Brigadier General
James W. Denver

(October 23, 1817-August 9, 1892)

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield

Gen. Denver is remembered by many as the man that Denver, Colorado was named after. He was Governor of Kansas Territory, which at the time, extended to the continental divide. Arapaho County, Kansas Territory included the Territory's land west of the present Kansas-Colorado border and had no government. James Denver appointed one to keep order during the Pike's Peak Gold Rush and when the County Government laid out their county seat they named it Denver. James Denver never had occasion to visit the town.

While best known for having his name bestowed on a town that became a great city, James W. Denver in his 74+ years of life was a schoolteacher, a lawyer (in OH, MO, CA, and DC), a newspaper editor (in OH, MO and CA), a Captain in Winfield Scott's Army in Mexico, a CA state senator, CA Secretary of State, a US Congressman from CA, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Territorial Governor of Kansas, and a Civil War Brigadier General. Denver was a life long Democrat, who was politically active throughout his life and had important impacts on California, Kansas, and Ohio. He was a major force in many arenas


He was born October 23, 1817 and grew up in Clinton County, OH. He worked a year as a schoolteacher in Platt City, MO and then returned to Ohio where he earned his law degree from Cincinnati Ohio College (Now the University of Cincinnati). He practiced both law and journalism in Ohio, Missouri and California.


While in Platt City Missouri he received a commission as Captain in the 12th Regiment US Infantry that served in Mexico with Gen. Winfield Scott. His commanders were: division, Gideon Pillow; brigade, Franklin Pierce; regiment, Milledge Bonhain. In his company was a 2nd Lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, named Winfield Scott Hancock. Denver's Company was one of two in the division used for scouting. They traveled along parallel to the path of the army reconnoitering the landscape and the positions of the Mexican Army. In the process they climbed mountains and slashed through jungles while fending off guerillas. Capt. Denver's company scouted the route all the way from Vera Cruz to Mexico City.


Capt. Denver returned to his law practice and newspaper in Platt City, MO but after several years he join the Gold Rush to California. He led a party of 34 people from Platt City overland to the Pacific Coast. The party took the wrong trail and reached California by a previously unknown route through Wyoming along the Snake River. Eight members of his party lost their lives on the trip. Denver reached Sacramento, CA September, 1850.


He proceeded to the Klamath Lake region where, instead of mining, he engaged in trading between Humboldt Bay and the mines. By 1851 He was a candidate in a hard fought election for state senate, which he won after a runoff was held. While a state senator a controversy arose with Vincent Gilbert, a local newspaper editor. This led Gilbert to challenge Denver to a duel. During the duel each man fired a Wesson rifle at 40 paces. Denver purposely fired his first shot over Gilberts head, and nether man was wounded. Gilbert insisted that the duel continue. Denver remarked, "Now I must defend myself." Then, after almost simultaneous shots were fired, Gilbert fell mortally wounded while Denver was unharmed.


During his second term as state senator James Denver was appointed California Secretary of State in March, 1853. In 1854 he ran for a California Congressional seat in a hotly contested race. The two California seats were "at large" with two Whig Candidates, two Northern Democrats, two Southern Democrats, and two additional candidates competing for them. Denver, a Northern Democrat, received the most votes and was elected to one of the seats by that plurality. He traveled to Washington where he championed bills dealing with California land claims and the promotion of a Pacific Railroad.


While still in Congress Denver was appointed by newly inaugurated Pres. Buchannan as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. As part of his duties he made frequent visits to Kansas Territory to settle problems there. On one of these trips in May, 1858, he received word of his appointment as Secretary of Kansas Territory and Acting Governor. Three months later he was appointed Governor a position he held until October, 1859 when he resigned and resumed his post as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

As acting Governor and Governor between May, 1858 and October, 1859 he saw one and a half years of the violent conflicts that preceded the Civil War in Kansas and the bordering areas of Missouri. These conflicts began in 1854 continued through the Civil War. Armed groups of Proslavery "Border Ruffians" and abolitionist "Jayhawkers" engaged in raids pillaging and election fraud all along the Missouri-Kansas border area. Gov. Denver attempted to keep the piece, disregarding the views of the citizens on the question of slavery. The Territorial Legislature subjected civil power to the military and created a militia with James H. Lane as its head. Thus Gov. Denver controlled the US Troops and Lane controlled the Territorial force. President Buchannan waffled as to what to do as an important vote on the Kansas constitution occurred. Gov. Denver traveled to the area of greatest conflict and managed to defuse the situation. Later he refused to recall the hostile abolitionist legislature. On October 10, 1859 he resigned his office as Governor. James Lane, who would be elected senator when Kansas became a state in 1861, and many other Kansas abolitionists became bitter enemies of James Denver.


