Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Potter: "STANDING BY THE FLAG: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867"

[Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 by James E. Potter (Bison Books, 2012). Softcover, 3 maps, photos, illustrations. Pages main/total:312/396. ISBN:978-0-8032-4090-2 $29.95]


James Potter's Standing Firmly By the Flag began life as a history of the 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry before morphing into a more general political and military history of the territory during the Civil War and the two additional years of postbellum wrangling that ultimately resulted in statehood. With no trans-continental railroad in 1861, Nebraska trails, way stations, and telegraph lines served as vital transportation and communications links to the burgeoning western population and economy. All were suddenly vulnerable with the outbreak of Civil War and the departure of regular army garrisons.

To protect the territory from Indian raids, the 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry was recruited. Led by Republican politician and experienced Indian fighter John Milton Thayer, the unit was almost immediately sent out of state, to the consternation of the recruits, most of whom enlisted with the understanding that they would be protecting their homes. Before they left Nebraska, several companies did perform valuable service in the SE corner of the territory, patrolling the frontier against rumored Missouri raiders and calming the nerves of citizens and businessmen in Omaha, Nebraska City, Plattsmouth, and Brownsville.

With the entire regiment assembled and organized, the 1st headed to Missouri, where it spent the balance of 1861. More active campaigning came in 1862. The Nebraskans fought at Fort Donelson and day two of Shiloh, before returning to the Trans-Mississippi, operating in Arkansas and Missouri. In late 1863, out of response to continued complaints about the sorry state of home front defense, the regiment was reorganized as a cavalry regiment and transferred to the plains. An acceptable summary of these operations is offered in the book, but readers looking for the type of detailed accounts one finds in dedicated regimental histories will have to await a future study.

Like other scholars studying Union mobilization in the territories and Far West states, Potter highlights the difficulty of obtaining recruits in a sparsely populated region with good economic prospects. Freight forwarding paid monthly wages three or four times what an army private could expect, and western gold fields remained a constant enticement. Even so, with Indian raids and massacres occurring at an alarming frequency along the western trails, men were motivated to join Nebraska units in addition to the 1st infantry. Their organizational and service histories are also summarized in the book. A battalion of cavalry was formed early on, merging with the 5th Iowa Cavalry in December 1861. Another mounted unit, the nine-month 2nd Nebraska Volunteer Cavalry (Colonel Robert Furnas), ended up serving for a year on the plains of western Nebraska and Dakota Territory. Mustered out in October 1863, a number of men reenlisted as the 1st Battalion, Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, which was consolidated in 1865 with the 1st Cavalry to form the 1st Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is its detailed examination of the pro-territory vs. pro-state factions in Nebraska, which largely came down on partisan political lines (Democrat vs. Republican/Union parties). That a territory would actively thwart statehood would probably surprise most modern readers, but Democrats successfully did so during the war years. Territorial expenses were paid by the federal government and politicians effectively argued that it would be too expensive in taxes for Nebraska to pay its own way with such a small population. Like Colorado, Nebraska came in below the minimum population for statehood, although that did not stop Nevada. Democrats wished to time statehood at a hopeful future date where they could reap the benefits of patronage and legislative majorities, but that was not to be, with Republicans becoming more and more powerful as time progressed. At times it was close, though, with Potter making a persuasive case for the likelihood that a key close election was decided by fraud (valid Democratic votes were thrown out and Iowa soldier votes in a Nebraska military unit were counted).

Another lengthy, and strongly presented, section is contained in the final chapters, the post-war stretch run to statehood 1865-67. During this period, Nebraska became part of the national debate over Reconstruction. Lacking modern polling, it is impossible to say whether the majority of Nebraskans supported "white only" voting rights (the book only offers the loudly partisan views of newspaper editors and politicians) but the issue was a big sticking point in the territory and in Washington D.C.  Being more immediately concerned with the addition of two more Republican senators, many conservative Republicans were willing to let exclusive white voting in Nebraska stand, but radical Republicans wanted no race restriction on suffrage and wished to use the requirement as a model for readmission of the ex-Confederate states. Others, including most Democrats, were outraged that the federal government would seek to interfere with a state defining its own suffrage limits. Nevertheless, over President Johnson's veto, the admission bill was passed and Nebraska became a state on March 1, 1867. With the peacetime fruits of the Homestead Act and the completion of the trans-continental railroad, population and prosperity increased.

Standing by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 deserves a great deal of credit for taking on a subject previously unexamined. In effectively doing so, it significantly enhances our knowledge and understanding the Civil War west of the Mississippi. Other works have investigated the conflicts on the western plains of Nebraska with various Indian tribes, but Potter's book offers context and background not found elsewhere (at least not in one place). Given that Nebraska's Civil War soldiers still have no dedicated histories of their service in the various units raised, one hopes that Potter will someday see fit to revisit his original vision and attempt a regimental study of the 1st Nebraska. If he does not, Standing by the Flag at least offers prospective scholars a head start. Even more than its military history aspects, the book is valuable for its portrait of territorial politics in a Civil War context. Potter's work should also occupy a useful niche in the Reconstruction literature.


More CWBA reviews of books from UNP and their imprints and affiliates:

* The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest (For Caxton Press)
* The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (for Caxton Press)
* Of Duty Well and Faithfully Done: A History of the Regular Army in the Civil War
* Antietam, South Mountain, and Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide
* Counter-Thrust: From the Peninsula to the Antietam
* Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign
* The Peninsula & Seven Days: A Battlefield Guide
* Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road

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