Willoughby: After the Civil War, Aspen’s veterans take on the ravages of winter
August 6, 2017
U.S. cities have recently removed statues of Confederate heroes in a gesture against glorifying those who championed slavery. The controversy that ensued today reflects one of our most bitter divisions in history. You may not have heard of Aspen's connections to the Civil War and feel surprised to discover a statue that honors Civil War soldiers at the Pitkin County Courthouse. A few Civil War veterans later became Aspen's early pioneers. By at least one interpretation, the statue recognizes soldiers of both sides.
Gettysburg, Appomattox or some other eastern battlefield comes to most people's mind when they recall what they learned about the Civil War. However, another battle took place in what is now Colorado and New Mexico, one quite important to the war.
The Colorado Gold Rush had begun just before the war. Early in the struggle both the Union and the Confederacy understood the impending cost of war. Each sought to control the country's gold mines. During a minor skirmish in San Francisco, a group of Confederate sympathizers attempted to seize the fort at the entrance to the bay as a step toward capture of California gold mines. A tiny garrison stood as California's only defense. At the last minute someone outed the conspirators and eliminated the element of surprise.
The South viewed the New Mexico Territory as key to access the West because a major route for commerce, the Santa Fe Trail, started there. The trail connected the Colorado Territory to Texas. Union troops based at Fort Union controlled that route from a strategic location between New Mexico and the valley below the Sangre de Christo Mountains. When the order went out for the Colorado Volunteers to fortify Fort Union, they marched 400 miles from Denver within 14 days. During the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, the Union prevailed over a roughly matched Confederate force of over 1,000 soldiers who attempted to secure the route. It was not a bloody battle because the Confederates ran out of supplies and retreated, never to return.
Many of Aspen's early settlers had participated in the Colorado Gold Rush. Some had survived the Indian wars of 1863 and 1865 in addition to the Civil War. Other Civil War veterans moved to Aspen during the early 1880s. War devastation, complicated by an economic transition from farming to manufacturing, left many unemployed. The Colorado silver rush provided opportunity to start a new life.
Beginning in 1887, Aspen's Memorial Day parades featured soldiers of both armies. There is little evidence of rancor between Union and Confederate veterans. But the Confederates trailed at the end of the parade.
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The men who settled Aspen had come of age during the war. Many of them chose Lincoln, a Republican, the first time they voted for a president. After a period of lopsided Aspen politics, Republicans lost favor and parties that favored bimetallism rose to power.
Aspen's residents had to rely on each other just to stay alive on the frontier. For this reason, they may have emphasized the common experience of surviving war rather than which side they had fought on. Perhaps the boys from Georgia felt similarly challenged by the ravages of an Aspen winter.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.