Nebraska and the Civil War

Nebraska was a very lightly populated territory when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The events leading up to the war and the locations of its battles were far away from Nebraska. It could be easily be believed that Nebraska had few connections with the war, but in actuality Nebraska was a major part of the cause, had a high participation in and benefited greatly from the Civil War.
Even though the area of Nebraska was thought of as the “Great American Desert” and only good for the Indians, politicians in both the Northern and Southern states had an interest in its future. With the “Missouri Compromise of 1820” part of the former Louisiana Purchase, then called Missouri Territory, became the slave State of Missouri. At this time it was agreed that the rest of the western lands north of parallel 36-30 would prohibit slavery. This included lands that would later become Nebraska and Kansas. They would continue to be Indian Territory and not open for settlement. It was hoped that this act would reduce tension among the states.
Beginning in the early 1840's there was a constant movement of settlers along the Platte Valley going west. It was obvious to all that a transcontinental railroad should be built. The need to open up the Indian lands beyond the Missouri River became important. By 1844 unsuccessful plans to formally organize the Nebraska Territory as the first step toward building a railroad were presented. At this time the status of Nebraska, the transcontinental railroad, and slavery became intertwined. There was a constant dispute over whether the railroad would follow a northern or a southern route. No one at this time could image more than “one” railroad to the west. Several more unsuccessful attempts to organize Nebraska Territory were made in the early 1850's.  Finally in 1854 Nebraska came into being. The original “unofficial” Nebraska Territory was split into two parts with the southern portion becoming Kansas Territory and the much larger northern portion becoming Nebraska Territory. In order to get southern support for the “Kansas-Nebraska Act” there would be no restriction on slavery. The population of the future states would determine their status on slavery. The act nullified the earlier Missouri Compromise. This act made no one totally happy. At this time the Republican Party was formed. It was originally called the “Anti-Nebraska” Party, because they disagreed with the opening of new areas to slavery.
Because of its weather and geography it was thought that no labor intensive crops would be grown in the two new territories, so slavery would not be needed. Still their status on slavery was very important to the whole country. Anti-slavery feelings ran strong in Nebraska with all of its northern settlers. There were only a dozen slaves in Nebraska and most of their owners had land in other states. Kansas was much different. Without a natural border with slave owning Missouri, many Pro-slavery settlers moved to Kansas if only to vote. After several violent events involving Abolitionist and pro-slavery groups, the territory became known as “Bloody/Bleeding Kansas”. Still even after all the violence and political disputes Kansas entered the Union as a free state by 1861.
Without any of the Kansas's problems, Nebraska was nowhere near becoming a state. Since becoming a territory, Nebraska's statehood was delayed by its own internal south versus north and Democrats versus Republicans disputes. The territory had become much smaller, but no easier to govern. The more populous south section wanted the future capital. Each political party wanted control of the state when it entered the Union. At one time the “South Platters” even asked Kansas to annex the southern section of Nebraska. Other problems were land and currency laws. And there was still the national dispute over the route of the much needed transcontinental railroad and the status of slavery which would come into any statehood approval. During the war the Legislature didn't meet for a couple years because of wartime tax problems.
Leading up to the Civil War the whole country was on edge from all the disputes between the Southern and Northern states. Both of the “Missouri Compromise” and the “Kansas-Nebraska Act” were designed to relieve the tension between the regions, but in actuality, they had done the exact opposite. “State Rights” issues, primarily slavery, were holding up the settlement of the western lands and the building of the railroad many had hoped would someday run through the area. With the election of President Lincoln things came to a boiling point and the Civil War broke out in 1861.
Settlers in Nebraska Territory responded willing to the call for volunteers to fight the Southern Confederates. Nebraska would rank second among the territories in the number of soldiers it would supply to the Union Army. With the withdrawal of most of the regular army from forts in the territory, the need for protection from Indian attack was very important. It was agreed that the first Union Regiment mustered up would be for homeland protection, but this did not last very long. Soon Nebraskans were sent eastward to southern Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee. In 1862 Nebraska's 1st Infantry participated in the Battle of Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. In 1863 the regiment was changed into a cavalry and returned to Nebraska to control the Indians. At the end of the war over a third (3,157) of Nebraska's military age men had served the Union and thirty-five had been killed in action. Many more Nebraskans fought under the name of bordering states' armies. Considering its resources, Nebraska gave generously. No Civil War battles or skirmishes took place within Nebraska. There was a lawless group men call “Jayhawkers” who terrorized southeast Nebraska during the war, but most were just plain horse bandits. Many former Confederate POW soldiers, called “Galvanized Yankees”, were stationed in Nebraska during the war.
The election of President Lincoln and the Civil War had many major effects on Nebraska Territory. Other than having its statehood delayed, there were many benefits. Without opposition from Southern states, the transcontinental railroad route through Nebraska was selected. The railroad would receive land to finance construction which would be later sold to settlers. With the railroads many more potential markets became available to future settlers. The Homestead Act would be signed and free land would be available to all who met the requirements. This would later cause a land slide of immigrants to the plains. There was a constant parade of freight along the Platte Valley trails. The Morrill Act was passed which would authorize land grant colleges to educate the population, especially the farmers. Also the Union Army soldiers were given special treatment based on years served toward their Homesteads. After the war soldiers from every Union state were represented in Nebraska. Also many Confederate soldiers came to Nebraska to get away from the destruction and chaos of the South. After the war Texas cattle were driven up to Nebraska's railroads and eventually Nebraska's own cattle industry took hold in the Sandhills. The Republican Party strengthened its hold on the state. From 1854 to 1870 the new state of Nebraska population went from under 3,000 to over 122,000. By 1890 Nebraska's population was over million.
John Belz