Friday, March 13, 2009

Fiddler’s Green: William J. Palmer

While William J. Palmer was not a cavalryman in a regular regiment, he was a cavalryman who rose to great prominence and distinction after the Civil War. He used his Civil war career as a springboard to an amazing career as a railroad pioneer and philanthropist, yet he is all but forgotten today outside the city that he founded. As today marks the 100th anniversary of his death, I thought it fitting to post a memoriam of his life and achievements.

William Jackson Palmer was born to a Quaker family in Leipsic, Delaware on September 17, 1836. The family left the small coastal town when he was five and moved to the Germantown section of Philadelphia. He was fascinated as a child by steam locomotives and learned all that he could about railroads. When he was 17, he went to work the Pennsylvania Railroad.. He was sent to England and France to study railroad engineering and mining. When he returned in 1856, he became the private secretary of the president of the railroad. From this position, he was exposed to the inner workings of the railroad industry, something that stood him in excellent stead in later years.

Palmer explained to the president of the PRR that coal could replace wood as a fuel source, based on his observations in England. Faced with shortages of wood along its right of ways, the company became the first American railroad to convert to coal as a fuel source. He spent the next several years focusing on associated problems with railroad engine power and combustion. Among those he worked closely with during this time was the railroad vice president’s assistant, Andrew Carnegie.

Although raised as a Quaker, Palmer was also an active abolitionist, and felt compelled to serve for the Union during the Civil War. He was appointed a captain of volunteers and recruited a troop of cavalry during October and November 1861 at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The unit, known throughout the war as the Anderson Troop, was organized to serve as an escort for Major General Robert Anderson, commander of the Army of the Ohio. He was replaced before the troop reached the army, but they subsequently served as escorts for generals Sherman, Buell and Rosecrans.

The troop was very active as scouts and couriers, and commended by General Buell for their efforts following the battle of Shiloh. Their performance was so exemplary that Buell petitioned the secretary of war for permission to expand the troop to a full battalion of cavalry. Upon receiving this permission, Captain Palmer and several of his men were ordered back to Pennsylvania in July 1862 to recruit three additional companies. They opened recruiting offices in several locations across the state, and again established a camp of rendezvous at Carlisle. Recruiting was so successful that a full regiment was eventually raised, and designated the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Although also known as the Anderson Cavalry, the original troop was never incorporated into the regiment.

Early in September 1862, the regiment’s drill and training were interrupted by the Army of Northern Virginia’s invasion of Maryland. While the rest of the regiment remained in place to defend the Cumberland valley if needed, two hundred fifty men were selected to move to the front under Captain Palmer. The group, still dismounted since the regiment had not yet received its horses, proceeded by rail to Greencastle, near the Maryland border. They procured a number of mounts locally, and picketed the roads leading into the town from the south. Skirmishing took place on the 12th and 13th, but the unit was able to hold its positions, convincing General Longstreet at Hagerstown that he had “swarms of Yankee cavalry” to his front. It was Palmer’s men that the tired troopers of the cavalry column from Harpers Ferry encountered with their captured wagon train just outside of Greencastle the morning after their escape. They were withdrawn two days later, and utilized for scouting during the battle of Antietam.

The day after the battle, Captain Palmer was sent across the Potomac to Virginia in civilian clothes as a scout to determine the disposition of the Confederate army. He was captured by Confederate cavalry shortly after crossing the river, however, and sent to Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. Four months later, he was exchanged for a political prisoner and sent north. Unbeknownst to him, he was promoted to Colonel of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry on September 8, 1862.

Upon his release, Colonel Palmer recuperated very briefly before moving west to rejoin his regiment. The unit at the time was in deplorable shape. Palmer’s capture had occurred at a critical time in the formation of the regiment, and left the unit without a number of key leaders. The problems culminated in December, when over half the regiment had refused to move to the front and fight at the battle of Stones River. The 200 men who fought in the battle gave a good accounting of themselves, and both majors were killed during the fighting. Colonel Palmer returned on February 7, 1863 to find part of his regiment praised in official reports of the battle and over 600 men in prison under death sentences for mutiny.
Within weeks the young colonel negotiated a settlement which reorganized the regiment and paroled the mutineers from the firing squad as long as there were no further incidents. The regiment was organized into twelve companies, and received it s full complement of horses and equipment. The regiment was reviewed by General Rosecrans on April 10th and deemed ready for action.

