Only a year prior, these Civil War veterans had fought on opposing sides. But the promise of gold made for strange bedfellows.
Along with others who migrated to the Rocky Mountain West during the mid-nineteenth century, former Union and Confederate soldiers mixed in remote western locales like the mountains and valleys of Idaho. Miners settled land and panned for gold in Idaho as early as 1860, and in July 1866, a group of friends led by Frank Barney Sharkey found gold along Napias Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River.
The news spread quickly, and other prospectors rushed to the region. By August, neighbors in Bannock, Idaho reported being “quite unprepared for the stampede that set in… for the Lemhi Valley.”
The new community of prospectors included veterans from both sides of the Civil War, and they soon found themselves having one last “battle,” but over the name of the community. Unable to reconcile, the pioneers settled for having two names for two communities in the one town—Grantsville named for Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Leesburg for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The Leesburg–Grantsville compromise was short-lived. Grantsville never managed to claim more than 500 residents of its own, but Leesburg’s population swelled into the thousands. On top of that, the town’s streets were continuous and provided no clear border. Eventually people used the Leesburg name to refer to the overall community, and the Grantsville name was forgotten. Two thousand miles away from Appomattox, for at least a handful of Civil War veterans, Lee managed to get in the last word.
While post-Civil War Reconstruction led to extensive violence in the south, Leesburg remained fairly calm. Observers called the camp “unusually quiet for a mining camp and free from fights and disturbances.” The website Western Mining History speculates the Leesburgers may have been too busy surviving to waste time on fights. After all, a twelve-man team took a month-and-a-half to clear a path through the deep snows of the winter of 1866–1867 so that a pack train could bring food relief in March, saving Leesburg from starvation.
After surviving that first winter, Leesburg’s population went through a rapid boom and bust. Thousands came in search of gold, and at the rush’s height some 3,000 people lived in Leesburg, including both white Americans and Chinese migrants from the West Coast. Leesburg hosted a one-room school and a hundred business firms, and its main street was a mile long. However, miners soon became unsatisfied with their returns, and interest declined. The population plummeted to 180 people by 1870 and less than sixty by 1895. Yet the allure of gold kept drawing interest back to Leesburg. In 1926, Idahoans built a small monument in Leesburg to commemorate Sharkey’s discovery of gold sixty years earlier. Meanwhile, industrial hydraulic mining and dragline mining intermittently extracted more gold out of the Leesburg area from 1926 to 1942, though these operations also did not last.
Leesburg joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and today only a few cabins still stand. Few traces remain of the ghost town’s Southern migrants and Confederate veterans except for the name—their one last victory over Grant and his Union soldiers.