Soldiering on the Plains During the Civil War

 One does not often think of Nebraska in the context of the Civil War; the garden state of the Great Plains was not yet even a state during the conflict- that would not occur until 1867, two years after the end of hostilities. If one thinks of Nebraska and the Civil War, it might be within the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the concept of popular sovereignty, where settlers would be able to determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery within their territory. This precept led to a clear precursor of the Civil War in “Bleeding Kansas” during the late 1850s where pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions took to arms and violence; pro-slavery men apparently didn’t bother trying to sway Nebraska which remained free of violence during the period.

There were far more buffalo (American bison) than people living in Nebraska in the 1860s, but their days were numbered. In 1840, it was estimated that 35 million bison lived upon the Great Plains; by 1870, that number had fallen to roughly 5.5 million and by 1900, only 300 were left of the species. 

Nebraska’s wide-open prairies did attract a few homesteaders and farmers before the war (the territory had a population of 28,000 in 1860), but the primary visitors to the territory during the war were pioneers and travelers heading west to the newly discovered gold fields in Wyoming, or others seeking their fortunes in the Far West. The Pony Express went through Nebraska as did the transcontinental telegraph line, so residents had some access to war developments back east. But Nebraska at this stage was more home to native tribes of Pawnees and Omahas than white men, and upon the endless miles of prairie thousands upon thousands of buffalo grazed on the thick prairie grass. It is hard to imagine a scene more at variance with the Civil War in the east than the solitude and expansive open prairie offered by territorial Nebraska.  

Fort Kearny, Nebraska in 1858

However, the busy Oregon Trail snaked through the southern part of Nebraska along the Platte River and the U.S. Army established a post named Fort Kearny in 1848 to provide refuge for the thousands of hardy souls who made the trek westward. Traffic ebbed and flowed with the seasons, but at peak travel time in late May, up to 2,000 wagons per day passed along the trail, many of them stopping at the Fort. Today’s blog post features a letter from one of the soldiers stationed at Fort Kearny in 1862, a Michigander named Michael O. Healey who was serving in Co. K of the 10th U.S. Infantry. By the time he wrote his letter in November 1862, the constant buzz of activity at the frontier post had ceased as only the hardiest travelers would attempt to cross the plains in the teeth of the upcoming winter. “Times here are dull, exceedingly so,” he lamented.

While much of the regiment was back east fighting the rebellion as part of the Army of the Potomac, Healey and his comrades literally “held down the fort” in southern Nebraska territory, battling utter boredom and rowdy townspeople rather than exchanging shots with Johnny Rebs. One is reminded of the 1990 film Dances with Wolves when the lead character asks for a posting in the western frontier so he can see it before it is gone; Healey had seen the frontier before it was gone, and had seen enough of it that he longed to return to back east to “civilization.”

Period map depicting the Nebraska Territory in the 1860s; Fort Kearny (misspelled as Kearney) lay just south of the Platte River along the popular Oregon Trail that started at Council Bluffs, Iowa. The native tribes (Omahas, Pawnees, Otoes, and Missouris) were driven out of the eastern part of the state during the Civil War, and thousands of settlers moved in afterwards under the provisions of the Homestead Act, my great-great grandfather among them. After serving for four years with the 37th Indiana, he married and moved west in 1867, settling first in Iowa, then two years later in Nebraska. Life on a prairie farm apparently didn't suit him, and he moved his family back home to Indiana in 1877. 

Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory

November 12, 1862

          I received your welcome letter of November 1st and am very happy to hear from America once more. Times here are very dull, exceedingly so, and only for enjoying a buffalo hunt now and then, and our dancing school, I believe we would die of ennui.

          I presume you have often read in romances very glowing and graphic descriptions of a prairie on fire, but I can assure you that the reality is quite equal to the wildest description of the novelist. During my six years’ sojourn on the Plains and Rocky Mountains, I have not seen a good prairie fire until about two weeks since, and really the impression it left on my mind shall long be remembered. You ought to have seen the hundreds of buffalo charging ahead from the fire with the eyes protruding from their sockets, and their respective anterior appendages elevated on high, and anon some of the bachelors of the herd would give a short, deep bellow which would give a fresh impulse to the flying mass. The fire was very extensive, running from about 35 miles above us to the Kansas border. The patches of unburned grass are literally teeming with game of all kinds: buffalo, antelope, turkeys, pheasants, sage-hens, etc.

