Nebraska Territory no 'isolated backwater' in Civil War

James Hutton, a private in Company E, First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, about 1861. He was a brother of John Hutton, also a private.

The president's policies divided the nation.

Republicans feuded not only with Democrats but with each other.

The mounting death toll in a war that lingered longer than expected — and was going badly — distressed communities across the nation.

During the Civil War in January 1863 — 150 years ago — America was at war with itself.

Although far from battlefields in the East and South and remote from White House and congressional intrigue, the Nebraska Territory reverberated with the conflict. Blood was shed by Nebraska troops in distant places, and the homefront was vigorously engaged in the debate and war effort.

Jim Potter

“This wasn't an isolated backwater,'' said Jim Potter of Chadron, senior research historian at the Nebraska State Historical Society. “People were aware of the war's issues — everything from emancipation of the slaves to black soldiers in the Army — and subject to its consequences.''

Potter is the author of “Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867.'' The newly published book explores the war's impact on Nebraskans. Potter tells how, when the territory sought admission to the Union at war's end, Nebraska was caught up in political struggles over Reconstruction, the fate of freed slaves and the relationship between the states and the federal government.

Like neighboring Iowa — a fervent anti-slavery state and part of the Union since 1846 — Nebraska may have seemed to be in the wings of the great drama playing out far over the horizon.

Potter puts it this way:

“No massive armies clashed on Nebraska's soil, no gunboats plied the Missouri River along its eastern shore, no towns were occupied or sacked within its borders ...''

Although separated by the Missouri River and by unequal status under the Constitution, Nebraska Territory and Iowa made similar, significant contributions to the Union war effort.

Nebraska — with a modest population and fragile frontier economy — furnished more than 3,000 soldiers from a pool of barely 9,000 men of military age in 1860, Potter said.

“One could make the argument that not all Nebraskans stood firmly by the flag,'' Potter said.

A few returned to their home states in the South to serve in the Confederate army.

The April 12, 1861, outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter, S.C., created quick ripples in Nebraska. Within four days, two companies of the Army's 2nd Infantry and the band from Fort Kearny, Neb., marched for Omaha on the way to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and war.

The pullout of federal troops panicked Nebraskans who wanted soldiers between them and American Indians, Potter said. The rush to enlist can partly be attributed to the understanding that the troops would be kept at home to protect the frontier, he said.

“I suspect that had they known at the outset that they'd be away from the territory for three years, there might not have been the same level of enthusiasm,'' Potter said.

Iowa had among the nation's highest percentage of citizens who participated in the war. About 75,000 men, more than half the number of those eligible, went off to war. About 13,000 died of wounds or disease.

Nebraska and Iowa not only shared a common border, they shared soldiers and leaders.

One month after the start of the war, Alvin Saunders of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, arrived in Nebraska as its new territorial governor. Men from Page County, Iowa, formed two companies of soldiers in the 1st Nebraska Regiment because no regiment in their state had room for them.

Find more World-Herald coverage of the Nebraskans and Iowans who have served our country at our At War, At Home page.

While Nebraskans and Iowans battled Confederates in places like Pea Ridge in Arkansas or in Tennessee and Missouri, their families back home fought the war in legislative chambers and newspapers.

President Abraham Lincoln's September 1862 announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation sparked editorial sparring between rival Democratic and Republican editors in Nebraska and Iowa, Potter said. The act proclaimed all slaves in Confederate territory to be free. It became one of Lincoln's war objectives.

The Democratic-leaning Omaha Nebraskan newspaper called the proclamation “an ill-starred, unauthorized, and indefensible document.''

The Republican-leaning Council Bluffs Nonpareil replied that “a stranger couldn't tell now, without looking at the dateline, whether the paper emanated from Nebraska or South Carolina.''

Danette Hein-Snider, a researcher at the Historic Gen. Dodge House in Council Bluffs, said the Iowa town was divided.

It was both a hotbed of vocal critics of Lincoln's agenda to end slavery and home of a corps of women devoted to aiding the troops.

