The unadorned grave of Dr. J.W. Thomas lies in the middle of Weeping Water’s Oakwood Cemetery, the final resting place of a pioneer surgeon, druggist and civic leader who died in 1908.
This Memorial Day, a small American flag will be stuck in the ground next to his headstone, in honor of his service with the 77th Ohio Infantry Regiment for nine months during the Civil War before he was wounded in battle and discharged.
On modern Memorial Days, we may mourn the half million American fallen of World War II. Or the names etched in black stone on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Or the 4,500 more recently dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Civil War veterans like Thomas, though, are sometimes overlooked because there are few if any people today who actually knew them.
The territory of Nebraska contributed 3,157 soldiers, and 239 died in battle, in accidents or from disease. An estimated 100,000 more moved to Nebraska in the boom years after the war, lured by the government’s offer of free homesteads and by the new transcontinental railroad. About 20,000 are buried here. The last one died in 1948.
“Many of them, when they moved to Nebraska, became leaders in the community,” said Dean Podoll of La Vista, who has spent 15 years since retiring from the Omaha Public Power District compiling the stories of the state’s Civil War veterans.
Podoll has scoured archives and websites to compile short biographies of more than 1,000 of those veterans.
He discovered that Thomas, a 19-year-old corporal from Belmont County, Ohio, joined the Army in December 1861. He fought in just one battle, Shiloh, April 6 and 7, 1862. He suffered gunshot and saber wounds when his unit was overrun by 800 cavalrymen under the command of the Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest a day later.
“He should have died,” Podoll said. “But they sent him to a hospital in St. Louis. He recovered.”
The wounds would change Thomas’ life. The four months he spent recuperating persuaded him to go home to Ohio and study medicine. In 1867, Thomas left to become the first physician in Weeping Water, in the new and booming state of Nebraska.
“1865 may have been an ending in the East, but it was a beginning in the West,” said Dave Wells, historian for the Civil War Museum in Nebraska City. “They left home a boy and came home a man — and the West is opening up. Free land for everybody.”
The Homestead Act of 1862 offered anyone except ex-Confederates free land on the Great Plains if they farmed it and improved it for five years. For veterans, the time period was reduced by the amount of time they had spent in the military.
That probably sounded good to Pvt. James Hill of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry. Like about one-third of the Union Army, he was an immigrant — from England. He enlisted in May 1861 and lost his right leg 16 months later during the battle of Antietam, in Maryland.
After the war, Hill farmed in Colfax County, Nebraska, until he retired in Albion in 1909. A 1942 photograph in the Omaha World-Herald shows him at age 100 buying $100 worth of war bonds. He died two years later, the last Civil War veteran in his town.
A number of Civil War veterans suffered long-term health problems after the war. Some resulted from battle wounds, but even more from diseases contracted from being tightly packed in crude, unsanitary camps.
The government in 1890 conducted a special census of Union veterans. It asked veterans to describe any lingering illnesses or wounds.
The census results from Cedar Rapids, Nebraska, illustrate how many veterans had immigrated, and how many were still sick. It lists 64 Civil War veterans (and two widows) out of a total population of 484. Nearly all reported lingering health effects 25 years after the end of the war, the most common being chronic diarrhea and rheumatism.
Six Cedar Rapids veterans had been wounded in action. Berkly Lisbon of the 1st Colored Tennessee Infantry had been wounded in the hand by an exploding shell. William Ewer of the 24th Wisconsin Infantry was shot in the head. Andrew Patchen of the 70th Indiana Infantry had injured his left foot marching.
Most veterans who resettled in Nebraska fought on the Union side, but Wells estimates that a few hundred former Confederate soldiers arrived here after the war.
Many of them, Wells said, were “galvanized Yankees”: Confederate prisoners who were recruited out of prison camps to battle Plains Indians in Nebraska and elsewhere.
Why come North?
“Some went home, their houses were burned down, the economy was bad,” Wells said. “They just all picked up and moved to Nebraska to get away from the war.”
A group of ex-Confederates settled in Madison County, including William Shaver and George S. Venable, both Virginians. And William Ellis, a North Carolina cavalryman who was at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant, was one of the last Civil War soldiers in Sarpy County. He died in 1939, age 93.
By the 1930s and 1940s, just a few Civil War veterans remained — much as we’re experiencing today with the World War II generation. Omaha’s last surviving was a cantankerous fellow named Erastus Page.
Page had enlisted as an 18-year-old private in the 50th New York Engineers on Sept. 1, 1864. He fought in the Petersburg and Richmond campaigns that ended the war. Like Ellis, he was at Appomattox.
Later he would move west to ranch in Nebraska and Wyoming, eventually retiring to Omaha to be near his wife’s family.
In May 1945, Page called out the much-younger World War I veterans of Omaha’s American Legion Post No. 1 for canceling a Memorial Day parade at Forest Lawn Cemetery because the climb up a hill might be too strenuous.
“Faint-hearted sissies, that’s what they are!” Page, 99, barked to a World-Herald reporter at the time. “(They) ought to take some ambition tablets.”
A year later, Page himself would be laid to rest at Forest Lawn, three months past his 100th birthday.
Wells and Podoll are doing their best to make sure we don’t forget the faded heroes of the Civil War who helped build Nebraska.
Wells will give a talk called “The Aftermath of the Civil War” as part of an “old-fashioned” Memorial Day ceremony beginning at 10:45 a.m. today at Prospect Hill Cemetery, the city’s oldest, where dozens of Civil War veterans are buried.
And in Albion, the American Legion will pay homage to Joseph Prentice, an Ohio native buried in Albion who was awarded the Medal of Honor for braving enemy fire to retrieve the body of his dead commanding officer at the battle of Stones River, Tennessee, Dec. 31, 1862.
Wells and Podoll plan to continue digging up information on Civil War veterans as long as they’re able.
“If somebody doesn’t keep doing this stuff,” they said, “nobody will remember them.”
World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1186, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Database: Civil War veterans buried in Nebraska
There are nearly 20,000 Civil War veterans buried in Nebraska, and Dean Podell of La Vista, a National Guard veteran and retired nuclear engineer, has spent the past 15 years compiling profiles of about 1,000 of those veterans. With Podell's help, we're making these stories available online for the first time. dataomaha.com/civilwar