The regiment performed well in the Tullahoma campaign, with three companies retained at army headquarters as an escort for the commanding general. They spent the majority of July and August on scouting and mapmaking duty. They guarded flank roads during the battle of Chickamauga, and assisted in covering the army’s retreat. They were among several cavalry units detached from the army during the siege of Chattanooga. Once the siege was raised following the battle on November 25th, they led the column under Sherman sent to relieve Burnsides’ forces at Knoxville. They continued to distinguish themselves in various engagements during November and December of 1863.

On January 13, 1862, Colonel Palmer learned that Confederate General Vance, with a force of 300 cavalry and dismounted Indians, had advanced from North Carolina and captured a small wagon train and a number of prisoners near Sevierville. His regiment was at the time in camp, with a brigade of Confederate cavalry to its front. Leaving his pickets posted to the regiment’s front, Palmer assembled 125 men and took a mountain back road to cut off the raiders before they could reach Newport. Following a march of 30 miles, Palmer’s force overtook the Confederates. A successful saber charge netted them General Vance, 150 horses, 50 prisoners, and the entire wagon train. He successfully moved the entire party safely back to Sevierville. He was recommended for promotion for his gallantry in the affair by Elliott, Foster and Sturgis.

In late January, Palmer led a raid of his regiment and the 1st Tennessee Cavalry to the mouth of the Big Pigeon River, where they captured another small wagon train and a number of mules and prisoners. The remainder of the winter was spent in scouting and reconnaissance.

The winter’s hard campaigning had exhausted the regiment’s horses, and in May 1864 it was ordered back to Nashville to remount and re-equip. Due to supply shortages, it was August before all necessary equipment was received. The regiment was further delayed from rejoining the army in responding to raids by Confederate general Wheeler. The fall was spent in continuous scouting. At the end of the year, Palmer and his men joined in the relentless pursuit of Hood’s defeated Army of Tennessee following the battle of Nashville. On November 6, 1864, he was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers for meritorious service.

On January 14, 1865, at Red Hill, Ala., Palmer and his men attacked and defeated a larger force, capturing 200 Confederate soldiers and one fieldpiece without losing a man. Palmer was awarded the Medal of Honor for that action by Congress on February 24, 1894.

Before the spring campaign of 1865 was started, General Palmer was assigned command of the First Brigade of Gillem’s Division in the cavalry under General Stoneman. General Palmer continued to perform well, and succeeded Gillem in command of the division. At the end of April 1865, Palmer’s division was ordered to proceed south in an attempt to capture Jefferson Davis. While his men didn’t succeed in capturing Davis, they did capture General Braxton Bragg and over a million and a half dollars belonging to the various banks of Macon, Georgia. This capture was forwarded to army headquarters at Augusta without incident. Not long afterward, General Palmer and his regiment were mustered out of service on June 21, 1865.

After the war, Palmer resumed his railroad career. He was appointed managing director of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and was responsible for its extension to Denver. During this time, he met Dr. William Bell, an Englishman who became his friend and partner in most business ventures for the rest of his life. Once this line was complete, he and Bell co-founded the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1870.

The young railroad entrepreneur met Mary “Queen” Mellen and her father while they were on a train trip to see the west. William and Mary were married in Flushing, New York on November 8, 1870. During their honeymoon in Great Britain, Palmer noticed the use of narrow gauge (3’ wide) railroading and recognized the advantages of using such a gauge on his own line. The narrower gauge enabled trains to take steeper grades and sharper curves, which was particularly useful in the mountains of Colorado. The majority of the D&RG railroad was built in narrow gauge. One 45 mile section, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, continues to operate today as a tourist line.

