22 February 2015
Moses Hunter: Montana’s Last Civil War Veteran
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Moses Hunter: Montana’s Last Civil War Veteran
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
February 25, 2015
This is the thirty-fifth installment of a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who came to Montana during or after the war. In Honor of Black History Month, this is the story of Moses Hunter who volunteered to serve in the Union Army just before the end of the Civil War. He remained in the Indian Wars Army for twenty years. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moses Hunter enlisted in the Union Army on April 26, 1865, and that raises the question, “When did the Civil War end?” The date often cited is April 9th the day General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. But was that the end? Well, no, not really. The 4th Michigan Cavalry captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis on May 10th. The last battle was the Battle of Palmito Ranch, Texas on May 12-13, while the last significant Confederate force to surrender was Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Waite with his Indian soldiers on June 23rd. The last actual Confederate force to surrender was the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865. Technically, the Civil War continued until President Andrew Johnson formally declared the end of the war on August 20, 1866.
Returning to Moses Hunter, he was born into slavery October, 1842, on the Hunter plantation near Norfolk, Virginia. Hunter recalls his father, Jock Irving, was a slave on the same plantation and changed his name to Jock Cowans after the Emancipation Proclamation brought his freedom.
“Those were troublous days,” Hunter recalled. “Everybody was talking about slavery. My father’s ancestors were brought to the United States in slave ships and sold to white plantation owners in Virginia. I knew my father was looking forward to the time when there would be no slavery. I came to feel, as I grew up, that something should be done about it. I felt that it wasn’t right for my people to be looked upon as property. I can remember when black folks were sold like cattle. They had to go with the white man who bid the most money for them. I didn’t like the thing.”
Hunter continued his reminiscence, “I remember when the Civil war broke out. I was getting pretty well along in years then; a young man who thought there should be no slavery. Marse Lincoln called for volunteers. I was too young, but when I grew older [around 20 as he remembered], I ran away when Marse Lincoln made his last call [for troops] in the winter of 1865-66.”
Young Hunter went to east Tennessee and enlisted on April 26, 1865, at Greenville, Green County. Enlisting for three years in Company H, 40th Infantry Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT), Hunter went off to war. The 40th Infantry USCT had been organized at Nashville in February 1864 and attached to 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, District of Tennessee, Department of the Cumberland. During 1865-66, until the regiment mustered out on April 25, 1866, Hunter performed railroad guard duty in defense of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
Moses Hunter was honorably discharged at Chattanooga, on April 25, 1866, although he was given credit for two years’ service in the Army. He returned to Virginia in the spring of 1866, back to his old plantation where he worked on a railroad for a year. Hearing about Indian warfare then going on in the West, he headed west to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he enlisted in the post-war Army.
On April 3, 1867, at Nashville, Hunter was sworn in for three years service as a Corporal in Company I, 38th Infantry Regiment USCT. Most of the 38th Infantry was sent marching from Leavenworth, Kansas, then the end of the railroad, across the plains to Texas. En route they were stricken with Asiatic cholera and forced to bury the victims every morning before starting on that day’s march.
Moses Hunter with Company I and a second company of the 38th were left at Leavenworth, Kansas to perform guard and chain-carrying duty for construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Hunter and his company followed the line of building through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and on to present-day Los Angeles, and then back to Omaha. Hunter later recalled experiences when his company was engaged in guarding construction of the railroad. “His unit was called upon at times to fight the Comanche. He remembers the ambush by Indians of the Beecher . . . command on the North Fork of Republican river when his unit arrived a little too late and found the entire command massacred. [Lieutenant Frederick Beecher and 21 men were killed during an attack by a large party of Cheyenne on the morning of September 17, 1868. The surviving Army soldiers were rescued on September 25 by a troop of 10th Cavalry (colored) and the 38th Infantry.]
“His detachment left Fort Wallace [westernmost frontier post in Kansas] and hurried over the Smoky Hill route to reach the scene. Several minor brushes with the marauding Indians molesting work on the railroad were also a part of his contacts. Of skirmishes there were many, he said, with the United States soldiers always coming out with victory.”
In the early summer of 1869, Company I was ordered to rejoin the 38th Infantry in Texas, and marched down through the Indian Territory. Once the 38th was re-united, it was consolidated with the 41st Infantry to form the 24th Infantry Regiment. The 24th was formed November 1, 1869, under Brevet Brig. Gen. Ranald S. McKenzie, and Hunter with his company became Company I of the new regiment. Four months later Corporal Hunter was discharged April 3, 1870, at Fort Richardson, Texas.
