapers cranked out editions filled with information that was weeks old but nevertheless still news to the residents of this region.
Although officially pro-Union, Colorado Territory was a bubbling cauldron of secessionist talk, and tensions between the North and South factions were palpable in Denver City and the mining towns. The territory's residents came not only from Europe, Britain, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and California, but also from Georgia, Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, and the Carolinas — places where slavery was the norm. Some of the Southern immigrants even envisioned the new territory becoming a slave state. Fights with fists and guns were not infrequent between those who held opposing political views. One newspaper reported, "Nearly a third of the settlers out here had come from the Southland and were 'touched by the secesh,' as the phrase ran. Utah was frankly for the Confederacy, while the [west] coast states wanted to set up a little union of their own."
A military force able to keep the peace in the territory was clearly required. At the beginning of 1861, two companies of militia — the Jefferson Rangers, under Captain H.H.C. Harrison, and the Denver Guards, commanded by the town's postmaster, William Park McClure, were Colorado's only military forces. But this was not a satisfactory solution; McClure was an avowed Southern sympathizer.
One thing and one thing only made the Rocky Mountain region and Colorado Territory impossible for Washington to ignore entirely — gold. And, with the coming war between the states, Colorado's gold gained an even greater luster, for the governments of both the North and South knew they would require vast treasuries in order to purchase the cannon, muskets, ammunition, wagons, horses, harnesses, hardtack, uniforms, flags, bugles, surgeons' saws, and all the other necessary accouterments of war.
Shortly after news of the opening shots at Fort Sumter reached Denver City late in April 1861, secessionists stirred Colorado Territory even before Gilpin had arrived to assume his new post. On April 24, to celebrate the bombardment of Fort Sumter, a pair of Southern sympathizers named Wallingford and Murphy raised a Confederate flag above their general store on Larimer Street. A full-scale riot between pro-North and pro-South factions was averted only when the owners were persuaded by the mob that it would be in the best interests of their health to take the flag down. The next evening, in response to this event, fully half of Denver City's population turned out for a pro-Union bonfire rally in front of the Tremont House on Front Street, an act which inspired similar demonstrations throughout the territory. The rebels quickly got the message that Colorado was firmly for the Union and little more public agitation was seen. But the incident was worrisome nonetheless.
Clearly, however, a trained militia was needed in the territory. On May 20, 1861, a little over a month after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Henry M. Teller, a young lawyer in the mining town of Central City, west of Denver City, wrote to Secretary of War Cameron, asking for authority to raise a regiment of troops in Colorado. Cameron, beset with problems closer to Washington, rejected Teller's request, no doubt because he knew that once Gilpin reached Colorado, the new governor would assume responsibility for the raising of troops.
Excerpted from Distant Bugles, Distant Drums by Flint Whitlock. Copyright © 2006 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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