By Ken Robison
This year as our nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 1861, it is time to ask, “How did the Civil War affect Cascade County and Great Falls?” Some might think this is a curious question since that monumental struggle was fought in “the States” before there was even a Montana Territory and ended nineteen years before Great Falls was founded and 22 years before Cascade County was created. Yet, the real answer lies in the profound impact the Civil War had on our country and its people.
The Civil War settled two fundamental questions—there would be a unified United States of America, and there would no longer be enslaved African Americans. The Civil War directly impacted every section, every community, every family, and every individual. The war came at a time when the American West was first undergoing settlement by non-natives. Gold strikes in our area in 1862 led to the rapid formation of Montana Territory in 1864, and the extracted gold and other mineral wealth helped fill the coffers of the federal government and directly aided the war effort.
The Civil War dislocated and relocated countless Americans. Some men came to the new Montana Territory to escape service or the ravages of war. Some came to “chase the elephant” seeking fortune or opportunity in the new land. Women and children followed the men arriving by steamboat or wagon into the Montana frontier. As the war ended, more and more came, bearing the scars and experiences of war and bringing with them their hopes and dreams. They came from North and South and from the war-ravaged Border States. Some men and women, newly freed and newly citizens, sought a brighter future away from the lands of their former enslavement. Some came with the frontier Army that moved into new military posts, Camp Cooke, Fort Shaw, Fort Assinniboine. All had lived through and been affected by the Civil War.
One who didn’t come was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, yet his name is still with us today. Colonel Shaw, namesake for Fort Shaw in the Sun River Valley, formed and commanded
the first black regiment to fight in the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Colonel Shaw died leading his men over the breastworks at Fort Wagner on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina; his brave men suffered near fifty percent casualties proving convincingly that black men could fight and die every bit the equal of whites.
One of Colonel Shaw’s men, Private Joseph W. Meek of the “Fighting 54th,” was a freed slave who survived Fort Wagner to come to the Upper Missouri in 1880 with his brother Charles. Joe Meek mined with some success near Barker and lived for many years near White Sulphur Springs until his death in 1912. His brother, Charles M. Meek, had served on the personal staff of General Ulysses Grant before joining another famed black unit, the 5th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops. Charles lived in Great Falls, was active in Republican Party politics, and is believed to be the first black man to serve on a jury in Montana. Charles was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) until his death in 1910.
Among the scores of Union veterans and the handful of Confederates coming to this area after the war, many are buried at Highland Cemetery and others around Cascade County. After service in the Mexican War, Captain Jonathan E. Jewell served as Colonel in the 13th Regiment, Missouri Infantry, Confederate States of America, and later in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He was a captain in charge of a company in Major General Pickett’s brigade and escaped death or wounds in Pickett’s futile charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In 1892, J. E. Jewell was run over by an ore car at the Boston & Montana Smelter. The Masonic Order and the G. A. R. attended his funeral with burial at Old Highland Cemetery.
Private Joseph O. Gregg, Company F, 133rd Ohio Infantry, received the Congressional Medal of Honor June 16, 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia, for action described by his commanding officer as “bravely done; you must have been under special protection of Providence.” Captain Gregg came to Great Falls in 1887, and for the next seventeen years he became a leader in the local and state G. A. R. He promoted the idea of a veteran’s memorial for Highland Cemetery, and under his leadership in 1895 veterans of the G. A. R., with a small number of Confederate veterans, formed a committee to work on a soldiers monument at the cemetery. The group selected a plot for the monument, half an acre at the right of the [then] entrance to the cemetery. On October 1897, a key part of the monument arrived in Great Falls, an 8-inch Columbiad cannon to surmount a monument of stone. The gun was cast in 1858, and appropriately, during the Civil War had been captured and recaptured and fired by both the South and the North.
The monument, built from 1898 to 1901, is ten feet square at its base, and from the ground to the muzzle of the cannon surmounting it is about fifteen feet. The monument is constructed of cream-colored sandstone and in each of its four sides is placed a tablet of pink Tennessee marble. The tablet at the front of the monument and directly under the muzzle of the gun is three feet wide and two feet high, and contains the history of the gun. Each of the three other tablets is two feet square, and the one on the north side bears the inscription, “In memory of the boys who wore the blue, 1861-1865.” The south tablet bears the same inscription, except that it is dedicated to the “boys in gray,” and the tablet upon the west bears the words, “In memory of the boys of 1898-1900 [Spanish American War], the Indian wars, and the regular service.”
This Soldiers Monument has the distinction of being the first in the U. S. dedicated jointly to both Union and Confederate soldiers of the Civil War. As you walk past Soldiers Monument in Highland Cemetery today, read the inscriptions and see the rows of veterans buried there. The bloody Civil War battles were fought far to the east of here, but many participants rest in this hallowed ground. During this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we should commemorate these veterans, Union and Confederate, and their families. They contributed much to their nation and our community.