The Bluffs' three newspapers engaged in a war of words. The Nonpareil and the Chronotype supported the Lincoln administration; the Bugle opposed it “with derogatory stories and remarks against the Union and freeing the slaves,'' she said.

Hein-Snider said the Bugle pointedly criticized Gen. Grenville Dodge, who led the 4th Iowa Voluntary Regiment, and his family.

Yet the Ladies Aid Society sewed clothing and bedding and organized shipments of onions, potatoes and apples for Dodge's troops and other Union soldiers.

Potter said the end of slavery, the question of black voting rights and the differing postwar reconstruction plans of President Andrew Johnson and Congress were key issues when Nebraska sought statehood after the war.

Nebraska had been in the forefront of granting rights to black Americans since before the war. In January 1861, just months before the start of the conflict, the Legislature abolished slavery within the territorial borders, Potter said. The 1860 Census recorded 15 slaves in Nebraska Territory.

After the end of the war in 1865, the Territorial Legislature in 1867 agreed to Congress' mandate to allow all male citizens, including black men, to vote.

Congress' demand grew out of a battle with Johnson, who followed the assassinated Lincoln, on conditions for admitting former Confederate states to the Union. Nebraska's proposed state constitution, which allowed only “free white'' men to vote, was not acceptable to emboldened Republicans in Congress.

The Legislature accepted Congress' conditions, but not before George N. Crawford, a Sarpy County Democrat in the territory's House chamber, offered a frivolous amendment:

“And be it further enacted that the governor of this territory be authorized to procure a coffin to be constructed of the material of which this document is composed in which to enclose the remains of the sovereign rights of the people of the territory.''

The amendment was defeated.

Congress accepted the territory's revised paperwork and the president proclaimed Nebraska statehood March 1, 1867.

Three years later, the United States ratified the 15th Amendment, which says states cannot deny a citizen the right to vote based on the person's “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Nebraska was the only state admitted after the war but before ratification of the Constitution's 15th Amendment.

“Nebraska helped shape the postwar legacy of Reconstruction and civil rights,” Potter said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1127,

Civil War-related events, exhibits in Nebraska and Iowa


» Durham Museum: “Worn With Pride: Americans in Uniform” through Feb. 3. Includes artifacts from Union and Confederate soldiers.

» Durham Museum: “Liberty on the Border: A Civil War Exhibit,'' Sept. 21, 2013, through Jan. 5, 2014. Focuses on the border relationship between Union state Ohio and Confederate state Kentucky. Designed by the Cincinnati (Ohio) Museum Center.

» Durham Museum: Three lectures by University of Nebraska at Omaha historians Danielle Battisti and Mark Scherer in 2013. Details pending.

» Nebraska History Museum, Lincoln: “Homefront and Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War,'' February 2015, through June 2015. Created by American Textile History Museum.


» State Historical Museum of Iowa, Des Moines: “Iowa and the Civil War: Nothing but Victory.'' More than 300 artifacts — from flags to weapons — and documents help recount the experiences of Iowans at war and the communities that supported them.

» Old Capitol Museum, Iowa City: “Gone to See the Elephant: The Civil War through the Eyes of Iowa Soldiers,'' through May 23. Exhibit examines how Iowa soldiers experienced daily camp life, faced injuries on the battlefield, survived prisoner camps and longed for home.

» Traveling exhibit: “The Fiery Trial: Iowa and the Civil War,” in 32-foot trailer. Includes panels about the war experiences of Iowans and a computer program for visitors to research Civil War ancestors.

» Council Bluffs Public Library: History at High Noon lecture series, April 9-11. Topics: African-Americans during the Civil War, Native Americans on the Plains, and the Council Bluffs Ladies Aid Society during the Civil War.

» Council Bluffs: Rededication of the Col. William Kinsman Monument at Fairview Cemetery, May 18. Kinsman, commander of the 23rd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, was killed May 16, 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign.

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