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  Winter 2011 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Winter 2011 issue.
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Horses: The Army's Achilles' Heel in the Civil War Plains Campaigns of 1864-65 - James E. Potter

On August 18, 1864, after hastily re-mustering at Omaha from their veteran furloughs, the men of the First Nebraska Volunteer Cavalry left for Fort Kearny. Instead of returning to Arkansas where it had spent the first half of 1864, the regiment's new mission was to help defend the Platte Valley freighting, stagecoach, and telegraph route from an onslaught of Indian raids that had recently broken out. Having been issued only sixty horses for three hundred men, the mostly dismounted cavalrymen probably appreciated the irony of being sent off on foot to chase down an elusive foe known for its horsemanship. A month later the First Nebraska's Lt. Col. William Baumer notified District of Nebraska headquarters in Omaha that five companies of the regiment at Fort Kearny and at Plum Creek Station, thirty-five miles to the west, were still without horses.

Over the next several months, horses were gradually issued, but never enough to mount all the men. What's more, many of the horses the regiment did receive were mediocre at best, poorly fed, and could not perform the duty expected of them, a problem that persisted. On May 19, 1865, First Nebraska Col. Robert R. Livingston told District of the Plains commander Patrick Connor what Connor already knew: "Our horses cannot run an Indian down, too poor."

The First Nebraska's plight was a common experience for the volunteer cavalry on the Plains during the Civil War. The rebellion placed enormous demands on the country's equine resources at a time when animals also furnished the principal motive power in the civilian world. Armies in the field equipped with artillery, cavalry, and supply trains required one horse or mule, on average, for every two men. Some 284,000 horses were consumed by the Union cavalry alone during the first two years of the war and Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck rated the Union's 1864 expenditure of cavalry horses at slightly fewer than 180,000 animals, an average of about five hundred per day. Between January 1864 and February 1865 the Army of the Potomac's cavalry arm had twice been remounted.

From January 1, 1864, until purchases ceased on May 9, 1865, the quartermaster general's department bought approximately 193,000 cavalry horses. Only a relative handful of these made their way to the Plains. Although Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton claimed in his postwar report, "The supply of horses and mules for the army has been regular and sufficient," apparently the secretary had not paid attention to letters coming from commanders in the West. In late February 1864 Department of Kansas commander Samuel R. Curtis wrote Stanton from Fort Leavenworth recommending the purchase of Indian ponies for government use because "better horses are now becoming very scarce."

Regulations provided that the ideal cavalry horse was from 15 to 16 hands high at the withers (5 feet to 5 feet, 4 inches), five to nine years old, weighing from 750 to 1100 pounds, and "sound in all particulars . . . in full flesh and good condition." As the war with its tremendous consumption of horseflesh dragged on, the "ideal" cavalry horse became little more than an abstraction. Union cavalryman Charles Francis Adams, Jr. described how the service ruined horses. Even a walking pace of four miles an hour was "killing to horses" carrying the average load of 225 pounds comprising the soldier and his equipment. During active campaigns, said Adams, the horse remained saddled an average of fifteen hours per day. "His feed is nominally ten pounds of grain a day and, in reality, he averages about eight pounds. He has no hay and only such other feed as he can pick up during halts. The usual water he drinks is brook water, so muddy by the passage of the column as to be of the color of chocolate. Of course sore backs are our greatest trouble." Nonetheless, the horse "still has to be ridden until he lays down in sheer suffering under the saddle." Adams was describing conditions in northern Virginia in 1863, not those facing the cavalry on the distant Plains, with even fewer resources to call upon.

Not only were there too few horses to mount the Plains cavalry in 1864 and 1865, they broke down quickly from overwork and a shortage of grain. The full forage ration for an army horse was 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain daily, which Adams noted was not regularly provided even in the war's eastern theater. And unlike the Indian pony that ethnologist John Ewers described as "a tough, sturdy, and long-winded beast that possessed great powers of endurance" and which was acclimated to the Plains environment, American horses could not maintain their stamina by grazing alone. This was no secret to military men with Plains experience. Capt. Randolph B. Marcy's 1859 guidebook, The Prairie Traveler, advised "for prairie service, horses which have been raised exclusively upon grass and never been fed on grain . . . are decidedly the best and will perform more hard labor than those that have been stabled and groomed." Overland emigrants also noted the contrast. John M. Shively, who went to Oregon in 1843, authored a guidebook that admonished emigrants to "Swap your horses for Indian horses and be not too particular, for the shabbiest Shawnee pony . . . will answer your purpose better than the finest horse you can take from the stables."

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2011 issue.


"How Shall We Make Beatrice Grow!": Clara Bewick Colby and the Beatrice Public Library Association in the 1870s - Kristin Mapel Bloomberg

The decade of the 1870s was a period of enormous growth and prosperity for the city of Beatrice. Founded in 1857 in Gage County on the Big Blue River, the "Queen City of the Blue" grew slowly until the arrival of a reliable stage route in 1868, and rail in 1871. Organized as a city in 1872, by 1873 the population had increased to more than 1,000. Occupying the county seat, Beatrice boasted its permanence in fine stone and brick buildings, upscale residences, and vigorous mercantile and industrial districts. Churches had taken root; the common school enrolled 260 pupils and was taught nine months of the year. The county courthouse and the land office for the southern portion of the state were located in town, and commerce and trade boomed. The production of lumber, coal, and flour employed many residents, and the Beatrice Express boasted that citizens could patronize "six general stores, two drug stores, three hardware stores, two furniture stores, one agricultural depot, five blacksmith shops, two harness shops, two shoe shops, two jewelers, four milliners, six carpenter shops, two wagon shops, two tin shops, two butcher shops, one barber shop, one bakery, one brewery, two banks, two livery stables, half a dozen or more boarding houses, three restaurants and two saloons."

