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Front Cover--Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer (left) was Commander of the First Nebraska Infantry in the Civil War. He served as one of Nebraska's first U.S. Senator's (1867-1871) and as Governor (1887-1892). Col. Robert W. Furnas (right) commanded the Second Nebraska Cavalry which was organized to protect Nebraska Territory from Indian attacks. Furnas later served as Governor (1873-1875) and was active in agricultural and political circles.

Back Cover - Battle of White Stone Hills, September 3, 1863 (Harpers Weekly, October 31,1863).

Published by the Nebraska State Historical Society 1500 R Street, Lincoln. Nebraska


Slavery was not an explosive issue in Nebraska Territory. There were few slaveholders; the U. S. Census of 1860 listed only fifteen slaves in the entire territory, and there was none of the violent strife between Abolitionists and proslavery men that gave Kansas territory the name "Bleeding Kansas."

Nationally, however, the controversy over slavery had been smoldering for decades. With the formation of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency, hostility burst into flames, and secession and civil war resulted as the breach between North and South widened.

Actual warfare began with the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor by South Carolina forces on April 12, 1861. Nebraskans, loyal to the Union, answered Lincoln's call for troops by furnishing a total of 3,300 men, a remarkable contribution for a new territory whose population in 1860 was only about 30,000, with 9,000 males between the ages of twenty and fifty. Nebraska units were composed of men of many nationalities, including recent immigrants to the United States. One company, the German volunteers, was made up almost entirely of German nationals. Two Indian companies were also organized: the Pawnee Scouts, under Capt. Frank North, and the Omaha Scouts, under Capt. Edwin Nash. In addition to these volunteers, who served in officially designated Nebraska units, many Nebraskans served in regiments from other states, especially those of nearby Iowa and Kansas. Likewise men from other states enlisted in Nebraska units.

So far as Nebraska was concerned, the immediate effect of the beginning of hostilities was to create fear of Indian attack on the frontier as regular army troops were withdrawn from the garrisons at Fort Kearny and Fort Randall. Alarm mounted and criticism was sharp. The Nebraska City News (April 30, 1861) commented: "We think the government did a great wrong and injustice in removing the troops. The only way to repair the injustice is to order the forts garrisoned by our citizen soldiers."

Such a proposal was made by Maj. Gen. John M. Thayer of the Nebraska Militia who wrote to Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, on April 17, 1861 offering the government a sufficient number of volunteers from the territory to garrison Fort Kearny and Fort Randall. "The withdrawal of troops from these posts," he

wrote, "has already caused much alarm among our people. The absence of the troops will remove all restraint.... I deem it Absolutely necessary that some measures should be taken to keep the Indians in check...."

The federal government asked Nebraska Territory to raise one regiment, and assurances were received from the War Department that a portion. of this force would be used to garrison Nebraska forts and defend the frontier. But when Governor Alvin Saunders issued his proclamation calling for the formation of a regiment, no mention was made of home defense. The regiment was ordered to service in the South, and the frontier was left virtually unprotected.

This newly formed regiment was designated as the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, with Omaha as the mustering point. The companies filled rapidly. John M. Thayer was commissioned colonel, company officers were elected, equipment procured and basic drilling schedules set up. By July 30, 1861, half of the regiment, under the command of Colonel Thayer, was on board the steamer "West Wind" bound for the battlefields of the South and the balance of the regiment followed two weeks later. Their immediate destination was St. Joseph, Missouri. After several months of scouting and skirmishing in Missouri and Arkansas, the First Nebraska fought its first major engagement at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862. In April there followed the Battle of Shiloh or Pittsburg Landing, the most important engagement in which the First Nebraska participated. In the official reports their immediate commander, Colonel Thayer, and their division commander, Gen. Lew Wallace, highly commended the courage and proficiency of the Nebraska soldiers in these battles.

