Soldiers endure blizzard conditions during January, 1865 march from Fort Laramie to Fort Collins

(Editor’s note: Excerpted from Ansel Watrous’s History of Larimer County, 1911)

The following story of the intense suffering experienced by Captain James W. Hanna’s troop of soldiers in a march from Fort Laramie to Fort Collins in January, 1865, was told a Denver News reporter by an old frontier soldier, and published in that paper in February, 1892. As it relates to incidents connected with the early settlement of the Cache la Poudre valley and gives a graphic description of that early march and the fight for life the troopers had with the elements, I reproduce the story in full:

“It was in January, 1865, when Captain J. W. Hanna, then commanding Company L, Eleventh Ohio cavalry, marched from Fort Laramie, under orders to proceed to Fort Collins, Colorado, to reinforce Major W. H. Evans, who, with Company F of the Eleventh Ohio, held that then frontier outpost. At that time the white settlers of the Cache la Paudre were few and far between. There was a stage station at Laporte a few miles above Fort Collins.

“It was a bright sunny January day when the seventy or eighty ‘Buckeye boys’, each clad in buckskin, buffalo and beaver trappings, rode joyfully up the Laramie river bound for the settlement.

“That night they camped on the Chugwater and, over bright, blazing campfires, told over wellworn yarns and felicitated themselves upon once more seeing white girls and calico after their three years’ exile among the Sioux in far-off Black Hills. That night as they lay snug and cozy amid the sheltering boxelder groves, a blanket of snow about a foot thick was silently laid over them and their horses.

“Next morning as they resumed their march a genuine western blizzard set in and the mercury kept dropping all day. That night the boys, many of them sons of the best families of Ohio, nurtured in comfort and perhaps luxury, tasted the first bitterness of their terrible march. But they had abundance of wood, and if the wind whistled fiercely over the cheerless Plains, it did not trouble them down
there in the valley of the ‘Chug’.

“It is true the boys suffered some as they lay upon the frozen earth, their beds banked round with snow; but there was little complaint and little sleep, for they dreaded the morrow. There was a four-days’ march ahead of them over a treeless, lifeless, wind-swept Plain, and a dark storm cloud hung over the hill. The next day the brave boys breasted the icy blasts silently and gloomily. The column
kept well together, not because of fear of an Indian attack, but because of consciousness of unseen dangers. To straggle or lag behind meant death and a grave beneath the fast drifting snow. There were no trails or roads in those days, and not a house between Fort Laramie and Cache la Poudre.

“To fall behind was to die and become food for the wolves. So the column moved slowly amid the snow and keen-cutting blasts.

“That night was a night of horrors. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon they reached a depression in the apparently limitless Plains, the two wagons halted and camp was established to the windward.
A few dead willows and weeds peeping above the snow, none of them thicker than a pencil, afforded the only source of fuel. With this cheerless prospect, amid a whistling, drifting storm of snow, Captain Hanna and his men prepared to spend the long, long night. A few of the more cheerful and enterprising troopers gathered weeds and willows, dug away a hole in the snow, sat down, built small
fires sheltered by their extending legs, and with oyster cans cooked some coffee. Then the blankets and buffalo robes were spread upon the snow, the saddles were piled to break the wind and darkness came slowly on. As for the horses they seemed to realize the desperate situation and, after hastily eating their corn, shivering with their tails toward the blast, they, one after another, laid down in their snowy beds. As they were well blanketed and the snow swiftly drifted over them, they were soon hidden beneath a snow bank with nothing visible
except their heads.

“The men laid in rows of ten or twelve in number, feet to the wind; the last man out was required to bank up the snow over the bed and then crawl beneath the pile of bedding in the center of the row. He went in feet foremost, of course. That was a long, dreary night. Every half hour or so the command went forth from the sergeant in charge of each row; ‘Ready, boys! Now s-p-o-o-n!’ Then
over went the row of soldiers and by this means they turned over in bed without letting in the cold air. Towards daylight the snow commenced to fall again. I was one of the first to rise (having charge of the commissary stores) and I shall never forget that cheerless night. The only sign of life to be seen was the two wagons, half hidden in snow, and the heads of sixty or seventy horses just above
the snow. The presence of the soldiers was indicated by the little jets of steaming breath coming from beneath their blankets and robes.