These businesses were not, as Nebraska historian A. T. Andreas explained, "built for temporary use by capitalists expecting to soon reap an abundant fortune and return in a few years to the East to enjoy it, but on the contrary, by men who have located here permanently, for the purpose of making this their home." But permanent prosperity for Beatrice also meant it would need to design itself as a place where the best women and men of this new America in the West would want to stay. Business, industry, and agriculture put food on the table, but left the improved mind hungry for more. Not surprisingly then, the wives of men intent on building business determined that Beatrice would have amenities to build the town's society and culture-and within a short period, there sprang up a variety of clubs and organizations designed to edify residents. Among those groups was one focused on establishing a public library.

As historians of libraries in the West have shown, public libraries were an important benchmark of respectability, especially in the emerging West in the years preceding the establishment of professional public librarianships and government-run public libraries. The social institution of the library reflected a community's progressive cultural values in that it provided democratic opportunities for recreation, self-improvement, and Americanization. Libraries were also seen as a civilizing influence and as a vehicle for civic reform-especially during the early years of the temperance era when many positioned libraries as an institution that could support moral order and serve as an antidote to the scourge of liquor and other less wholesome pursuits.

Women's associations served an important role in culture-building and reform throughout the West during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era; however, in comparison to historical work on other cultural institutions, there have been few studies of what historian Paula D. Watson notes as women's "massive, nationwide influence on the growth of one of our most important public institutions, especially outside of the urban areas of the northeast." Similarly, historian Anne Firor Scott has called for an examination of women's roles in the early years of the public library movement in order to better understand "the tremendous social change represented by the education of women, the development of women's organizations, and then the movement of women into public political activity." In other words, educated, civic-minded women used public libraries for building community and fostering municipal pride through cultural enrichment. Libraries were also a means for propagating social values and creating pathways for women to enter into civic dialogue and larger social roles. The public library of Beatrice fits this model; as a result, the history of the earliest years of public library activity in Beatrice is best told by beginning with the association of women who were instrumental to its founding and development. Especially important is one woman at the center of that activity: Clara Bewick Colby, Beatrice's first librarian, whose vision and volunteerism sustained library activity during the 1870s.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2011 issue.

Reverend Taylor

"The Kingdom of Heaven at Hand": Rev. Russel Taylor and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1920s Omaha - Todd Guenther

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s did not burst forth fully formed; rather, black resistance grew from feeble nineteenth-century origins to increasing power during the twentieth century. Nor was it entirely a southern movement. African Americans sometimes faced worse situations in the West than in the South, and racist sentiment was alive and well in Nebraska.

As in the rest of the United States, during the early 1900s Nebraska's African Americans were of different minds regarding how to achieve racial equality. Many had farmed in the Platte valley during the 1880s and 1890s, but by the turn of the century were leaving agriculture to settle in towns and cities. In the crowded and growing black neighborhoods, some determined to gain political power by organizing and demanding their rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) resulted from this philosophy. Others felt that segregation was a necessary evil while the race struggled to overcome the legacy of slavery, but that eventually they would attain their goals. Still others favored the creation of voluntarily segregated black communities in which they could avoid associating with whites.

At least one prominent black Nebraskan seemed to favor all these options. His is the story of a black leader from the era between the end of Reconstruction and the expansion of civil rights in the mid-twentieth century-years when the second-class status of African Americans seemed like a permanent feature in American society.

The Reverend Russel Taylor gained regional fame while serving as the optimistic and inexhaustible leader of Empire, a unique African American homesteading community that straddled the Nebraska-Wyoming border a few miles northwest of Scottsbluff. Taylor's parents had been slaves in Virginia. After the Civil War they moved to Missouri, where Taylor was born about 1871. The family moved to Nebraska about ten years later, and lived in a sod house near Seward.

Small of physical stature and with weak eyes, Taylor went on to accomplish what many surely thought impossible for a poor, black farm boy: he earned a bachelor's degree at Bellevue (Nebraska) College in 1896, and may also have received a graduate degree. After ordination he served in Oklahoma and then in Tennessee as a missionary to ex-slaves. In 1911 he and his wife and children followed his brothers and their families to Empire, Wyoming, where he quickly established Grace Presbyterian Church.

In Empire, Taylor labored both to save his parishioners' souls for the kingdom of heaven and to build an earthly empire of god-fearing, well-educated yeoman farmers. Empire embodied the vision of a former North Carolina slave, Moses Speese, who led his followers on a roundabout journey from slavery to the Great Plains, and was ancestral in one way or another to many of Empire's residents (the Taylor family was related by marriage). Though he, like the Old Testament Moses, did not live to see his descendants establish this ambitious community, he instilled in his relatives the dream of free land, equality, and happy homes in the West.

Taylor wore many hats as Empire's Presbyterian preacher, public school teacher, postmaster, and college-educated farmer. At first his role seems to have been that of a shepherd to his flock, but Taylor was soon prodded into political activism. In 1913 a brother was tortured for days and then lynched by the local Goshen County sheriff and his henchmen, and the following years saw a flurry of lynchings and widespread racial hostility in Wyoming. At the same time, some of the Empire boys Taylor had taught in school and Sunday school wore the uniform of the United States Army, fighting in World War I to make the world--if not the United States--safe for democracy. Taylor began to campaign for African Americans' civil rights and asked futilely that Wyoming live up to its nickname, "the Equality State." By the end of the war, he was traveling with increasing frequency to preach and agitate in Wyoming, Nebraska, and elsewhere in the nation.

The entire essay appears in the Winter 2011 issue.


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