Scouting and skirmishing with bushwhackers and small detachments of Confederates occupied the First Nebraska during the following year. Engagements were fought at Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Chalk Bluff, Arkansas. On October 11, 1863 the regiment was mounted and thereafter was known as the First Nebraska Cavalry. This came as a welcome change to footsore Nebraska soldiers who had tramped all over Missouri and Arkansas and into Mississippi. Their service during the winter of 1863-1864 consisted of constant scouting duty and skirmishing, marked by hardship and serious shortages of rations and forage. In mid June 1864 the First Nebraska Cavalry was granted a furlough until August 13 and was returned to Nebraska.

Meantime the long feared Indian attack on the Nebraska frontier became a reality. On August 7, 1864 the Cheyenne Sioux, and Arapaho, operating in small bands, made a concerted attack on stage coaches, freight, and emigrant wagon trains, stage stations and road ranches from Julesburg east for 250 miles along








Right - Maj. Thomas J. Majors, First Nebraska Cavalry. Majors, influential in the establishment of the Normal School at Peru, Nebraska, served as Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska, 1891-1895, and as U. S. Congressman, 1878-1879.











Left - Col. Robert R. Livingston, First Nebraska Cavalry. A well known physician, Livingston served throughout the Civil War, received the brevet rank of brigadier general in 1865.









Right - Luther North, famous frontiersman, enlisted at sixteen as a private in Company K of the Second Nebraska Cavalry.









Right - Privates in the First Nebraska Cavalry. Right - William Powell. Left - George Donivan.








Left - Col. Robert W. Furnas, left, front, and staff, during the expedition of the Second Nebraska Cavalry against the Sioux, 1863. Prominent journalist, agriculturist, historian, and Indian agent, Furnas served as governor of Nebraska, 1873-1875.



Above - Col. Robert W. Furnas Camp Cook, Dakota Territory


Above - Union cavalryman in uniform typical of those worn by Nebraska soldiers in the Civil War.

Above - Steamboat Colorado, one of the Missouri River Boats in service during the Civil War.

the Platte and Little Blue rivers. More than fifty whites were killed, many stage stations and road ranches were burned, and a vast amount of other property was destroyed or looted.

Accordingly, when the First Nebraska Cavalry rendezvoused at Omaha on August 15 the regiment was reorganized as the First Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry and on August 18 was dispatched to Fort Kearny. From this post small detachments were deployed to serve as guards at stage stations and ranches and at military subposts along the Oregon Trail. Other detachments escorted mail and passenger coaches and guarded freighting and emigrant wagon trains. There were frequent skirmishes with groups of Indians, but no major engagement, the function of the troops being to protect the lives and property of white settlers rather than to expel the Indians from the area. Thus occupied, the First Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry continued in service until July 1866 when it was returned to Omaha and mustered out.

Another Nebraska unit which fought against the Confederacy was the Curtis Horse. Four companies, recruited mostly in Omaha, were designated as the Nebraska Battalion and attached to the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, with which it served with distinction throughout the war.

The Sioux Indian outbreak and massacre in Minnesota in the summer of 1862 occasioned the formation of another Nebraska regiment. Designed for nine months' service against the Indians, the regiment was known as the Second Nebraska Cavalry. During the winter of 1862-63 the unit was recruited and organized, with Robert W. Furnas as colonel in command. In April 1863 the Second Nebraska was ordered to Sioux City to join the forces of Gen. Alfred Sully in an expedition against the Sioux in Dakota, which culminated in the decisive Battle of White Stone Hills on September 3, 1863. The Indians were routed with great loss of warriors and equipment, and the Second Nebraska acquitted itself with great credit considering the inexperience of the men and their short training period. Colonel Furnas, in his official report, praised his regiment highly, saying, "both officers and men fought with the coolness and courage of veterans . . . not a man flinched a particle." Shortly after the battle the Second Nebraska Cavalry returned home, and on November 30, 1863, its term of enlistment having expired, the regiment was mustered out.

On the home front Nebraskans looked for news about their boys in the dispatches sent from the battlefields of the South by the newly completed telegraph, and endured the hardships of war. The disruption of steamboat traffic resulted in a shortage of supplies of all kinds, and the loss of manpower to the army worked a very considerable hardship in the new territory. The

settlers made do with whatever supplies could get through and with what they could provide by home manufacture. Sufficient crops were raised for food, but there was no market for any surplus.