In 1859 James Denver resigned as Commissioner of Indian Affairs to return to California and run for office. He was planning a run for the governorship when Senator Broderick was killed in a duel. Denver entered the contest for that position, which at that time was determined by the State legislature. A rancorous contest ensued with Republicans, and the two wings of the Democratic Party vying for the office. Although he at first had a plurality Denver's bid ultimately was defeated ending his career in California politics.


Denver worked to hold the fragmenting Democratic Party together in the hopes that the Union could be held together and war averted. The party split at the next presidential convention and the Breckenridge Democrats refused the compromise that Denver had worked for after Lincoln was elected president.


James Denver was appointed a Brigadier of Volunteers in California. While working in Washington securing arms for California troops he was ordered to report to Ft. Leavenworth where he was assigned command of all troops in Kansas. The beginning of the Civil War had only exacerbated the old animosities in Kansas. Gen. Denver immediately began trying to bring the Jayhawkers under the rule of law. Sen. Lane of Kansas, his old enemy, assiduously worked for his removal. Denver had Sec. Stanton's strong support but that was overruled by Lincoln's gentle nudging supporting Sen. Lane. Gen. Denver was transferred east to Wheeling, Virginia (now WV) where he was with Gen. Rosecrans, who became his friend but did not have a command for him. He was then transferred to Gen. Halleck's command where he was sent back to Kansas to work on an expedition against the Indians but was immediately moved again to Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh) where he was placed in command of the third Brigade in Sherman's Division.

Gen. Denver remained in command of this brigade until about November 23, 1862 when he was given the command of one of the three divisions Sherman's division was split into. During this period Gen. Denver and his brigade participated in the Siege of Corinth, a march to Memphis, and a brief move south with Sherman toward Holley Springs, December 5, 1862. After returning to Memphis his division transferred to Gen. Hurlbut's XVI Corps where it was designated as the First Division. Its assignment was to guard 65 miles of the Memphis & Charelston Rail Road. He was preforming this duty when he resigned his commission March 18, 1863. He remained in his command until his replacement, Gen. William Sooy Smith, took command of the division.

It is unclear why Gen. Denver resigned and why his resignation was quickly accepted. In his letter to his wife dated March 18 he describes a "sharp pang of regret at parting with men with whom I have been so long associated" but says his family has a stronger claim on him. He also says: "I have become weary of this eternal--this life-long struggle for public good, when met... by ingratitude of the public... and denunciations and enmities of the scoundrels whom I have so often thwarted in their rascalitys." Denver was an honest man in a corrupt time. He was Democrat disliked by the Radical Republicans and a political general looked down on by the regulars. Gen. Smith, who replaced him was a graduate of West Point. Denver was frustrated to be guarding 65 miles of railroad rather than leading a division in combat. In a letter just before he resigned. He expresses very strong Unionist sentiment and frustration with Southerner's views on the war. He was a loyal Union man. It appears that he resigned out of frustration and to be with his family but: Why was his resignation accepted so quickly? He was in good health. His superior officers accepted him and he did well commanding his men. There seems to be no medical reason that would allow acceptance so this remains a mystery.


For a few years he remained in Wilmington, Ohio, ordering his affairs there, and in California, Missouri and Kansas. After this he spent much of his time with the Washington Law Firm, Hughes, Denver and Peck. Ironically many of their cases were claims of Southern plantation owners for cotton and other goods confiscated by the US Government.


In 1892 while still in Washington Gen. Denver became seriously ill. On August 9th he died of kidney failure. His body was returned to Wilmington, Ohio where he was buried in Sugar Grove Cemetery in the family plot.

Source of information: George C. Barns "Denver the Man" (1950) Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., Strasburg, VA, 372 pages.


General Denver's memorial on FindAGrave


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