Hunter apparently returned briefly to Tanners Creek, Norfolk, Virginia where he was recorded in the U.S. Census of 1870 with Hunter family members. On June 29, 1870, Hunter re-enlisted in Company I of the 24th Infantry Regiment with promotion to Sergeant. The 24th Infantry began its existence with companies stationed at forts Davis, Stockton, Concho and McKavitt, Texas, along the southern edge of the Great Staked Plains [aka The Llano Estacado] in northwest Texas. This area was described in a regimental history of the 24th:
“That country of beautiful rivers, grass and grassy plains, teemed with game. The buffalo overran the plains in the autumn; immense herds of antelope, thousands of deer, while wild turkeys, quail, duck and geese were everywhere—not to speak of cattle run wild, by the thousands free to anyone. The wild Indian lived almost secure on the staked plains and raided the settlements every full moon. ‘Wild’ was the characteristic of the time, place and things.”
Fort McKavitt was the 24th Infantry (Colored) regimental headquarters, garrisoned with four companies of the 24th, two companies of the 25th Infantry (Colored), and two troops of Cavalry. In the spring of 1871, Colonel Abner Doubleday, Brevet Major General, the hero of Fort Sumter and a Corps Commander at Gettysburg, assumed command of the regiment while Company I was commanded by Captain John B. Cunningham and First Lieutenant Samuel E. Armstrong.
The 24th regimental history described the environment: “Texas at that time was . . . the most remote and unknown of all of what was then called ‘The Frontier,’ to which all officers expected to be sent and some were not.
“An irregular cordon of posts guarded the Rio Grande (by treaty terms), and the settlements along the edge of the plains with remnants of the former cordon inside and those along the old ‘Pecos Trail’ to California.
“At each post were two or more troops of Cavalry, which were ‘out after Indians’ more or less all the time, the Infantry also making scouts and furnishing detachments at sub-posts and guarding stage stations. The climate was invigorating, the country a fair land so big and boundless that a sense of freedom permeated the mind and heart . . .
“At the interior posts we lived the wild American frontier life, scouting, fishing and home life at the posts; while on the Mexican frontier we lived the life of Old Spain, with the Alcade, the Padre, the guitar and the fandango.
“. . . The Southern Indians were not fighting like the Sioux and Cheyenne, and pitched battles were rare; but a constant ‘chasing Indians’ was kept up to keep them in some sort of subjection, the ‘Indian problem’ of that region being settled only by the extermination of the buffalo.
“Some incidents of life there might be interesting. . . . Lieutenant Armstrong [of Company I], with some hundreds of recruits and insufficient guard—not his fault—while in camp on the plains between Concho and Stockton, was run into by a horde of Indians returning from a raid in the lower country, and all his mules—nearly 200—taken, leaving him helpless on the prairie. An Indian was killed close to Fort McKavitt—in fact, they were scattered through the country in small bands of 5 to 15, all the time; they were Kiowas and Comanches on the northwest and the Kickapoos and Lipaus about Fort Clark. About the spring of 1872 they captured a train at Howards’ Well, above Ft. Clark, tied the teamsters to the wheels and burned them to death, and beat off a troop of Cavalry, killing Lieut. Vincent. They did the same thing with a train near Ft. Griffen, nearly capturing General [William T.] Sherman and staff, who were touring the frontier posts at that time.
“The [24th Infantry] regiment remained in that section until the spring of 1872, when it was changed to the Rio Grande posts: Brown, Ringgold Barracks (afterwards Fort Ringgold), Duncan and Clark. This was the land of chaparral, the ebony tree and the senorita, the “shuck cigarette: (the cigarette was then unknown at home), and mescal, and joyously the youngsters took all of them, except the trees. The duties of the troops were light, and while in thought we had troubles and privations, we now look back from those times as the halcyon days. Ice was a thing unknown. The water supply system was the water wagon and its eight splendid mules which seemed to crawl around at the rate of one and five-tenths miles per hour. The water barrels were supplied through a hole in the back fence. Enforced abstention from the ‘benzene’ habit of those days was called ‘on the water wagon.’ The list of commissaries of those days and the other accommodations—if enforced on the private soldier of today [about 1904]—would probably cause desertion. As a fact, the necessities of the private soldier of today would have been luxuries beyond the reach of the officer then.”
