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Many Civil War vets rest in Aspen graves

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Across the United States last week, cities and battlefield sites began hosting events to kick off the four-year national commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

On Tuesday at dawn, cannons boomed in South Carolina at Charleston Harbor, where on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, marking the beginning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict.

Then or today, there was no such activity in Aspen, which wasn’t founded until 1879 – when the fledgling community was named Ute City – some 14 years after the war ended.

But Aspen’s connections to the war are considerable. Numerous Civil War veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies moved to the area during the silver mining boom of the 1880s. Many of them passed away here, as evidenced by the dozens of gravesites at three local cemeteries: Ute, Aspen Grove and Red Butte.

There’s even a monument in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse, dedicated in 1896, honoring those who served on both sides of the conflict.

Dean Weiler, owner-operator of Aspen Walking Tours, sometimes takes visitors to the Ute Cemetery and relates stories about some of those who are interred there.

“There’s plenty of Civil War veterans buried there,” he said of Ute Cemetery, the hilly burial ground off Ute Avenue in east Aspen. “It makes sense given that the West was settled by those who were displaced by the Civil War or fought in the Civil War.”

Weiler said there are veterans of both armies buried in local cemeteries, but he’s not sure how many. City of Aspen documents list 38 veterans buried at Ute Cemetery and 12 at Aspen Grove off McSkimming Road in east Aspen. By no means, though, is that an exact count. The numbers are likely higher, given the sometimes shoddy 19th century practices in which interments were handled hastily and often went unrecorded. Ute Cemetery mainly handled burials of the city’s poor and working-class citizens.

Former Aspen Councilman Jim Markalunas, a sexton at Aspen Grove Cemetery, said he believes that 20 to 24 Civil War veterans are buried there, all of them affiliated with the Union. There’s also a block of gravesites belonging to former Civil War soldiers at Red Butte Cemetery on the west side of town, he said.

“All three cemeteries have a large number of Civil War veterans,” Markalunas said. “They came out west to work, to make their fortunes.”

The city’s listings suggest that most of the known burials involved former federal soldiers. But Weiler mentioned a man known as Colonel Kirby, a Texan who likely served the Confederacy. Little is known about Kirby, except that he was the first burial in the plot of land that later became Ute Cemetery.

There is no marker for Kirby at the site. He died of what was called “mountain fever” in June 1880, shortly after arriving in Aspen. A year later, his body was exhumed and returned to his hometown in Texas.

“There’s a couple of Civil War veterans that I visit,” Weiler said. “One of which is Alexander Adair. He was a letter carrier, and brought the mail from Crested Butte to Aspen. He died in an avalanche and was buried at Ute Cemetery.

“For me, that’s the first skier buried in Aspen, because that’s how they got across the mountain ranges into Aspen, with their ‘Norwegian snowshoes,’ ” he said. Though called “snowshoes,” the devices were similar to skis.

Weiler also spoke of a black man known as Francis Deacon Jones. City records show that Jones is buried at Ute Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

“He would lead religious gatherings,” Weiler said. “He was a member of one of the African-American infantry troops. He was present in the pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s army leading up to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. I think he might have been a cook. He was right in the thick of things, regardless.”

Weiler said Jones ran a “boot-black parlor” in Aspen, similar to a shoeshine shop, and then later worked in a restaurant on Mill Street. An Aspen Times article from May 1881 mentioned that “Brother Jones” would be leading a prayer meeting for all of the “colored people” in Aspen.

Jones died in January 1919 and is the only African-American known to be buried in Ute Cemetery, city documents indicate.

One of Aspen’s most famous founders also was a Civil War veteran. Jerome B. Wheeler – the wealthy New Yorker who moved to Aspen and invested in silver and coal mines, founded the city’s first bank and built the Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome – rose rapidly through the ranks while serving the 6th New York Cavalry.

According to the 1996 book “The Story of Aspen” by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, an Aspen Times employee, Wheeler joined the Union army before he was 21. He quickly established himself and rose to the rank of colonel.

“Wheeler was cited repeatedly for ‘outstanding courage in the field’ but was broken from his rank of colonel for disobeying orders,” Hayes wrote. At one point during the war, he led a supply train through enemy Confederate lines to an encircled and starving Union regiment.

Another book, “A History of Aspen” by Sally Barlow-Perez, notes that “many miners were veterans of the Civil War. … Independence Day was celebrated by the entire town.”

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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