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Vol. 8, No. 3 June, 2006

Nebraska’s Military Involvement in the Civil War

by Sue Williams



The Nebraska Territory was established by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The territorial capital was in Omaha. Francis Burt was the first Territorial Governor. Mr. Burt was born in South Carolina in 1807. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature and served as a state treasurer. He later moved to Nebraska and became governor on October 16, 1854. He died two days later and was succeeded by Thomas B. Cuming.

On April 12, 1861, forces of South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and the great and bloody Civil War began. The nation broke into two sections. Eleven Southern States seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The United States government was led by its newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, who refused to recognize secession as legal.

When the war began, Nebraskans were in agreement that the Union must be preserved. There were demonstrations of patriotism and loyalty toward the Union in Nebraska. The Omaha Daily Telegraph described the reaction of Omaha, “The Stars and Stripes fly from the cupola of the capital. The old flag waves from many of the store windows, from the Hook and Ladder Company truck house, from the jack

staff of the ferry boat and one large and thirty-four small ones from the post office and the Nebraskan and Daily Telegraph building.”1

Samuel Watson Black was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1816. Samuel was a Colonel in the Mexican-American War. He moved to Nebraska and became the seventh Governor of the Nebraska Territory in 1859. Governor Black received an appointment of Major General and was assigned command of the western division of Pennsylvania troops. He resigned as Governor of Nebraska in 1861. Alvin Saunders then became Territorial Governor and served during the Civil War.

On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops to serve for three years unless sooner discharged. Under this, Nebraska was expected to furnish one regiment. The Territory of Nebraska had a population of 28,841 white inhabitants, 6 male slaves and 9 female slaves. There were only 9,000 males between the ages of 20 and 50.

On May 18, 1861, the newly appointed governor, Alvin Saunders, issued a proclamation calling for the immediate raising and equipping of a regiment. The men were mustered into companies. Company A and
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Company B were sworn in on the lawn south of Herndon House (which was at 9th and Farnum in Omaha). They were inspected by the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the U. S. Army, and accepted immediately. Company A was from Plattsmouth and contained 85 men. They were under Colonel Robert R. Livingston, First Lt., A.F. McKinney, and Second Lieutenant N. F. Sharp. Company B were German Volunteers from Omaha and had 84 men. Company A was quartered at the Herndon House and Company B at the territorial capital. On June 8 Company C was organized. J. D. N. Thompson of Brownville was then named captain; Thomas J. Majors of Peru, first lieutenant and William A. Pollock of Brownville, first sergeant. The steamship, Omaha, took the company of 169 men to Omaha to join the rest of the regiment.

In addition, orders came from the War Department ordering many of the regular soldiers, then stationed at the frontier posts of Fort Kearny and Fort Randall, to proceed east to help put down the rebellion. It was felt that without the restraint of strongly garrisoned forts, the Indian tribes would cut the communication with the far west and even threatened the outlying settlements of Nebraska.

There were ten regiments and they became the First Nebraska Regiment. They were placed under the command of Colonel John M. Thayer and General Lew Wallace. Omaha was the mustering point. Its organization was completed by July 22, 1861. On July 30, 1861, half of the regiment was on board the steamer, “West Wind”, bound for the battlefields in the South. The other five regiments followed two weeks later. In addition to these regiments, other Nebraska boys served in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas regiments.


was quartered at the Herndon House and Company B at the territorial capital. On June 8 Company C was organized. J. D. N. Thompson of Brownville was then named captain; Thomas J. Majors of Peru, first lieutenant and William A. Pollock of Brownville, first sergeant. The steamship, Omaha, took the company of 169 men to Omaha to join the rest of the regiment.

In addition, orders came from the War Department ordering many of the regular soldiers, then stationed at the frontier posts of Fort Kearny and Fort Randall, to proceed east to help put down the rebellion. It was felt that without the restraint of strongly garrisoned forts, the Indian tribes would cut the communication with the far west and even threatened the outlying settlements of Nebraska.


There were ten regiments and they became the First Nebraska Regiment. They were placed under the command of Colonel John M. Thayer and General Lew Wallace. Omaha was the mustering point. Its organization was completed by July 22, 1861. On July 30, 1861, half of the regiment was on board the steamer, “West Wind”, bound for the battlefields in the South. The other five regiments followed two weeks later. In addition to these regiments, other Nebraska boys served in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas regiments.

