BILLINGS — Pvt. Reuben B. Cavender, a native of Tennessee, enlisted to serve in the Union during the Civil War in March 1865. He would die in September of that year, far from any battlefield.
His death occurred somewhere in what is now Custer County, Montana, and was chronicled only in military service records for more than 150 years. Today, his name joins 14 others carved into marble headstones standing in the wide open country outside of Broadus.
“Cavender volunteered to fight for the Union, and out of Missouri, a slave state…He wrote to his family hoping that he’d be coming home soon, before learning that he’d be heading West,” Jaeger Held, a 19-year-old who grew up on the ranch where the 15 headstones are located, told The Billings Gazette.
Held, with the help of historians, members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and residents of Broadus, spent over two years poring through thousands of documents to discover the names at the Powder River Memorial Cemetery.
Those 15 names face east, looking toward two buttes jutting from the earth like rocky, medieval battlements. The “Turret Buttes” got their name from the diarists who passed them in 1865. In the late summer of that year, several thousand U.S. soldiers passed the buttes along the Powder River.
The Powder River expedition was a punitive one. Following the November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in the southeastern Colorado territory, where members of the 1st Colorado Cavalry Regiment killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho, retribution came in the form of raids on ranches and wagon trains encroaching on the Great Plains.
In the summer of 1865, a force of what one eyewitness said to be 2,000 Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho, attacked Platte Bridge Station near what is now Casper, Wyoming. The offensive marked the peak of reprisals for the many left dead at Sand Creek, mostly women and children.
Even prior to the attack, those in charge of what was then the “District of the Plains” had aims to lead troops into the Dakota and Montana territories, where all three Plains Tribes had concentrated their forces. They went north where the buffalo were heavy, to Powder River Country.
In July 1865, a force of about 2,500 soldiers, civilians and Indigenous scouts comprised of three columns marched through the area of what would later become Northern Wyoming and Southeastern Montana. They were under the command of Brig. Gen. Patrick Connor. Connor made his orders clear: “You will not receive overtures of peace or submission from Indians, but will attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age.”
Those walking in the three columns met an unforgiving landscape. The two eastern columns, consisting of soldiers from the 2nd Missouri Volunteer Light Artillery, 12th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry, and 16th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry regiments, suffered from a lack of supplies that compounded their misfortunes as they trudged along the Powder River.
Unlike the battles of the Civil War, where so many of them had experienced combat, fighting came in the form of brief skirmishes and surprise attacks. Not unlike the Civil War, however, many of the deaths inflicted on the men came from exposure to the elements and disease.
Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 10, 15 men died fighting, or from diseases like scurvy or dysentery, in the Southeastern Montana Territory. Although their bodies were never recovered, or their graves marked, their names remained on record.
It was through these records, digitized and available online, that Held began the process of building their memorial.
“If this project had been undertaken 20 years ago, we would have had to visit repositories in Missouri, Kansas and Washington, D.C., in order to get this amount of information. And I did it all from here,” said Held, who is currently a sophomore doing his coursework remotely at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will provide a headstone or burial marker at no cost to anyone who served and was honorably discharged, or died in service. Those who can apply for headstones for those with no marked grave include relatives and veteran organizations like Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Held, who had known of the expedition since he was a child, decided to start researching and applying for headstones in March 2017 after visiting a memorial to the fighting at Platte Bridge Station. In between his classwork at Billings Senior High School, he checked in on applications submitted to the VA’s Memorial Products Service in Quantico, Virginia, and worked to revise those that were rejected.
It was at that same time that Held joined the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, founded in 1881 and comprised of over 6,000 members. Part of the mission of the SUVCW includes preserving the graves and memorials to Union soldiers, sailors and Marines, along with making sure that all those who did serve are properly remembered.
“It’s imperative that we show our appreciation,” said Fred Morganthaler Sr., a member for over 25 years who currently serves as the secretary and treasurer for the SUVCW, Camp Chapman-Compliment No. 2.
“We can’t just let those who served become a page in a history book…And that’s why what Jaeger has done is so important. Those veterans, for whatever reason, their life, their memory, their honor was gone. Nobody remembered them,” Morganthaler said.
Combining military service records with information available on Ancestry.com, Held sent well over 100 letters to relatives of all 15 men asking that they approve of a headstone. Their responses forwarded to the VA secured 12. They began arriving in Broadus, solid marble and weighing nearly 230 pounds each. Three headstones donated by Billings Monument Co., ensured that every man had a marker.
Initially, Held planned to pore over written records and firsthand accounts to place the markers as near to where the men fell as he could. That would have involved spreading them out across several miles, with many on private property. Instead, he and his family opted to give a bit of their own land to the memorial.
Neighboring ranchers offered the machinery and manpower to plant each stone slab in its concrete foundation, and a commemoration including some of the family members contacted by Held was conducted by the SUVCW in August of this year.
Although the memorial is now open to visitors, work still remains.
Not commemorated yet in stone, but still acknowledged by Held are the roughly 100 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho killed during the campaign. While the VA will furnish headstones for U.S. service members killed, those for the Indigenous casualties of the Powder River Expedition will have to come from private donations.
“That’s something that even some relatives who I reached out to expressed, where they did not agree that the soldiers should have been here, but they did agree that they should get headstones,” Held said.
Held, currently the historian for the local chapter of the SUVCW, said the organization is also planning to add both a plaque detailing the expedition and a road marker for those who make the trip on to the property to view the memorial.
“It just seems so important to have this here … It’s an opportunity for visitors to sit and reflect on the true cost of war, and what giving up one’s life truly means.”
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