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The Return of the 1st Montana Volunteer Infantry

Contributed by John Barrows
An Officer of the 1st Montana Repels a Bayonet Thrust
The members of the 1st Montana Volunteer Infantry pose for a photo. The private at left demonstrates a bayonet thrust toward the officer at right. the officer parries the thrust with his sword.

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This account was written by John Barrows in 1999.  It concerns the festivities surrounding the return of the First Montana Volunteer Infantry following its service in the war.

The First Montana Returns:

100 years ago the volunteers of the First Montana Infantry came home from the War Against Spain. Dillon [the hometown of most of Company E] gave them a hero's welcome... while the folks at the Butte depot waited and waited... And the boys came marching home...

There's never been a party in Dillon like the party they threw a century ago for the boys of Company E and the First Montana, on their way home from the fighting fields in the Philippine Islands. Eighteen months before the volunteers, members of the Montana militia that had been organized as the First Montana Volunteer Infantry, had left Montana by rail, heading for their ultimate destination... the Philippines.

War had broken out with Spain... enflamed in part by the infamous explosion and sinking of the battleship, the U.S.S. MAINE, in Cuba. On May 25, 1898, the First Montana departed Montana, and its last stop in the state was at Dillon. The townspeople celebrated with long tables of food lined up along the tracks to feed the soldiers, and to bid good-bye to their two local companies... Company E from Dillon and Company D from Virginia City. Now, a year and a half later the war was over, and the First Montana was coming home, to a hero's welcome. The citizens of Butte had decked the city in bunting and patriotic themes, and built a huge victory arch to welcome the soldiers home. A big party was planned to start early Monday morning... when the train pulled in from Salt Lake. Only a short stop was planned in Dillon, enough to say hello to the local troops. All night Sunday the rain fell and fell. The streets of Dillon were a sea of mud, according to contemporary reports... and in the mountains, rain changed to snow... the first of the season. The men of the First Montana, all 800 of them, were speeding home to Montana in three trains, "as fast as the speed of steam would bring them..."

As the trains made their progress north, the city of Dillon was busy throughout the night, getting ready for the arrival of the troops. Dillon too had built a victory arch, and with the help of dozens of volunteers, carefully made and hand-packed, in special pasteboard boxes, a voluminous lunch for the homeward bound soldiers.

Every one of the 800 lunch boxes, which were stored in the basement of the Metlen Hotel, contained a veritable feast of doughnuts, pickles, ham sandwiches, grapes and other goodies, a napkin, and a neat card, bearing this inscription: "May 24, 1898, supper. October 23, 1899, breakfast." During the night a special train, carrying over 100 dignitaries from Butte, Anaconda and Helena, arrived, festooned with bunting. On board were Governor R. B. Smith and other officials, and members of the state's press.

There wasn't a hotel room to be had in all of Dillon while the town waited for the train. It was promised that a cannon would be fired a half an hour before the train arrived. A little before 5 a.m. the telegraph clicked the message that the first of the three trains was about 30 minutes a way. The roar of the cannon brought an almost instant rush through the halls of the Metlen Hotel and through the doors of the railroad station. At 6 a.m. the train could be heard in the distance... and the band of volunteers, headed by T. J. Murray, started bringing the lunch boxes over the tracks for the troops.

Squads of volunteers, each with a designated "captain" stood ready to swing on the cars as they rolled to a stop with the lunches and hot coffee. The boys from Company E of Dillon were on the first train, and the crowd on the platform could hardly contain themselves as the train pulled into the station, came to a stop and the troops started to disembark. The editor of the Dillon Tribune wasted no effort in singing the praises of the day... "Oh, but it was a great morning to more than one mother and father in this town, and in seeing them safely once more on Montana soil."