Upon the departure of one of the regiments, a lady whom the papers insisted was the lineal descendant of one of the fearless women of Revolutionary times, donned soldier’s attire through out and took passage as one of the “boys”. Her sex was undiscovered during the trip to St. Joe, but when the boat left that port, she was discovered by her husband and sent back to Omaha, where it is said she still lives.” (In 1882) 

Another Nebraska unit which fought against the Confederacy was the Curtis Horse Cavalry Regiment. Four companies, recruited mostly in Omaha, were designated as the Nebraska Battalion and was attached to the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, which included Iowa and Minnesota troops. The four companies which were designated as the Nebraska Battalion, Companies A, B, C, and D, were commanded by Captains William Kelsay, J.T.. Croft, J. Morris Young, and Harlan Beard, respectively. The Curtis Horse served with distinction throughout the war.

There were also two Indian organizations, the Omaha Scouts and the Pawnee Scouts. The latter was commanded by Major Frank North of Columbus, and did valuable work in combating the hostile Sioux.

After the First Nebraska Regiment traveled to Missouri on the steamboat, “West Wind”, they camped outside Sedalia, Missouri. December 15, 1861, they marched toward Milford, Missouri, and participated in skirmishes which resulted in the capture of 1,300 rebels.

The First Nebraska Infantry Regiment spent January 1862, in drilling, arming and training. They were in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. In February 1862, the First Nebraska saw their first action. The first Regiment was ordered up the Cumberland River to Fort Donelson, Tennessee, where the men arrived the night of February 13, 1862. Colonel Thayer was instructed to move on by the right flank. General Wallace moved out ahead and scarcely had the formation been made when the enemy attacked, coming up the road and through the bushes and trees, on both sides of the line, making the battery and the First Nebraska the principal points of attack. They alone repelled the charge. The First Nebraska’s conduct was splendid. On February 16, 1862, the enemy surrendered unconditionally to General Grant. Grant earned his nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. The regiment marched into Dover, Tennessee, victorious in their first regular engagement.

However the day before this happened, the southerners almost slipped out of Grant’s trap. They broke through the Union lines and were just about to escape, when a federal regiment was thrown against them that stopped them cold. That regiment was the First Nebraska. It was true they were supported by an artillery unit and had a supporting regiment from Ohio behind them, but the Nebraskans fire was so effective that it alone stopped the breakout and drove the rebels back into the fort, from which they would surrender the next day.

The men fought bravely--so well that they received the personal praise of General Lew Wallace, commander of the First Nebraska and its leaders. After the Battle of Fort Donelson he wrote: “To the promptness and courage of Colonel Thayer . . . in the execution of my orders on the occasion, I attribute, in a large degree the repulse of the enemy... Lt. Colonel McCord and his First Nebraska Regiment have already been spoken of in terms warmer that mere commendation . . . .

From the Omaha Republican March 10, 1862, “Details of First Nebraska at Fort Donelson...were with the Union troops in retreat, when Gen. Wallace rode up and said, ‘Nebraska, sustain the reputation you already have. McClernand is in full retreat, if you cannot beat back the enemy, the day is lost.’ We formed in line, when a rebel battery opened on us killing and wounding nine men. We then commenced firing and drove the rebels over the brow of a hill, from whence we flanked them and drove them from the field . . .
S. M. Curran-First Lt. Co E 1 Nebraska Infantry.

The First Regiment fought in another and more decisive battle. This engagement was at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, generally known as Shiloh. At Shiloh, the First Nebraska missed the first day of fighting, because their Commander, Lew Wallace, got lost and arrived after dark. At dawn on April 7, 1962, the Regiment formed in the line of battle on the right wing of General Grant’s army, in Colonel Thayer’s brigade, General Lew Wallace’s division and engaged the enemy. The men fought hard all day. “Time and again the enemy charged up to close quarters” said Adjutant General Patrick’s account of the battle in his report, “but the well-directed volleys of the brigade caused them to waver and fall back until finally by a sudden charge of the First Nebraska, they were driven from the field.”5

General Thayer said, “Nobly did the First Nebraska sustain its reputation at Shiloh, well earned on the field of Donelson. Its progress was onward during the whole day, in the face of a falling fire of enemy, moving on without flinching, at one time being an

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