Although Nebraska was only a territory during the Civil War, Nebraska soldiers were instrumental in a decisive Union victory.
In the tangled, snow-covered woods of northwestern Tennessee during mid-February 1862, troops from the 1st Regiment Nebraska Volunteer Infantry fought under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant against the Confederates.
The regiment helped win the Battle of Fort Donelson and capture Nashville, which was the first Confederate capital to fall into Union control.
And a Nebraska state senator thinks they should be honored with a new monument.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln learned about this piece of Nebraska history from her cousin during a Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s a part of Nebraska history ... that most people have never heard,” Pansing Brooks said.
She introduced Legislative Bill 850, which would create a monument committee to honor the 1st Nebraska Infantry at the Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Tennessee.
The legislation would also direct the Nebraska secretary of state to request the U.S. secretary of the interior to authorize the placement of the monument and create a monument construction committee.
The monument will be privately funded. No taxpayer money will be used, Pansing Brooks said.
Steve Guenzel and Gayla Koerting, members of the nonprofit Nebraska Civil War Roundtable, testified at the hearing on the bill. The bill had no opposition.
There is a marker recognizing the regiment, but it’s not much. When Guenzel visited Tennessee’s Shiloh National Military Park in 2006, he expected to see a grand historical mark commemorating the regiment.
“I probably stupidly was expecting some kind of a granite monument or something like that, and it was this metal sign,” Guenzel said. “I was really disappointed.”
The 1st Nebraska Infantry played an important role in the Battle of Fort Donelson, which ended with about 2,250 wounded and 1,000 dead, Koerting said.
In February 1862, the Union surrounded the Confederates' fortifications near Nashville. Fort Donelson proved to be a challenge because it was well fortified with rifle pits, cannons, two water batteries and 3 miles of trenches surrounding it, Koerting said. The Union troops also faced 10 degree temperatures and lack of supplies — no tents, blankets or coats.
Grant’s army at first failed to break the Confederate lines. Union Gen. Lew Wallace ordered up the 1st Nebraska Infantry to block the Confederates' counterattack.
The regiment formed a defensive line and charged the Confederates. In the end, the Confederates surrendered, and the Union captured 17,000 Confederate soldiers, Guenzel said.
After the battle, Wallace praised the 1st Nebraska Infantry: “Their conduct was splendid. They alone repelled the charge.”
Grant’s career, along with the fate of the country, would probably be in jeopardy if the 1st Nebraska Infantry did not step up, Guenzel said
“If he had not done as well as he did there, I’m sure he would have been fired and who knows what would have happened to the Union,” Guenzel said.
The 1st Nebraska Infantry’s success led Grant to become more well known throughout the country, even drawing praise from President Abraham Lincoln, Koerting said.
Their role was all the more impressive considering most of the regiment was inexperienced.
“I think it’s incredibly admirable, given the fact that they were not battle-hardened veterans at all,” said Koerting, who has a doctorate in Civil War and reconstruction history.
With many of the Confederate monuments coming down in the Southern states, Pansing Brooks said the monument would salute the 1st Nebraska Infantry’s contributions in uniting the country and ending the scourge of slavery.
“We are a state that has contributed to a lot of the good of our history,” Pansing Brooks said.