The Dillon townspeople wanted to party forever... but the crowds at Butte, and connecting trains were waiting. What was supposed to be a few minutes, however, turned into several hours before the last of he three trains left at 9:30 a.m., followed by the special train for citizens to Butte. When the trains got to Silver Bow, just a few miles west of Butte, there was a long and frustrating wait until the troops could roll once more.

When the trains pulled into Butte, the weather was "beastly" but not the welcome. The party went on and on... and finally, the rest of the troops headed out to their final destination, while a special train returned the Dillon visitors and the members of Company E back home... arriving at the sense-dimming time of 2 a.m. It had been a wonderful reception, but the best was yet to come for the Boys of Company E.

As dawn broke the rain and slush of the day before turned into icy pavements and miserable, choppy streets.

At the theater...

Spirits were not to be dampened, however, with a little ice and snow. At 9 a.m. Tuesday morning the cannon roared once again, and the band broke into a military air as the parade through the ice-clogged streets began. A bitter wind cut through the wraps of adults and children alike, chilling them to the marrow, but nothing could stop the joy of the moment.

With the band leading the procession, about 20 veterans of the Civil War followed, holding aloft a banner that read "Old Boys Greeting, '61 to '65 to Montana Volunteers." Then came the boys of Company E, "marching with the stride and bearing of veterans." The ex-members of the old Montana Guard, who did not go to the Philippines, followed, and then 250 Dillon school children and their teachers brought up the rear, waving flags and banners.

The parade ended at the triumphal arch at the corner of Bannack and Montana streets. Built at a cost of about $150 by Thomas O'Connor, the arch was about 30 feet high. The top had been profusely decorated with evergreens, while each of the pillars "presented a glowing appearance in the vista of red, white and blue coloring. From column to column hung great streamers of the same loyal colors." Red, white and blue electric lights decorated the arch, which at night, according to reports, "made the arch a glowing as well as a patriot inspiring picture."

Special ceremonies were planned, but because of the bitter weather were postponed until the afternoon in the Dillon Theater. From the parade the group moved to the Metlen Hotel's big dining room. The Civil War veterans had the precedence for the day, and they marched in close order into the dining room, followed by the new veterans. The tables, reports said, "presented a most beautiful and pleasing appearance, and were bountifully ladened with the feast of good things prepared by the ladies of Dillon."

The menus for the dinner were adorned with a small silk American flag and were highly prized by those attending the event, and read: At the banquet the two groups of veterans were toasted and retoasted, with Judge Everett Conger, raising the glass on high to toast the veterans from the War Against Spain.

Conger, a Civil War veteran, was well known for his valor in the War Between the States, and was credited as being the officer that led the detachment that captured Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Company E's lieutenant, Charles Virden, of the First Montana Infantry, returned the toast, telling about how much the members of the Company appreciated the support and favors showered on them by the citizens of their home town [of] Dillon.

With the banquet over, the crowd started milling outside the doors of the Dillon Theater long before 4 p.m., when it was slated to start. Standing room was almost nonexistent when B. F. White, Montana Territory's last governor and a well-known Dillon banker, opened the welcoming ceremony. "The City is yours," White told the soldiers. "If you see anything you want, take it. If you do not see what you want, ask for it; and it will be given you."

Former Governor Edwin Norris made the principal address... and waxing eloquently at time, paid tribute to the veterans of both wars. A contemporary report said Norris "told of the time when our own soldiers bade good bye to home and friends just eighteen months ago that day, and how fond mothers stood on the depot platform, bravely choking back their tears as they cheered on their boys as the train sped onward until it disappeared into the darkness which closed around it, knowing full well that it was symbolic of many a soldier's fate... the eternal gloom of the grave." A concert, complete with a repertoire of seven patriotic songs, ended the event, with the veterans of Company E giving three cheers and a tiger for the citizens of Dillon, and the Civil War veterans giving three cheers for Company E... and the whole audience left for dances at the Dillon Theater and Dart Hall, which lasted far into the next morning.


Barrows, John  The Dillon Tribune, October 27, 1999 (used by permission)

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