Perched in the Northwest industrial corner of Denver alongside the South Platte lies a small National Historic District called Riverside Cemetery. As the Denver’s oldest operating cemetery, established in 1876 when Colorado first gained statehood, the grounds of Riverside contain over a century and a half of rich Colorado history and some of its most influential members, including more than 1,000 Civil War Veterans who made Colorado their home during and after the war.
One person who is all too familiar with the background story of Riverside Cemetery is Ray Thal. Thal has spent roughly 20 years researching and documenting the graves at Riverside, particularly the Veteran graves. He now gives walking tours of the cemetery on a regular basis to share his knowledge with the community.
“I’m a frustrated history teacher. I mean, I got my degree in history, and I minored in secondary education, says Thal. “I love to talk. And I love to talk history and Colorado history in particular.”
What once started as a volunteer position at the cemetery’s office for Thal, turned into a deep dive into the history of Riverside Cemetery. Thal spent his time helping people find their loved ones’ graves and answering phone calls, but in his free time he took to sifting through the cemetery’s original records to uncover the forgotten history of its dead.
“We used to keep the original records here, we don’t anymore, which were a lot of fun to go through,” said Thal. “And I discovered a lot of things that way. I got really interested in the Civil War guys.”
With limited information available based on the cemetery records, Thal found other means of gathering data on the Veterans buried at Riverside and made two trips to Washington D.C. to verify Veteran pension records at the National Archives. Thal regularly finds connections with the graves at Riverside that coincide with significant figures and events in Colorado history. He says it always comes full circle.
“You’d read something in a pension document that would have a name or something in it that would trigger something else,”says Thal. “You could go down and then check the newspapers at the time and you find out there’s this whole string of events that this person was part of.”
Thal argues that Colorado was created because of the Civil War. After it had been decided in January of 1861 that Kansas would be a free state under Union power, conflict and chaos ensued across the country between Union and Confederate forces, eventually blowing up into what we know as the American Civil War.
Only a few short months after the onset of the war, the Colorado territory was formally established to help solidify Union control over Colorado’s mineral-rich topography. Union gold mining camps were created, and the proceeds were used to fund the war effort against the South. The Union wanted to maintain control of the Colorado gold mines.
“Colorado raises three regiments during the war. One of them is involved, goes to New Mexico, and fights the battle at Glorieta Pass, which is the largest Civil War battle fought in the West.”
The battle of Glorieta Pass in March 1862 saw the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment defeat Confederate forces. Colonel John P. Slough and John Chivington led the battle that stopped the South from acquiring gold and silver in the West.
Civil War Veterans who sought a new life out west in gold mining and farming were still dealing with ailments from the war. Many of those in Colorado’s first three regiments were laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery along with a small number of Confederate soldiers.
“In many of the cases of these guys I research, because in their pension files are always their medical results of their medical exams, it’s everything from still having bullets in them to hemorrhoids, terrible, terrible hemorrhoids, scurvy,” said Thal. “And, you know, really very few of them emerge from the war without some kind of issue medically.”
Soon after the establishment of Riverside Cemetery in 1876, 75 to 100 Union Veterans were moved from Denver City Cemetery (now Cheesman Park) to Riverside Cemetery. Over the course of the century after the war, Colorado members of the Grand Army of the Republic fraternal order would all lie to rest at Riverside Cemetery alongside some of the state’s most well-known Civil War Veterans.
One of these such characters is Captain Silas Soule, the leader of the 1st Colorado Infantry, who is known for refusing to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 which was commissioned by Colonel John Chivington and led to the deaths of over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
Soule later testified against Chivington in court providing some of the most damning witness evidence concerning conduct displayed by Chivington and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at the Sand Creek Massacre. Soule was murdered just a few months after testifying. His role in the Sand Creek investigation has long been a theory for why Soule was murdered. Thal says that Soule is held in high regard in Native American cultures due to the stance that he took at Sand Creek. The Cheyenne and Arapaho nations have a ceremony at his grave in late November.
“They start at Sand Creek, run to here [Riverside] and then run to the state capitol building where they hold a big ceremony.”
Riverside also contains three highly decorated Medal of Honor Civil War Veterans, David F. Day who fought in the Siege of Vicksburg, Smith Hastings who was honored for his heroism at Newby’s Crossroads in Virginia, and George Kelly who was recognized for his effort in capturing a pivotal flag that would change the pace toward victory during a Tennessee battle in 1864.
While Colorado may not have been at the forefront of the Civil War, the history contained in the Veterans’ graves at Riverside Cemetery certainly prove that the battle scars of the war stretched nationwide, not only during the conflict but for many years after.
Thal gives Civil War walking tours at Riverside Cemetery during the warmer months of the year and has written a book to go along with the tour, carefully detailing the rich history that he spent two decades uncovering.
“I mean, I love it. And I always have, I love being able to talk history to people. I love to hear the stories that other people have about their loved ones that are buried here. People have come in with incredible genealogies of their family.”
If you’re interested in hearing Thal talk more Colorado history, be sure to catch his Civil War Walking Tour of Riverside this Saturday for a post-Veteran’s Day memorial. You can also pick up a copy of his book, “The Civil War at Riverside Walking Tour.”