The Civil War and scarce Western water, and the American hero who understood both - Colorado Politics

The Civil War and scarce Western water, and the American hero who understood both

Author: - June 17, 2011 - Updated: June 17, 2011


Until this week, I had not spent much time trying to intertwine my two favorite topics for lifelong study: the American Civil War and the Colorado Plateau Region.

But when my publisher/editor/friend at The Colorado Statesman, Jody Strogoff, returned from a “road-trip” to the West Slope in conjunction with Governor Hickenlooper’s public policy and community outreach tour, I began reminiscing about my own recent road-trip to the Battlefield of Shiloh (Tennessee) and Vicksburg (Mississippi).

The somewhat gruesome connecting thread is, ironically, the disconnected right arm of John Wesley Powell, a young Union Artillery Captain. Powell’s arm was shot, by a Confederate minie ball, amputated from the rest of him, and disposed of in Savannah, Tennessee after the battle at Shiloh (Pittsburgh Landing), on the banks of the Tennessee River.

Helpful Hint: before I bury the lead even further, please (if you’ve not already done so) please obtain and read a copy of Wallace Stegner’s 1952 non-fiction classic, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.

John Wesley Powell was known to friends and colleagues as “Wes,” and he was a bona fide Civil War hero prior to becoming the preeminent explorer, geologist, ethnologist, cartographer, surveyor, river guide… ever to set foot upon this “wild west” of ours.

To stand near the spot behind the “Sunken Road” where Powell’s artillery battery (Battery F, 2nd Illinois) was then placed at Shiloh, and to stare across the field through which Confederate forces launched somewhere between 7-14 assaults, with both troops and artillery bombardments is intensely sobering and humbling. While there I couldn’t help but wonder what levels of moral and physical courage I might or might not have mustered when faced with such horror.

But I doubt that Powell gave such horror any more of a flinch than a few years later, when he led the first ascent of Long’s Peak or tethered himself to the seemingly top-heavy Emma Dean, a wooden boat on which he made the first successful navigation of the Green and Colorado River system. By all accounts, from both friends and adversaries alike, “Wes” was a focused, intense, restless, and driven young man.

As with all other aspects of Powell’s life and importance to America, the impact of his severe wounding at Shiloh is best articulated by Stegner:

“Losing one’s right arm is a misfortune; to some it would be a disaster, to others an excuse. It affected Wes Powell’s life about as much as a stone fallen into a swift stream affects the course of a river. With a velocity like his, he simply foamed over it.” (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Bison paperback edition, p. 17).

Powell took some time to recuperate, during which he worked recruiting fresh troops for the Army of the Tennessee. He then returned to battlefield duty, and fought alongside Grant throughout the Vicksburg campaign, and with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas throughout the remainder of the war. He enlisted in the Union army shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter, in April 1861, and was mustered out after the war, in the summer of 1865. He enlisted as a private, was promoted eventually to Colonel, but for some reason retained the moniker of “Major Powell.”

Thanks to scholars and authors such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, and Bruce Catton, and to growing up in Maryland, I’ve been privileged to learn and think about our Civil War and civil rights history, which I see as an uninterrupted and still unresolved continuum from the inclusion of slavery in our original national Constitution up through the present day.

Similarly, thanks to other scholars, poets, and writers, such as Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Wilkinson, David Getches, and to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), I’ve had the opportunity to learn and think and live among the unique gifts and challenges of our western lands (vast) and waters (not so vast) and cultures (rich and diverse).

And thanks to John Wesley Powell’s deeply held anti-slavery beliefs, commitment to civic duty and public service, and insatiable scientific curiosity, the western United States is a more vibrant and fascinating place to call home.

Whatever else Floyd Dominy and David Brower might want to argue about from their own immortal perches over our scarce western water resources, I’ll bet that both would acknowledge Powell as the first among equals of all who ever paid attention to the Colorado River Basin.

If you read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, you will not regret it, and I will then suggest Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction, Angle of Repose. In an era where some think we should impose stricter requirements on citizenship, I suggest that both these books be required reading for anyone choosing to live west of the Mississippi River.

Patrick Teegarden keeps Statesman readers apprised of the ways of the West in addition to imparting knowledge about the Civil War. He can be reached at:

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