The 24th Infantry remained along the Rio Grande until Sergeant Moses Hunter was honorably discharged at Fort Brown, Texas, on June 29, 1875. Six months later, on Dec. 29, 1875, he re-enlisted in the same company and regiment. The regimental history continued, “We remained in that country until 1876. General Doubleday retired in 1872 and General Joseph H. Potter became our Colonel.
“In the spring of 1875 a big scouting expedition was organized to explore the plains under Lieut-Colonel Shafter, who was considered the most capable and energetic officer of rank in the Department. This expedition consisted of nine troops of the Tenth Cavalry, one company Twenty-fifth Infantry (Capt. John W. French), two companies Twenty-fourth “D” (Capt. Cunningham and Lieut. Markley), “F”, (Lieut Custer and Beacon) and a company of Seminole scouts (Lieut. Markley) and Tenkawn scouts (Lieut. Wood, Tenth Cavalry), and had its rendezvous at Fort Concho, the organizations marching from Duncan about 200 miles. About the only thing known of these regions at the time, as shown on the maps, was like that of the great West as shown by the school atlas of two generations ago. [The Expedition extended from May 10th to December 24, 1875] . . . to the Pecos River at Three Rivers, New Mexico. This scout was the first mortal blow to the Indian domination of that historic region, and the destruction of buffalo finished them. . . .
“The next year, 1876, another big expedition was organized again under Colonel Shafter, with troops of the Eighth and Tenth Cavalry, companies of the 25th and companies D and F [but not Sgt. Hunter’s company] of the 24th. Lieut. Markley commanded all Infantry. This expedition was against the Lipaus and Kickapoos, who lived in Mexico in a wild and rugged county. . .
“The next year, 1877, a large force, —what in those days seemed an army—was organized at Fort Clark under General McKinzie, consisting of troops of the Fourth, Eighth and Tenth Cavalry and 10th and 24th Infantry, but the Infantry took little part. Camp gossip had it that the idea was to get up a war with Mexico, great irritation existing on the American side from the raids by Indians harbored in Mexico, and from lawless Mexicans stealing cattle.”
Sgt. Hunter was discharged on December 28, 1880 at a camp near Red River, Indian Territory, and re-enlisted again in Company I, 24th Infantry Regiment. He continued to serve until December 28th, 1885 when he was honorably discharged at Fort Supply, Indian Territory, making a total of 20 years of service in the United States army.
For almost six decades after leaving the Army, Sgt. Moses Hunter moved from place to place, often living in soldiers’ homes. In 1900 he was living in Springfield, Monroe County, West Virginia, recorded in the U.S. Census as divorced and working as a farmer. Ten years later he was listed as a Union Soldier living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1916, Moses Hunter was admitted to the Illinois National Home for Disabled Veterans at Danville, Illinois. At that time he was 73 years old, standing five feet ten inches tall with gray hair. From there he moved on to the National Military Home in Leavenworth, Kansas. By 1930, he had arrived in Miles City, Montana where he joined the household of his daughter Suzie Thomas, Mrs. William B. Thomas.
Through Suzie Hunter Thomas we learn something of the Moses Hunter family. Hunter married Mary E. Stoon of Virginia about 1872. Daughter Suzie was born in Ringo Barracks, Texas in 1878. Suzie first married an Army man by the name of Smith, and that likely is what brought her to Fort Keogh and Miles City. In 1907 she re-married William Broviaur Thomas, the son of a white cavalryman and his African American wife Sadie Butler—a most controversial interracial marriage at that time and place. The rest of Moses Hunter’s family is unclear since he was reported in earlier censuses as divorced or widowed.
Living in Miles City in February 1939, the Montana News Association profiled Moses Hunter, “Today at either 94 or 95 years of age, residing with his daughter in Miles City, Hunter is slightly bent under the weight of his years. His eyesight is becoming dim. His physical vigor, however, despite his years is still good. His memory is unfailing. During the years since his retirement from the army he has made his home at the soldiers’ home at Danville, Ill., and at Leavenworth, Kan., making occasional trips to Montana, to be with his daughter and her family.”
Concluding the 1939 profile, the newspaper wrote, “Hunter so far as is known is the only Civil war veteran living in eastern Montana.” For three more years, former slave and Civil War and Indian Wars Army man, Sgt. Moses Hunter remained in Miles City until he passed away on August 28, 1942 at the remarkable age of 99. This last known Montanan to serve in the Civil War became the last Civil War veteran to die in Montana.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army and Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
1. Sergeant Moses Hunter, Civil War and Indian Wars veteran, is buried in Custer County Cemetery. [Courtesy of Find a Grave]