“Hard bread and frozen bacon was handed around, the shivering horses were fed and another long day’s march commenced toward Colorado.

“The vitality of man and beast seemed to have been exhausted. The younger soldiers were freezing to death in their saddles. They seemed to be careless
and indifferent, and, oh, so sleepy. Captain Hanna and his First Lieutenant, Swearingen, made details of soldiers to compel those who were dying to live
awhile longer. The mode of procedure was this: When a soldier was seen to bow his head and indicated his desire to sleep, he was torn from his saddle and then supported by a comrade on each side, was forcibly pushed or run along the trail until animation was restored.

“As night again approached the half frozen expedition seemed to settle down
into a state of lethargic despair. Horses exhausted, men cold, chilled to the bone, no wood, no shelter from the piercing blizzard, mercury down to thirty
degrees below zero and no prospect of relief or shelter. Oh, for a fire or a cup of hot coffee. Oh, for even the shelter of a friendly bluff. No; there was nothing ahead but another long, cheerless night in the snow.

“How that night passed will ever seem like a hideous dream in the recollection of the miserable survivors. Chilled, hungry, stiff and sore, the members of the expedition clustered together in the tree-less solitude not far from the present site of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The wintry storm showed no abatement and death stared the miserable volunteer soldiers in the face. Many had frozen feet, few were unfrostbitten, all seemed indifferent as to life. The horses seemed lifeless; many had been abandoned to the mercies of the wolves, the remainder seemed resigned to an apparently inevitable fate. New life and courage were suddenly imparted to the desparing men by an order to unload the two government wagons, stack the stores in the form a windbreak and chop the wagons into firewood.

“By clustering close together and keeping out the wind and snow with buffalo robes, a fire was secured. Oh, what joy, what hope, what cheer, the light of a fire imparted, that bitter stormy night on the Plains. Then to have hot, strong, fragrant coffee, the first for two days and nights. How it braced the boys up for the long winter night. A dozen at least were crippled and helpless from frozen
feet and hands. These were laid side by side and were banked over with snow, after being cheered with the warmth of a cup of coffee. Food was a secondary consideration; heat was the vital necessity. Two fires were built and about these a circle was formed and robes and blankets spread over the shoulders of the crouching soldiers. Even then this living windbreak was insufficient to prevent the wind sweeping away the fire. Embers and ashes there were none — the storm swept all away. Men sat that night and saw their stockings burn upon their feet without feeling the pain of the fire, so cold were they and so benumbed their frozen limbs.

“But daylight came at last and with it the sun. Oh, what joy and cheer came up with that orb from beyond the eastern snow banks. It brought to each a hope of life and a possible return sometime to the comforts of civilization.

“More than half the command was found to be frosted and unable to walk. More than half the horses which left Fort Laramie a few days before in good condition were either dead or too weak to carry a rider. An early start was made, a long march was made. To halt meant death to all.

“Stores, arms and saddles had been stacked in the snow and abandoned. In the light marching order the column pushed on for the Cache la Poudre. The sight of the scattered cottonwoods upon that stream was a welcome sight to man and beast. It meant life and comfort. The expedition struck the Poudre valley about ten miles below Fort Collins, and before noon the next day the demoralized column reached the little cluster of cabins called Fort Collins. Never did that beautiful valley appear more glorious and fascinating than it did that bright, keen, sunny morning in January, 1865, when Capt. J. W. Hanna’s command made its first advent in Colorado. Most of the frosted men recovered the use of their limbs and performed good and gallant service the next summer with General Connor on his Tongue river expedition.”

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