Families of men in service suffered the greatest hardship. Army pay was low (basic pay was thirteen dollars per month) and often irregular, and facilities for sending money home were not dependable. As a consequence many soldiers' families were left practically destitute, and such relief measures as were instituted were inadequate.

On the homefront the Jayhawkers constituted a serious threat. These lawless bands of armed men claimed to be operating in the interest of the Union against southern sympathizers, but in reality they were nothing but bandits engaged in stealing horses, robbing stores and houses, and threatening the lives of many citizens. Union men were victims of the Jayhawkers as well as those alleged to be rebel sympathizers.

Measures were taken to combat the Jayhawkers, who operated principally in the southern part of the territory. A bill was introduced into the Territorial Council making it lawful to kill any person found committing such acts as were charged to the Jayhawkers. Although this drastic proposal was not passed, Governor Saunders did issue a proclamation ordering the Jayhawkers to disband and return to their homes or leave the territory under threat of severe punishment for disregarding the order. In many communities citizens organized leagues as defensive measures against these marauders and in Nemaha County it was reported that several Jayhawkers were captured, two of them were killed, and their bodies thrust under the ice of the Missouri River.

Casualty records for Nebraska units in the Civil War are incomplete. Frederick H. Dyer's Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines, 1908) lists only deaths occurring in the Civil War proper; casualties for the Indian campaigns are not included. According to Dyer, Nebraska's losses were: killed in battle and dying from wounds, 35; dying of disease, 159; dying in accidents, 23; dying from other causes, 22; total deaths, 239. Thus more than 7 per cent of the 3,300 enlisted men from Nebraska lost their lives in the service.

The indirect effects of the Civil War on Nebraska were very important. Prior to the war, sectional controversies had stalemated the selection of a route for a transcontinental railroad. The secession of the southern states, however, enabled Congress to pass legislation chartering the railroad, and the selection by President Lincoln in 1863 of the central route through Nebraska, with Omaha as the eastern terminus, was of great importance to the future development of the territory. By 1868 the Union Pacific was completed through Nebraska, and other railroads soon

followed, making settlement possible in areas remote from the Missouri River.

Another piece of Civil War legislation, the Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, was of major significance to Nebraska. This bill provided that "any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such . . . and who has never borne arms against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies . . ." could upon payment of a small fee file a claim upon as much as a quarter section of unappropriated public land and after having "resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing," and "if at that time a citizen of the United States," he could receive a final patent from the government. The Homestead Act was later amended to include special provisions for veterans of the Civil War, allowing them to deduct the number of years which they had served in the Union Army from the five years' residence on a homestead and according this same privilege to their widows and orphans. In the years following the Civil War thousands of Union veterans settled in Nebraska and made a very considerable contribution to the political and economic life of the state.


Andreas, A. T., History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago, 1882), pp. 237-254, 256ff.

Danker, Donald F., "Nebraska's Part in the Civil War," Nebraska Farmer, August 21, 1954, p. 28 et seq.

------------ "Some Social Beginnings in Territorial Nebraska," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Nebraska, 1955, pp. 175-195.

Historical Annual: National Guard of the State of Nebraska (Army and Navy Publishing Co., Baton Rouge, 1938), pp. xx-xxiv.

Military History of Nebraska, compiled by Federal Writers' Project (Lincoln, 1939), pp. 15-18; 21-31.

Morton, J. Sterling and Watkins, Albert, Illustrated History of Nebraska (Lincoln: Jacob North Co., 1903-1913), 3 vole., I, 460-462, 467-468; II, 168-172, 174-175, 177-181.

Nebraska State Adjutant General's Report 1870 (Des Moines 1871), pp. 1ff.

Olson, James C., History of Nebraska (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955), pp. 140ff.

Sheldon, Addison E., Nebraska: The Land and the People (Chicago, 1931), 3 vols., I, 309-313

Shick, Charlotte Martha, "Nebraska's Military Participation in the Civil War," M.A. Thesis, University of Nebraska, 1927.


Civil War


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