Clio is a fickle mistress. The muse of history grants undying fame to feckless bumblers such as George Pickett and Ambrose Burnside while extinguishing the lamp of William J. Palmer, a man who merited enshrinement on a cigar box in 1900 but a decade later found himself dropped into a pit of oblivion.
Palmer first gained notice in 1853 as a 17-year-old railroad enthusiast who joined the engineering department of Pennsylvania’s Hempfield Railroad. Within two years the fiercely ambitious and abolitionist Quaker had impressed Pennsylvania Railroad President J. Edgar Thompson so much that he sent Palmer on a sabbatical to Europe to study mining and railroading. On his return, Palmer was appointed Thompson’s private secretary.
Early in the Civil War, the 25-year-old Palmer raised a mounted contingent of elite scouts known as the Anderson Troop. The unit so impressed Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell that he encouraged Palmer to return to Pennsylvania and recruit an entire regiment. The result was the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
In September 1862, while the 15th was training, Confederate General Robert E. Lee moved north through Virginia and Maryland toward a showdown with the Federal Army of the Potomac at Sharpsburg. On September 11, six days before the Battle of Antietam, Palmer and a few handpicked men were sent to scout Lee’s advance and telegraph reports to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin and his “intelligence” officer Alexander K. McClure, a Chambersburg politician who was basking in the temporary rank of major. Vital to Palmer’s mission was William B. Wilson, an experienced telegrapher capable of tapping into any line in order to intercept reports and relay them to Curtin and McClure. The two politicians would analyze the information Wilson sent and decide which portions to forward to the Army.
Palmer and the advancing Rebels were never far apart. On the first night of his mission, he stopped at a farmhouse in Hagerstown, Md., only moments before a Confederate cavalry unit arrived. Palmer, wearing civilian clothes, ate supper in the farmhouse with the Rebel officers. At 3 the next morning he slipped away, joined Wilson in Greencastle, Pa., and informed McClure that infantry, not just cavalry, was moving north. Six hours later Palmer sent warning that Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, with 50,000 soldiers and 75 cannons, had crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Md. The citizens of Greencastle had also heard that the Confederates were coming and proposed to haul down the Stars and Stripes—until they were admonished by the outraged Wilson.
Palmer and Wilson’s risky intelligence gathering was almost for naught. The Keystone State governor, acting more like a Keystone Cop, passed on to the Army only a summary of Palmer’s detailed information—in a form so brief that it was all but useless to Maj. Gen. George McClellan. In fact, because Curtin clearly was unable to distinguish between useful and useless intelligence, he also relayed two full but false reports from citizens. One claimed that 440,000 Confederate soldiers were headed for Pennsylvania; the other asserted that Lee’s invasion was only a feint—the real blow would be struck in a direct assault on Washington led by General Joseph E. Johnston.
Enter Lee’s historic Special Orders, No. 191, the general’s detailed plan for dividing his numerically inferior army during the invasion. A Confederate officer had used the order as a cigar wrapper and allowed it to fall into Union hands. McClellan knew he was in possession of an important document, but he failed to comprehend that in the four days which had elapsed since the order had been written the Confederates already had changed their plans. Perhaps McClellan would have been less confused if he had received Palmer’s report of September 13 stating that a highly reliable observer had confirmed that Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s entire corps was in Hagerstown. As relayed by Curtin, the report read, “Longstreet’s division is reported to have reached Hagerstown”—a significant mistake, given that a division is quite different from a corps. Nor did Curtin attribute any of these reports to Palmer. Since McClellan personally had requested Palmer’s services, he might have been more willing to accept their accuracy.
McClellan had one final chance to use his scout, who arrived at Little Mac’s headquarters at midnight on September 15 and delivered, in person, a highly accurate and up-to-the-minute report on the disposition of the invading forces. McClellan apparently ignored it. Between McClellan’s timid temporizing and Curtin’s amateurish mishandling of the only accurate reporting of Confederate movements from September 12 to 15, the chance to decisively defeat Lee was irretrievably lost.
After the battle, Palmer’s services remained in demand, however. On September 18, McClellan wanted assurance that Lee’s army would indeed be retreating from Sharpsburg. He asked Palmer to go to Shepherdstown, Va., to scout the Rebels’ whereabouts. An energetic Lutheran pastor and amateur espionage agent, the Rev. I.J. Stine, joined the dangerous mission, which Palmer later said he undertook “in a fit of injudicious patriotism.”
