“My age will probably show as I navigate this modern technology” joked author and historian Ken Robison of Great Falls as he moved to a laptop computer to prepare to portray Capt. Martin Maginnis Saturday during a talk at the Billings Public Library.
It ought to show: Maginnis was born in 1841, well before the computer era.
Dressed in full-dress Union uniform, Robison, the author of “Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield,” gave voice to Maginnis, who after the war came to Montana Territory and worked as a miner and Helena newspaperman before serving a dozen years in the U.S. House of Representatives as Montana Territory’s at-large delegate — although, as Robison’s Maginnis said, “I don’t like to brag about myself.”
Montana, Robison said, “became home to thousands of men, women and children who had been affected by the war,” including those who fought on both sides, women who nursed soldiers back to health or taught school and children who grew up with no fathers or badly-wounded ones.
Maginnis described how he was one of three officers in his 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment not killed during the second day of fighting at Gettysburg. After the war, he, like many others, came to Montana Territory to mine, but instead ended up “giving speeches and writing articles” about his war experience.
Another Montana figure whose story Robison told, William Van Orsdel, who would grow up to be Montana’s beloved “Brother Van,” a Methodist church and hospital planter, grew up on a Gettysburg farm. During the three-day bloody battle, July 1-3, 1863, Van Orsdel delivered water to wounded soldiers on both sides. “We Montanans should be proud to have young people like him,” Robison said. On the Gettysburg battlefield, the boy “showed signs of future greatness.”
Robison also told the story of General Oliver O. Howard, who after the war was appointed to direct the Freedman’s Bureau in an effort to educate, house and feed 4.5 million freed slaves. “The scope was staggering, and his job was impossible, although he persevered,” Robison noted. Howard did manage, in 1867, to found the Washington, D.C., university that bears his name.
Later, he fought a famous campaign against the Nez Perce tribe across four states.
Thomas Francis Meagher, called “The Acting One” because he’d periodically take over as acting governor for Montana Territory, made his mark leading the Irish Brigade during bloody battles, including Antietam. “He was one brave, tough soldier, and a magnetic leader,” Robison said. “He swayed the crowds.”
Meagher died in July 1867 falling from the second deck on a steamship at Fort Benton. Some people believe he jumped, because he was broke at the time, Robison said, while others believe he was pushed. Robison concluded Meagher fell off the ship as a result of being sick for a few days before his death.
Robison concluded his talk by touching on the Montana connection with some of the soldiers who served in the all African-American 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry made famous in the film “Glory,” soldiers “who proved to everyone that black solders could and would fight,” Robison said.
One soldier ended up mining silver near the ghost town of Barker. Another African-American who was about 5 when the war ended would be shining shoes at the Northern Hotel in Billings during the Great Depression at the age of 75.
Robison said he and a colleague have a database of the names of about 7,000 Civil War veterans from both sides who ended up in Montana Territory. But by the time the first official census was taken in 1870, most had returned home. “I am convinced that almost all of them went back (home) after peace broke out,” he said.
Like many other veterans, those who stayed didn’t talk about their war experience much, he said.
“You read their obituaries and you’d never know they were in the war,” he said.