He also assisted in the establishment of Hampton University in Virginia. Typical of many traditionally black colleges and universities which trace their roots to the period immediately after the end of American Civil War, the school received much of its financial and leadership support from church groups and former officers and soldiers who had served in the Union Army. The new normal, or teachers’ school at Hampton was led by another former Union general, and Palmer gave substantial sums to help. "Palmer Hall" on the Hampton University campus was named in honor and gratitude of the his financial support.

The new railroad’s first section was an area line from Denver to Pikes Peak. Palmer loved the new area at the base of the mountain. In 1871, he acquired 10,000 acres of land east of the former territorial capital, Colorado City, and laid out and founded the new city of Colorado Springs. The city was centrally planned and developed by Palmer. Saloons and gambling houses were not permitted, and the production or sale of alcohol was illegal in the city until prohibition was lifted nationwide in 1933. Mrs. Palmer opened the first public school in the new town in November. Within two years the city had grown to over 1,500 people.
This city later became the focus of Palmer’s life. He built his dream home, which he called Glen Eyrie near Colorado Springs in the northwest foothills north of the Garden of the Gods rock formations which are today a city park. Dr. Bell built his home, called Briarhurst, at the southern end of the unique rock formation. Glen Eyrie was a 22-room frame house with a large carriage house. In 1881, the house was remodeled to include additional rooms and a tower. The house still stands today, and is owned by a group known as The Navigators. Tours of the main house can be arranged.

In 1879, he noticed a high demand for steel for rails, and constructed a large steel mill in the nearby town of Pueblo for the Colorado Coal and Iron Company. In 1892 the company merged with Colorado Fuel Company to become the state’s largest employer, and a company that dominated industry within the state for decades.

All of Palmer’s fortunes were not on the rise, however. His north-south railroad had conflicting right of way issues with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. A long and bitter legal battle ended with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Palmer in 1880. Later that year, Mrs. Palmer suffered a mild heart attack and was advised to move to a lower altitude. She and their three daughters moved first to the East Coast, then to England. Mrs. Palmer died on December 28, 1894, and a grieving William Palmer went to England to return Mrs. Palmer's remains and the girls to Colorado Springs.

In 1901, Palmer sold the Rio Grande Western Railroad and retired. He dedicated himself and the fortune he had amassed to charity. He enjoyed being the benefactor to the Colorado Springs community, and was well liked by the people.
William Jackson Palmer’s legacy is tremendous. He granted land to several institutions in Colorado Springs, including the Union Printer's Home, the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, several churches in central Colorado Springs, and Cragmor Sanitarium, a tuberculosis sanitarium. He also provided land and funding for the creation of Colorado College and was one of its founding trustees. Palmer Hall, the main social science building on the Colorado College campus, is named for him. Two local high schools are also named for the general. Palmer Divide, the ridge north of the city, and Palmer Park in Colorado Springs, are also named in his honor. Queen Palmer Elementary School in Colorado Springs is named in honor of his wife.

In 1906, Palmer suffered a fall from a horse while on a ride with his daughters and a friend. He was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Unable to travel in 1907, he paid for all the expenses of the 208 surviving veterans to come to his vast Colorado home for a three-day reunion and celebration.

William Jackson Palmer died at his home on March 13, 1909 at the age of 72. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Sources for this entry are open sources too numerous to document, but which include Samuel P. Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, and an excellent article by Thomas P. Lowry which can be found online at

Special thanks to Brian Downey at Antietam on the Web for permission to use the wartime photo of Palmer from his website.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for this thorough post on Palmer and for the references. I found some information about him also in "Column South with the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry" by Suzanne Colton Wilson.

Larry Freiheit

Don said...


My pleasure, I enjoyed doing this one.

He's in a ton of books here locally, which is why I didn't provide my usual full list of sources.

Don said...

The 15th PA Cavalry has a really interesting history. It took an effort to remind myself that I needed to get back on topic in my research.

Anonymous said...

Hi Don,

I'm sure it's a coincidence (!), but there's an article in yesterday's Colorado Springs Gazette on Palmer.

Don said...


No coincidence at all, I'm sure. They even reprinted the front page from the day of his death for last Friday's paper. He was a pretty impressive fellow, and very well-remembered locally.