Palmer and Stine, both in civilian clothes, arrived at a house on the Virginia side of the Potomac barely 10 minutes before a Confederate cavalry unit. Stine managed to slip away, but Palmer was captured. He introduced himself as W.J. Peters, an engineer on his way to inspect mines in Cumberland, Md. Palmer was taken to Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, Lee’s chief of artillery, who quizzed him intently on geology and concluded that the so-called Peters was actually a spy. Pendleton, a West Point graduate and Episcopal clergyman noted for his long-winded sermons, wrote an extensive report on Palmer that he forwarded with the captive to Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. To the Northerner’s good fortune, however, Pendleton’s trademark verbosity saved Palmer’s life: The overworked jailor took one look at the ponderous document and threw it into a desk drawer, unread.
“W.J. Peters” was safe for the moment, but not for long. Union newspapers circulated freely in the prison. A fellow prisoner quietly called Palmer’s attention to a recent Philadelphia paper that told the story of his arrest, providing full geographic details and Palmer’s true name. To Palmer’s astonishment, no Confederate official made the connection. Newly arriving prisoners often addressed him by his real name until cautioned otherwise, but still he escaped detection.
Four months later, Palmer was released and sent north, still officially known as Peters. In February 1863, after recuperating for only two weeks, he went west on a new assignment—or rather to resume his role as colonel of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. His regiment was then in Tennessee in deplorable shape. Nearly 600 men had been arrested and were facing death on charges of mutiny. When the men had been ordered into the Battle of Murfreesboro, two-thirds of them refused. They claimed they were badly short of officers, which was true. They also complained that they had been enlisted as an elite scouting outfit and resented being used as “ordinary cavalry.” A great deal of the unrest had been fomented by malcontents who had political connections in Philadelphia.
Command of the regiment had become chaotic at best while Palmer was in prison. Lieutenant Colonel William Spencer had become too ill to carry out his duties, and Majors Adolph Rosengarten and Frank Ward, who led the 200 nonmutinous men into battle, had both been killed at Murfreesboro. There were shortages of officers, both commissioned and noncommissioned. The mutiny was under investigation by Major Nelson Davis, acting under the direct orders of the iron-fisted secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. It would be hard to imagine a more demoralized regiment than the one that greeted Palmer in Tennessee.
Within weeks, by force of his personality and his administrative ability, Palmer had negotiated a settlement in which the regiment was reorganized and the mutineers were spared the firing squad—provided they behaved in the future. He led his unit forward so successfully that in the succeeding years Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, who was not easily impressed, publicly praised Palmer’s command and urged that he receive a brigadier’s star.
The 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry performed well in the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign and led the march to relieve Burnside’s besieged soldiers at Knoxville, Tenn. Elsewhere, Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Vance led a party foraging in force. Palmer and his men captured Vance, 300 cavalrymen and 20 wagons of wheat—a supply desperately needed by the starving Rebel forces. Following the 1864 Battle of Nashville, Palmer joined in the relentless pursuit of General John Bell Hood and the Army of Tennessee.
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. A brevet brigadier general by April 1865, Palmer concluded his Union service in pursuit of Jefferson Davis as he fled Richmond.
The war was over, but Palmer was not without prospects. He was soon appointed managing director of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and oversaw its successful extension to Denver. While the backers of the much-heralded railroad connecting the East Coast to California were driving the famous gold spike in May 1869, Palmer was envisioning a north-south railroad joining Denver and Mexico City. His railroad would link the vast mineral wealth of the Rocky Mountains with the newly redrawn territories of New Mexico and Arizona. As part of his master plan, Palmer laid out the city of Colorado Springs, and in 1871 he built the new city’s first home. Within two years, the city had grown to 1,500 people, with a college (funded by Palmer), churches, schools, a newspaper, several banks and miles of irrigation ditches.
But the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, the lifeline of Palmer’s new empire of mining and forestry, was suddenly threatened by the legal minions of the Santa Fe Railroad. A bitter battle ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Palmer in 1880. He turned to other endeavors.
In 1883 Palmer built a vast turreted Victorian luxury hotel that he called The Antlers (the lobby was decorated with his hunting trophies). When that structure burned down in 1898, he replaced it with an Italian Renaissance creation that would stand for 50 years, until its replacement by today’s modern Antlers Hilton.
With the fortune he had amassed, Palmer dedicated himself to charity, funding libraries, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a school for the deaf in Colorado Springs. In 1906 he shattered his spine in a riding accident and was confined to a wheelchair. He had never missed any of the reunions of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which were always held in Philadelphia. 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. A year later he was dead.
General William Palmer: soldier, spy, engineer, railroad pioneer, hunter, hotelier, philanthropist, leader of men and founder of cities. Like so many gallant soldiers of the Civil War era, he deserves to be remembered.
This article was written by Thomas P. Lowry and originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!