‘Outrageous characters’ crowd Montana history book

Rebs

An early tintype, owned by Ken Robison, shows unidentified Confederate soldiers in Montana Territory.

Less than a year after the publication of his “Montana Territory and the Civil War,” Great Falls historian Ken Robison is back with a another, related book, “Confederates in Montana Territory.”

He said the book was his idea, not his publisher’s, and there were two reasons he wanted to write it. The first was to examine with some rigor the often-repeated notion that Montana was largely settled by Confederates from Missouri who came here after a series of defeats by Union forces.

“The other was,” he said, “I had these outrageously interesting Confederates.”

The second reason is the one that will appeal to general readers. Robison musters a good many outrageous characters, men and women involved in a variety of wild capers worthy of an adventure novel or action movie.

There is Private John C. Lilly, who was born in Prussia in 1844, immigrated to America 14 years later and made his way to Kentucky. He threw his lot in with the South at the outbreak of the Civil War and ended up for most of the conflict in the saddle with Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most daring and successful cavalry officers in the Confederate Army.

Robison prints, for the first time anywhere, long extracts of Lilly’s diary of his service with Forrest. The manuscript diary, provenance unknown, is in the Overholzer Historical Research Center in Fort Benton, where Robison does research several days a week.

After the war, Lilly made his way up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, and then to a farm in the Sun River Valley. But he was “addicted to action” as Robison says, and when volunteers were sought in the summer of 1877 to intercept Nez Perce Indians on their fighting retreat to Canada, Lilly eagerly signed on.

Though the actions of this small group of volunteers have been mostly overlooked by historians, Robison writes, their skirmishes with the Nez Perce at Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon east of Fort Benton may have helped delay the Nez Perce long enough for Col. Nelson Miles to intercept them near the Bear’s Paw Mountains, forcing their surrender just shy of their goal.

After those exploits, Lilly returned to Fort Benton and opened a billiard hall and later a saloon. In the early 1880s he moved on to Barker, where he opened a brewery, later operated a hotel, served as justice of the peace and took up ranching.

Rebel-book (1 of 1)And yet his story is far from the wildest in the book. That would have to be the story of Langford “Farmer” Peel, a native of Ireland who became an Indian fighter, served in the Mexican War and then fought as a Confederate guerrilla in Missouri. After the war he joined a group of bandits in Texas, then removed himself to Fort Benton after stealing all his colleagues’ loot.

There is far too much good detail to relate here, but the gist of it is that his old gang, bent on revenge, stole a steamboat on the Red River in Texas, proceeded to the Gulf of Mexico, then steamed up the Mississippi River to the Missouri and finally to Fort Benton.

They were a bit late. Peel had been gunned down by another rough associate just before their arrival.

There are other desperadoes in this book, but also Confederates who became prominent lawyers, judges, legislators and merchants in Montana Territory. One of the oddest and most endearing of the “Confederates” was Joseph Wells, a former slave from Missouri who served his master, a colonel, throughout the war.

After the war, Wells went west, living in Wyoming, Colorado, California and Montana before heading to the Black Hills for a wildly successful run as a gold miner. He supposedly amassed a fortune of $30,000—and then blew it on three months’ of drinking and gambling.

He resided briefly in Billings before settling in Missoula, where he became a beloved figure and a favorite of local newspaper reporters. He died in St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula in 1922.

Ken

Ken Robison

As for that other reason Robison wrote this book, he does show that former Confederates and Southern sympathizers migrated to Montana in large numbers and wielded great influence in Montana Territory.

But Robison, a native of Montana who grew up near Geraldine, wants people to know that “this is not a ‘Lost Cause’ book,” referring to the persistent myth that the South, though its aims were noble, only succumbed to superior numbers and resources.

“Because my sympathies are so pro-Union and anti-slavery … I’m not going to write an apology for the Confederacy,” he said.

In fact, to temper his own biases, he invited his friend, Richard Thoroughman, a resident of Fort Shaw and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to write a foreword to the book.

Robison said his goal was to choose, from an abundance of fascinating stories, those that were representative of broader themes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is how many of these amazing stories were previously untold.

Through his patient researches in libraries, museums and archives in Fort Benton and across the state, Robison has been making valuable contributions to the history of Montana. As busy as he’s been since retiring from a long career in the Navy in 2001, we can look forward to many more.

Details: Published by the History Press and priced at $19.99, “Confederates in Montana Territory” is available on Amazon and at many bookstores in Montana.

Robison will appear this morning, Tuesday, on Aaron Flint’s statewide talk radio show, “Voices of Montana,” from 9 to 10. Then, from 1 to 3 p.m., he’ll be signing books at Barnes & Noble, 530 S. 24th St. W.

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