CIVIL WAR TRAVELS WITH MS. REBELLE
Brevet Brigadier General William Jackson Palmer, USA
By Janet Greentree
Ms. Rebelle rode the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge train from Durango to Silverton, Colorado, on a trip to Colorado last September and October. A nice young man came through the train selling a small book, America’s Railroad, the Official Guidebook, by Robert T. Royem, outlining the history of the train. Imagine my surprise when there was a Civil War connection in Colorado. General William Jackson Palmer was with the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and was the founder of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
William Jackson Palmer was born a Quaker on September 17, 1836 in Leipsic, Kent County, Delaware. His family later moved to Philadelphia where he grew up. He became interested in railroads and went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad finally becoming the private secretary to the President, John Edgar Thomson. Palmer was sent to England and France to study the railroads there. He recommended that the Pennsylvania Railroad change from burning wood to coal as the railroads did in England and France. The Pennsylvania Railroad became the first railroad in the country to burn coal.
In 1861 when the Civil War began, Palmer was commissioned in the Union Army. His Quaker upbringing made him abhor violence, but he believed in ending slavery in America. In August, 1862 Palmer began recruiting a battalion of cavalry. He recruited nearly a thousand men from all over the state and began training at Carlisle, PA. Palmer was assigned as a body guard to General Robert Anderson, and the company’s name became Anderson’s Troop. Palmer had quite an illustrious career during the Civil War. He remained in the war from 1862 to 1865. His unit was ordered to stay in the Cumberland Valley during the Maryland Campaign. General Longstreet reported to General Lee that “had he not found swarms of Yankee cavalry in his front, he would have advanced further into the State.” On September 18, 1862, following the battle of Antietam, Palmer was inside enemy lines in civilian clothes scouting for General McClellan. He was taken prisoner on September 19, 1862 and sent to Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. He was released on January 15, 1863, and rejoined his unit.
Palmer’s unit saw much action during the war mostly in the Western Theatre. His unit also chased General Hood after the battles of Franklin and Nashville. He was brevetted Brigadier General on November 6, 1864. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on January 14, 1865 for his bravery at Red Hill, Alabama. His citation reads: “With less than 200 men, attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, capturing their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.” In late April, 1865, Palmer was now commanding General Gillem’s Division [side note: it was on General Gillem’s grave that I placed a Confederate flag on instead of a Union flag on a trip to Nashville] and was ordered south for the capture of Jefferson Davis. His 15th Pennsylvania captured seven wagons containing $185,000.00 in coin, $1,585,000.00 in bank notes, bonds and securities, and $4,000,000.00 in Confederate money on May 8, 1865. The wagons also contained private baggage, maps, and official papers of Generals Beauregard and Pillow. All captured items were sent undisturbed directly to the U.S. Government for further action. The 15th Pennsylvania mustered out on June 21, 1865.
After the Civil War, Palmer went back to railroading. He went west as the construction manager of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Under his direction, the railroad first reached Denver, CO, in August, 1870. Palmer then went on to found the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. While riding on the train west, he met his future wife, Mary Lincoln (Queen) Mellen. They were married in Flushing, NY and honeymooned in the British Isles where Palmer first saw a narrow gauge railroad. His dream for his railroad was for it to go to Mexico. Of course, Colorado is full of mountains, so the narrow gauge railroad would be able to navigate sharp curves and grades. Only two sections of the narrow gauge remains - the 45-mile stretch between Durango and Silverton and the 63-mile route between Cumbres, Colorado and Toltec, New Mexico, a portion of which is shown above.
Palmer also founded the city of Colorado Springs. A large equestrian statue of him is located there at the intersection of Platte and Nevada in the downtown area. General Palmer’s Quaker upbringing made Colorado Springs alcohol free until the end of Prohibition in the 1930s. Limit Street was the end of the clean living section and the beginning of the wild living section filled with bars and brothels.
General Palmer was thrown from a horse in 1906, became an invalid, and died March 13, 1909. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. Ms. Rebelle did not get to Colorado Springs, but if I do get back there, I would like to find his grave. The city of Colorado Springs staged a 100th year anniversary reenactment of his funeral in March, 2009.
Palmer’s legacy includes the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Colorado College, International Typographical Union’s Printers Home, Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, a tuberculosis sanitarium that became the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and several churches. His wife, Queen, opened the first public school in Colorado Springs in 1871. Today in Colorado Springs, the Queen Palmer Elementary School is named after her. There is also a General William J. Palmer High School. Palmer Hall at the Hampton University in Virginia is also named for him for his many contributions to the school.
In 1907 Palmer hosted a reunion of the 15th Pennsylvania held at his home Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs. More than 200 veterans of the 15th Pennsylvania attended the reunion. What an interesting man.
The Bull Run Civil War Round Table meets every second Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. at the . The public is invited to attend at no cost and visit the website www.bullruncwrt.org for additional activities (tours, etc.)