The Civil War in NebraskaAs the war began in April 1861, Algernon Paddock was serving as the territorial secretary, the highest office. On May 15, Alvin Saunders, a staunch Republican and supporter of President Lincoln, was sworn in as the formal Governor of Nebraska Territory. He served in that capacity throughout the war.
When the war started, U.S. Regular Army troops were withdrawn from Fort Kearny and Fort Randall to serve in more threatened areas, but at the increased risk to Nebraska settlers from Indian attacks. The Federal government requested that the Nebraska Territory form one volunteer regiment, with some companies supposed to stay behind to protect the territory. The territorial legislature met in special session in Omaha, and agreed to raise the requested local defense force. Thus, the 1st Regiment Nebraska Volunteer Infantry was formed in June and July 1861, with the future governor of Nebraska and the Wyoming Territory, John Milton Thayer, as its first colonel. However, the promise was reneged, and the regiment was sent eastward in August to fight the Confederacy.
Serving in the forces under Ulysses S. Grant, the 1st Nebraska Infantry participated in the successful attack on Fort Donelson in Tennessee and then fought at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. It then participated in several minor engagements in Missouri and Arkansas. In October 1863, the regiment was changed from infantry into cavalry, and was transferred to the frontier to keep the Plains Indians in check. It was mustered out of the Union Army in 1866.
The Sioux Indian outbreak and massacre in Minnesota in the summer of 1862 occasioned the formation of another Nebraska regiment. Designed for nine months' service against the Indians, the regiment was known as the Second Nebraska Cavalry. During the winter of 1862-63 the unit was recruited and organized, with Robert W. Furnas as colonel in command. In April 1863 the Second Nebraska was ordered to Sioux City to join the forces of Gen. Alfred Sully in an expedition against the Sioux in Dakota, which culminated in the decisive Battle of White Stone Hills on September 3, 1863. The Indians were routed with great loss of warriors and equipment, and the Second Nebraska acquitted itself with great credit considering the inexperience of the men and their short training period. Colonel Furnas, in his official report, praised his regiment highly, saying, "both officers and men fought with the coolness and courage of veterans . . . not a man flinched a particle." Shortly after the battle the Second Nebraska Cavalry returned home, and on November 30, 1863, its term of enlistment having expired, the regiment was mustered out.
Later in the war, some of the soldiers who served at Fort Kearny were former Confederates who had changed their allegiance to the Union, thus becoming "galvanized Yankees".
By the end of the Civil War, more than a third (3,157) of the men of military age in the Nebraska Territory had served in the Union army. In addition to the 1st Nebraska, the territory raised three other full regiments of cavalry, as well as a battalion. Thirty-five Nebraskans were killed in action during the Civil War, while another 204 died of other causes, including disease and accidents.
On the homefront the Jayhawkers constituted a serious threat. These lawless bands of armed men claimed to be operating in the interest of the Union against southern sympathizers, but in reality they were nothing but bandits engaged in stealing horses, robbing stores and houses, and threatening the lives of many citizens. Union men were victims of the Jayhawkers as well as those alleged to be rebel sympathizers.
Measures were taken to combat the Jayhawkers, who operated principally in the southern part of the territory. A bill was introduced into the Territorial Council making it lawful to kill any person found committing such acts as were charged to the Jayhawkers. Although this drastic proposal was not passed, Governor Saunders did issue a proclamation ordering the Jayhawkers to disband and return to their homes or leave the territory under threat of severe punishment for disregarding the order. In many communities citizens organized leagues as defensive measures against these marauders and in Nemaha County it was reported that several Jayhawkers were captured, two of them were killed, and their bodies thrust under the ice of the Missouri River.
In the years following the Civil War thousands of Union veterans settled in Nebraska. The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862 provided that "any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such . . . and who has never borne arms against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies . . ." could upon payment of a small fee file a claim upon as much as a quarter section of unappropriated public land and after having "resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing," and "if at that time a citizen of the United States," he could receive a final patent from the government.
The Homestead Act was later amended to include special provisions for veterans of the Civil War, allowing them to deduct the number of years which they had served in the Union Army from the five years' residence on a homestead and according this same privilege to their widows and orphans.