William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, is usually portrayed as a staid, cultured, graying patrician. But Terrell Garren knows a different Palmer, one he discovered while trying to learn the 155-year-old story of soldiers who burned his hometown and raped his great grandmother.
Garren, a Civil War historian from Asheville, N.C., is the author of the book “The Secret of War,” about Palmer’s days as a young Union officer.
Garren’s interest in Palmer was sparked decades ago when Garren’s dying grandmother told him the story of what happened to his great grandmother at the close of the Civil War.
“I discovered something very perplexing,” he said recently. “Looking at letters from the time, one town in the area would say they had been beaten, robbed, pillaged, and another would say the Union soldiers were absolutely wonderful. I was buffaloed. And then I figured it out. Every place there were reports of good behavior, Palmer was in command.”
Garren decided to research the relatively unknown young cavalry colonel and uncovered a gripping record of galloping gunfights, nighttime spy raids and brazen flanking charges Garren describes as “something right out of the movies.”
At the same time, Garren was moved by Palmer’s steadfast Quaker decency, which held even in the darkest days of the war.
“The guy became a hero of mine,” Garren said. “I dedicated my book to him. For someone from North Carolina with a certain perspective on history to end up with a union hero — it’s the shock of the lifetime.”
Palmer, who grew up in Philadelphia, joined the Union Army in 1861, at the age of 24, as a green cavalry captain. It wasn’t long before Palmer and his men were ordered to act as scouts along the front lines of a badly disorganized Union Army on the eve of the Battle of Antietam. The general in charge complained that he had only one man per mile of front, but said Palmer more than made up for it by sneaking across “Confederate lines every night for nearly a week under various disguises, obtain(ing) all the information possible as to the movements of Lee’s command.”
Palmer often tapped into enemy telegraph lines to send messages back to the North. Eventually, he was caught by Confederate soldiers in the house of a friendly farmer. He slipped into civilian clothes and insisted to the enemy that he was not the wanted spy W. J. Palmer, but a Maryland mine owner named W. J. Peters.
The Confederates bought the story but, suspicious of Peters, imprisoned Palmer anyway. He was released six months later in a routine prison exchange, and galloped right back to command his scouts.
For the next two years his 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry ranged from Tennessee to Georgia. Palmer’s tactic was to be fast and stealthy, using his elite gang of horsemen to flank enemy troops and take them by surprise.
One evening in 1864 Palmer spotted 700 Confederates setting up camp in a valley in eastern Tennessee.
As the rebels were sitting down to supper, Palmer charged. A witness said the battle lasted about five minutes. Palmer captured 200 horses and 104 prisoners, including a general. Palmer did not lose a man.
That same year Palmer tracked a detachment of Confederate troops to a spot near Sevierville, Tenn., in the Smoky Mountains.
Under the cloak of darkness, Palmer split his force for a daring raid. A decoy would attack from the front while Palmer and the rest swept in from the rear.
“He was smart, but he also worked hard. A lazier man might have charged straight in,” said Garren.
Palmer pushed through the night, up steep forested trails where his men had to lead their horses on foot. He attacked at dawn. Meeting stiff resistance, Palmer rode ahead of his men “dodging bullets all the while,” according to an account by author Suzanne Colton Wilson that Garren quotes in his lecture. Palmer spotted a way to out-flank the Confederates and called his troops to dismount and charge. Within an hour the battle was over.
“He did this over and over, riding into battle pistols blazing, swords slashing; it is amazing he survived,” said Garren.
But what amazes Garren the most is that Palmer’s morality survived as Union overran the south in 1865.
Often that was not the case with other soldiers.
Many Union troops were merciless in the last days of the war, Garren said. One letter he found describes how a brigade next to Palmer’s “tore everything to pieces ... held pistols to the ladies’ heads, drove them out of the house and took what they liked.”
The troops shot civilians for no reason, burned houses, looted mercilessly, and raped uncounted women.
Palmer complained in a letter to superiors that year that in other brigades, “The officers for the most part have lost all control over their men. A large number of men and some of the officers devote themselves exclusively to pillaging and destroying property ... they are now so entirely destitute of discipline that it cannot be restored in the field and while the command is living on the country.”
At the same time, Palmer seemed unwilling to overlook the slightest offense of Union troops.
“Some of our men had done some looting at Athens,” one soldier wrote in 1865. “And after going into camp at Lexington the regiment was called out, formed and every man searched; twenty-two watches were found, which were ... sent to Athens to deliver them to Gen. Palmer, to be returned to their owners.”
Palmer was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the war.
Garren said the war affected Palmer deeply, forging the man who pushed west across Indian territory building railroads and later founded Colorado Springs.
“I can’t help but be impressed with all he did,” said Garren. “I consider him to be one of the greatest war heroes in American history.”
NOTE: This story originally ran on June 9, 2011. It has been updated to run with The Gazette's series on Colorado Springs' 150th anniversary.