Moffat County resident reflects on great-grandfather’s life, Civil War service, struggle for independence
Leonidas Osbert Clements signed up to fight in the Civil War at the tender age of 16.
The Georgia native joined Company G of the Georgia Calvary’s second regiment in the Confederate Army to fight for Old Dixie.
He spent the next two-and-a-half years fighting in battles and raiding masses of Union troops near Chattanooga, Tenn.
Generations later, Leonidas’ great-grandson, Burt Clements, was drafted into the Army in 1968 at the age of 20. Burt’s brother, Bart, joined the service shortly thereafter to keep his brother out of Vietnam combat zones because he had a wife.
Burt, who lives five miles east of Craig, ended up fighting in Korea, “which was just as bad,” he said.
Leonidas is Burt’s great-grandfather and despite more than 100 years of separation between the wars they fought in, the two share a lot besides lineage.
“I don’t like how Big Brother tries to step in and run our lives,” he said “They’re taking our freedoms away and they’re closing our grounds up and taking things away from us all the time, and I think that had a lot to do with it back then, too.”
That’s why the 62-year-old Burt isn’t surprised by his great-grandfather’s desire to fight for his native land and the ideals that made Dixie his home.
“What he was doing was fighting for something he believed in, which is that the South wanted to secede from the Union,” he said. “They really believed they could create a new country that would better benefit the way they wanted to live.”
Even at the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, those Southern ideals still run deep, generations later and several states away, Burt said.
“The ways of the South were pretty much instilled in me, even when I was a kid,” he said.
It’s for that reason Burt said he identifies with a man he never met and knows only through the limited research he’s completed.
“With the way I was raised, no, I can’t imagine him not doing it at 16,” Burt said of Leonidas signing up for the Confederacy. “I would have went at 16.”
In fact, there is a lot of military history in Burt’s family.
He contends there is something in the Clements blood compelling them to fight for country and the ideals they hold dear.
Burt’s father served in the Army in World War II. His grandfather served in World War I and generations before Leonidas fought in the Civil War, his great-great-grandfather fought in the American Revolution, Burt said.
“We’re really proud of that — we like that,” he said. “You’ve got to fight for what is yours. That makes it right.”
Leonidas was born in 1847 in Stewart County, Ga.
He was of Native American heritage, seven-eighths Native American mixed between Choctaw and Cherokee, Burt said.
After serving in the Civil War, Leonidas bounced around the country, farming land for various landowners, eventually settling in western Moffat County, where he homesteaded.
Burt and his brother knew little of their great-grandfather’s history, but were always aware of his service, he said.
However, Burt admitted he had his doubts about it.
“I always figured he wasn’t (in the war) because of the age, but then my brother got down and started digging up these rosters and stuff, and then he found out he was a lieutenant,” he said. “He had to have been 16, 17, 18 when he was in there. That’s young, but we know that the South, the Confederacy, was digging almost out of the cribs to try and stay in the war.”
Putting a rifle in the hands of a 16-year-old to fight in one of the bloodiest wars the U.S. has ever seen was something hard for Burt to fathom, he said.
“It’s really amazing that we even have a family line to go back on,” he said. “That’s what the amazing part about it is that we did come out through that and kept on going.”
Much of the specifics of Leonidas’ life were lost through the generations because of a family feud, Burt said. However, about 15 years ago, Burt’s brother started investigating the family’s history to find the origin of the Clements name.
“He drove around and he came out here and he’d drive to all the courthouses and stuff just looking for records to find out something,” he said. “We were trying to find out a little bit about where the surname originated from.”
However, the information on Leonidas’ service was sparse, as it was not mentioned in the several articles written about him in the Moffat County Bell, a newspaper published in Maybell at the time.
Burt thinks Leonidas might have been purposefully reserved in his discussions of his Confederate service considering the amount of Union soldiers arriving in Moffat County after the war.
Dan Davidson, Museum of Northwest Colorado director, said about 35 Civil War veterans relocated to Moffat County around the turn of the century, but only about five of them fought for the South.
Even though Leonidas swore his allegiance back to the Union after the war, there remained a deep tension between the two sides, and service for the defeated Confederacy wasn’t something worth bragging about, Burt said.
“A lot of those Confederate guys, you find they did move out into a lot of isolated areas so they didn’t get harassed and bothered,” he said. “But him being mostly Indian, I think that had something to do with it, too.”
The war, Davidson said, forced “huge movements of people” from the areas they once called home, and many of them headed West.
Leonidas was one of those people, Burt said, as he bounced from state to state in places like Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma before landing in Moffat County.
Davidson said it is special that some of Leonidas’ family has remained in the area.
“I think that shows how close (the war) is to most of us here,” he said. “We’re probably all closer to it than we realize, it is just that the generations have separated that.”
U.S. Census records indicate Leonidas spent his years farming, most likely for private landowners, Davidson said.
Burt also thinks Leonidas was forced by the government to live in an area designated more or less as an Indian reservation.
Those two aspects to his life — working for someone else and being told where to live — developed into what Burt said was Leonidas’ life goal — to own his own property and to have “his own place in life.”
That, Burt said, represents freedom and independence, which were by no coincidence what the South fought for in the Civil War and what Leonidas fought for his whole life.
“He got through the Civil War, but he wasn’t yet independent because he had too much Indian blood in him and they put him in the Indian nations,” he said. “So, therefore he wasn’t free yet, he wasn’t a free man yet, and this was kind of what did it.”
When Leonidas arrived in Moffat County in the early 1900s, he started the process of gaining ownership of the land he cleared and farmed.
In November 1919, Leonidas signed the paperwork officially transferring the land under his ownership.
The Southerner died three months later at the age of 76 as the “oldest homesteader Moffat County had,” according to the Moffat County Bell, which published a retelling of Leonidas’ signature of the documents.
When reading that article, Burt said he can feel his great-grandfather’s relief that “his life’s accomplishment had been made,” and he “finally got his own piece of the United States.”
“No one can say to me now, ‘Get out,’” Leonidas was quoted as saying in the article.
Burt said his great-grandfather’s grave rests at the base of Wapiti Peak near Elk Springs.
“He’s buried out on the point of a hill overlooking where the fields used to be and, of course, he is buried facing east,” he said.
Burt can also tell what kind of character was instilled in Leonidas from a southern up-bringing and fostered by fighting tooth-and-nail for what he believed in, he said.
That same character was also apparent to a writer at the Moffat County Bell.
“The commissioner placed the final proof testimony in the shaking hands of the old man propped up in the chair before him,” According to the Bell. “The pain-gnarled fingers gripped the pen with a death-like tenseness. Slowly, painfully, the name was written and at its finish, the old man’s head dropped to his chest with a great sigh, as if something finished, something accomplished.
“And something was accomplished, which should stand on the homestead records of lower Moffat County as a shining example of what backbone and determination will do in the face of what may seem insurmountable difficulties.”