This 1898 depiction of an Indian Hunting Buffalo would have been a readily recognized scene during the 1860s in Nebraska. Local army establishments often would utilize the services of Native American hunters to guide soldiers in buffalo hunts, the meat being considered far superior to beef. By 1870, any buffalo living in the vicinity of Fort Kearny had been wiped out. 

          There is a species of rabbit here of extraordinary size and swiftness which is called by the mountaineers the jackass rabbit. They are at least double the size of the wood rabbit of Michigan. The Platte River is covered with immense flocks of wild geese and ducks. The Platte is a very singular river. In some places the river is between three and four miles wide, but full of islands and numerous channels with a quicksand bottom. These islands are very numerous and some of them are very large. The U.S. government has one for a reservation of 15 miles in length where all the government cattle is wintered. It is from a half a mile to three and a half in width. There is not a tree on either bank of this stream, but there is cottonwood trees on all the islands.

One of Healey's comrades
John L. Smyth of Co. K, 10th U.S. Inf.

          Fort Kearny is built on a dead level one mile from the Platte and consists in all of a sutler’s store and house, a hospital, and 37 large government buildings including soldiers’ and officers’ quarters, a commissary quartermaster’s store, etc. There is a one-horse town or village called Kearney City one and three-fourths miles from the fort which boasts of a judge, sheriff, constable, and about ten or twelves stores (or rather doggeries) and about 200 inhabitants. I may add that they are as precious a set of scoundrels as ever disgraced a frontier village; there is scarcely a week but there is a shooting or a stabbing affair, as all trains going to California, Oregon, Denver, and Salt Lake have to pass through on their way. As the whole mail route is under martial law, we have to settle disputes and send all our criminal prisoners to Omaha City, the capital of the territory.

          I don’t think I am going to throw myself away to any young lady of this locality for, although many of them are very good and discreet women, yet a life on the frontier robs them of many of the finer traits. It is no uncommon thing to see one of them carry a nice little six-shooter, aye, and use it too into the bargain if they think it essential. Marriage is a mere farce, and more of an affair of convenience than of religious ceremony and divorces are the order of the day.  

Nebraska homesteaders in 1866 pose with their two-horse Conestoga wagon upon the plains; the two men appear to be wearing their old army uniforms, particularly the one on the right. The romance we associate with the life on the Plains is perhaps more a product of Hollywood than one based on the hard realities of life where the tough rock-like soil, prairie fires, and harsh weather made the task of carving out a living a daunting prospect. 

          You would be astonished were you to take a trip across the plains and travel day after day for months without ever seeing a tree to relieve the sameness of the scene, except for the few cottonwoods on the islands of the Platte. Indeed, to a person brought up in a fine wooded country like the Grand River valley, the contrast is novel in the extreme. Then to see a herd of 500-2,000 buffalo looking for water and large herds of beautiful antelopes, as fleet almost as lightning.

“All wish to do something, but it appears as if nothing can be accomplished that counts. The presence of soldiers here creates a quiet, which makes the presence of troops seem unnecessary. But if all troops were withdrawn, the old lawless scenes would be repeated by both whites and Indians. So, we have the comforting assurance that we are doing some good.” Unknown soldier of Co. D, 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry writing from Platte Bridge, Nebraska Territory in August 1863

          We get telegraphic dispatches twice a day direct from the seat of war as the line is in the hands of the government through from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. General James Craig has just arrived here to take command. It is surmised that we may yet be ordered to Washington or Governor’s Island this coming winter. I hope so, for I am heartily tired of the plains and mountains. I would like to get once more where people are civilized. I have not seen the interior of a church during the last six years except when I was in Great Salt Lake City in Utah Territory when I went to hear Brigham Young preach. There is not a catholic priest or church on the whole route.


Letter from Michael O. Healey, Co. K, 10th U.S. Infantry, Grand Haven News (Michigan), December 10, 1862, pg. 1


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