Ken Robison will forgive you if don’t start humming “Dixieland” every time you think of Montana.
But the Great Falls historian wants folks to know that Montana’s earliest roots have a particular shade of gray.
That’s why he’s written a follow-up book, “Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army,” to a successful book, “Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.”
Robison said Montana’s distance from most of the Civil War battlefields and its late creation as a territory (1864) might trick some folks to believe the Civil War didn’t have any role in the Treasure State. However, its early history was shaped by Confederate exiles and secessionists.
Virginia City, originally named “Varina City” after Confederate States President Jefferson Davis’ wife, and Confederate Gulch may be some of the only reminders that Montana was settled by Southern sympathizers.
Robison’s original impetus for writing books about Montana’s involvement in the Civil War can be blamed on newspapers. As newspapers across the United States remembered the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Robison waited for Montana to recount its pioneers’ role in the conflict. Few articles appeared.
Looking to literally write the wrong, he started a column for several publications chronicling Civil War involvement of Montanans. In four years, that writing and research has led to two books.
Many of the Confederate expatriates had fled the territory looking for new treasure or to avoid becoming conscripted into the Union cause in places like Colorado. Others had been captured as Confederate soldiers, Robison said, and then exiled to the Western territories, promising not to fight against the Union.
Many southerners or sympathizers from border states supported the aims of the confederacy. Robison says evidence of Montana’s confederate leanings can still be found in early territorial laws — for example, a Legislature that approved a segregated school system that was never really adopted by schools.
In a story that he discovered after completing the book, he found an account of a portrait of vanquished Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in his gray military uniform donated to Helena High by the Daughters of the Confederacy with the provision it be displayed in the high school. In 1910, nearly a half century later, the Grand Army of the Republic — the Butte chapter joining with the Helena branch — led a protest to take it down.
Robison said he doesn’t know where the portrait of Lee went, but it illustrates the strong acceptance of the South and the Confederacy that remained. It wasn’t just the ideas or memory that lasted, though.
Famous Montana pioneers, including the brothers Perry and John Moore, helped Davis evade capture, while William and Charles Conrad, for whom the town of Conrad is named, were also part of the Confederate war effort. Charles Conrad served with Col. John Mosby, known as the Confederate’s “Gray Ghost.”
Montana’s historical amnesia of the Confederacy in the Civil War might not have as much to do with slavery and a lost cause, Robison said, as it has to do with roots. While many of the descendants of Southerners settled in Montana, the nomadic pioneer life and the country being reunited may also play a part.
“After the Civil War ended, many of those who were in exile returned home because they could,” Robison said.