Judson Spofford: American Hero
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Occasionally while doing research for clients, we come across interesting people. Here is one such person that had a huge impact on the development of early Boise.
In the summer of 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee put in motion a plan to move 15,000 of his soldiers through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and into Maryland where they could mass for an attack on Washington D.C. On July 9th, the Rebels approached the Monocacy River where they met Union Forces numbering only around 6,600, including Company K of the 10th Vermont Volunteer Infantry. Barely 18 years old, Private Judson Spofford of Company K distinguished himself on the field. His company commander later wrote of him, “...he there put in a day's work for our government of which any man might be proud, if pride is allowable. He was a good marksman and had the range of a well of water near a house in the rebel lines in my front. The enemy were obliged to keep away from that spot all day.” Despite the hard fighting Private Spofford and his fellow troops engaged in that day, the Union army was forced to retreat. While The Battle of Monancy is counted as a Union defeat, it stalled Confederate forces just long enough for General Grant to move enough troops to mount a proper defense of the nation’s capital.
Judson Spofford after the Battle of Gettysburg
Spofford was only 16 years old when President Lincoln put out the call for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union Army after Fort Sumter was attacked in 1861. Spofford enlisted and was placed into service for his country. Despite the legal voting age being 21 at the time, Spofford voted for Lincoln during his reelection campaign, a point of pride for Spofford. His commanding officer knew Spofford illegally voted, but felt that any man who had already put his life on the line for his nation should have the right to vote. Spofford would also claim he had spoken directly with President Lincoln during the war.
Private Spofford and the 10th Vermont fought in many important battles, including the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, and at the sieges of Richmond and Petersburg. Spofford was injured at Cold Harbor and again at Cedar Creek, but was able to return to the front lines both times. At Fort Fisher, Virginia, he received his third wound when a mini ball, a bullet fired from a musket, entered the right side of his chest, passed through his lungs, and lodged just below the skin on the left side of his chest. Spofford was taken to the field hospital where he was triaged with the other wounded. A surgeon took one look at Spofford and moved on to another patient, essentially condemning Spofford to death. When all the other wounded were taken care of, Spofford, completely covered in his own blood and in danger of freezing to death, asked if he would be treated. The surgeon tried to explain to Spofford that he would die, and that surgery was pointless. Spofford was defiant, telling the surgeon that he would not die, and asked to be brought inside. The surgeon relented and performed surgery to remove the bullet. Spofford survived the mortal wound, but it caused him issues for the rest of his life. He was reported to have kept the bullet that almost killed him in his possession for the remainder of his life.
Jundson Spofford, shortly after being wounded
Spofford was shipped back to Vermont to recover from his wound while the rest of the 10th Vermont ended up at Appomattox Courthouse where they witnessed General Lee surrender his army, the Army of Northern Virginia, an event that led to the end of the Civil War. After his military life ended, Spofford moved to West Virginia where he would live for 16 years, becoming active in the Republican party and helping nominate James A. Garfield for President. He also gained railroad experience, helping to build the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. President Garfield would later return the favor by appointing Spofford as Huntington’s postmaster, a role he served in for four years until his old Civil War wound forced him to resign. Thinking the air out west might help him breathe easier, Spofford set his sights on the burgeoning town of Boise City, Idaho in 1885.
Spofford purchased a farm in South Boise and filed for a homestead on the land in 1897. His land claim was 160 acres, just west of where Federal Way passes above Broadway Avenue today. He raised Ayrshire cattle to sell at market and made fine butter that the Idaho Statesman raved about. He also worked for the Statesman for a time, traveling throughout the valley and up to the Boise Basin to collect subscriptions for the newspaper. For the rest of his life, Spofford would do everything he could to promote the value of Idaho’s farms and minerals to people in other states, including having pamphlets printed to send to citizens of the Eastern states.
Spofford in middle age
Spofford’s greatest contributions to the Boise Valley came as a result of several business ventures. In September of 1890, Spofford, along with business partner Wade Hard, filed to incorporate the Denver and Idaho Land Company. The D&ILC was responsible for many early subdivisions in Boise, including the Broadway, Dundee, and Veazey Park additions, as well as land deals recorded by the company until 1912. Also in 1890, the Boise Rapid Transit Company was formed and Spofford was named as secretary. The BRTC developed the electric trolley system in the Boise Valley, which eventually became part of the famous Interurban. Spofford’s efforts helped lead to the opening of Broadway Avenue and the construction of the Broadway Bridge. He was also instrumental in building a hydroelectric power plant at Horseshoe Bend; completed in 1910 it became an early source of electricity for Boise and its eclectic trolleys.
Spofford was very active in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization dedicated to serving veterans of the Civil War. He held several national leadership roles in the organization where he was dedicated to the welfare of his fellow vets. In the 1890s, the G.A.R. led a campaign to have a soldier’s home built in Idaho to help take care of veterans that could no-longer take care of themselves. In 1893, the matter was brought to the state legislature which drafted bills to request $10,000 from the U.S. Congress to build a soldier's home. After all the usual drafting, debating, and revisions, and with Spofford’s anxious encouragement, Governor McConnell signed the bill, and cities around the state began competing for the honor of having the home placed in their jurisdiction. It came down to Boise and Moscow, the two towns raced to raise subscription funds to purchase a suitable tract of land to place the home on. Boise won out, and plans were drawn up and building contracts awarded.
Spofford Heights, near where Federal Way now crosses over Broadway Ave, looking northwest
In 1913, “Colonel” Spofford moved from his home at 704 West Franklin Street in Boise, to the Soldier’s Home he lobbied to have built, and in 1935 he became the last Civil War veteran to reside there. In 1936, he traveled to Washington D.C. where he was touted as the last living survivor of the Battle of Monocacy and celebrated for his role in the defense of that city. On September 11, 1937, Judson Spofford passed away at the Soldier’s Home at 91-years-old, leaving only 29 Civil War veterans alive in Idaho. His body was shipped back to Washington D.C. to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery among his fellow Civil War vets.
The impact that Judson Spofford had on our nation, our state, and the City of Boise is remarkable. His desire to serve, and willingness to do what was necessary to accomplish his goals are inspiring. He just didn’t talk about it, he was about it.
Spofford's trip to Washington D.C. just before he passed away
Spofford's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery
History of Idaho: The Gem of the Mountains Vol. 2 by James H. Hawley Idaho Statesman September 18, 1890 August 14, 1890 September 12, 1937 May 24, 1936