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The Origins of the Nebraska National Guard

May 15, 2017 by
Photography by contributed by Nebraska National Guard

Wanderings of a lame cow set in motion forces that led to the establishment of the Nebraska National Guard.

“It started when President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, creating the Nebraska Territory and opening the frontier to settlers. That summer, an ill-fated bovine wandered from a Utah-bound Mormon wagon train into a large Sioux camp southeast of Fort Laramie (at the time located within Nebraska Territory, now Wyoming), where it was subsequently killed and eaten by young tribesmen. Demanding the arrest of those responsible, the Mormons reported the incident to Lt. John Grattan, the inexperienced leader of Fort Laramie’s U.S. infantry regiment.

Chief Conquering Bear (Brulé Lakota) refused to surrender the young men who had killed the cow, explaining they had done nothing wrong; the cow had voluntarily entered their camp, and, besides, the supposedly guilty men were visitors belonging to another band of Lakota, the Miniconjou. Grattan’s regiment opened fire and mortally wounded Conquering Bear; however, the infantry proved no match for the Brulé warriors, who completely annihilated the military detachment, killing Grattan and his 29 men. Author Douglas Hartman explains the anecdote in his book, Nebraska’s Militia: The History of the Army and Air National Guard.

The “Grattan Massacre” (aka “the Mormon Cow War”)—and the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises—incited bands of Sioux to continue terrorizing settlers on the Mormon and Oregon trails. To augment federal troops, on Dec. 23, 1854, acting Gov. Thomas Cuming issued a proclamation creating the Nebraska Territorial Militia, which later became the National Guard.

The proclamation recommended “the citizens of the territory organize, in their respective neighborhoods, into volunteer companies,” which were grouped into two regiments: one north of the Platte River and one south. Cuming further instructed, “Companies are not to use force in invading or pursuing hostile tribes, but only in self-defense, and then no longer than necessary.”

Funding did not exist, however, so the early militiamen were expected to provide their own arms and equipment. By spring 1855, the state’s first organized units were formed: the Fontanelle Rifles in the town of Fontanelle, some 40 miles north of Omaha, and the Otoe Rifles in Nebraska City. Nebraska Gov. Mark Izard ordered the Rifles to protect Fontanelle, Elkhorn City, and Tekamah after “the Sioux” killed two area settlers. The Indians were nowhere to be found when the militia arrived, so troops spent the summer catching large-channel catfish from the Elkhorn River while “protecting” settlers. This became known as the “Catfish War,” writes Hartman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Nebraska militias became more involved in fighting against tribes, since most of the nation’s federal military was consumed by the war, says Jerry Meyer, historian for the Nebraska National Guard. Additionally, two Nebraska volunteer militia units fought for the Union in the Southeast.

When Nebraska achieved statehood March 1, 1867, it joined a nation in transition. With the war over, potential recruits had little interest in joining formal militia units, which the new state couldn’t afford to equip anyway.

Nebraska relied on loosely organized, independent militias until 1881, when legislation reorganized them into the Nebraska National Guard, increasing its role as a peacekeeper during times of civil unrest, settling conflicts with Native American tribes, and deploying the first Nebraska troops internationally for the Spanish-American War.

The Nebraska Militia of 1854-1867 wrote the opening chapters of an ongoing legacy of service to the nation, state, and communities. The tradition continues with today’s modern Nebraska Army and Air National Guard, says Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes, spokesman for the Guard’s Public Affairs office.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 10,000 Nebraska National guardsmen and airmen have supported missions overseas and within the United States. When not on federal active duty, the service members remain in Nebraska, available to local authorities during emergency situations.

The Guard was instrumental in protecting Omaha and other Nebraska communities, for example, during the 2011 Missouri River flood, which threatened Eppley Airfield and OPPD power plants. The summer-long flood closed numerous traffic bridges, making it impossible to cross the river for more than 100 miles between Sioux City and Omaha, and between Omaha and Kansas City. Hynes says guardsmen provided surveillance and bolstered levees, and they also provided security for evacuated homeowners.

Currently, the Nebraska Army National Guard is undergoing its largest force restructuring in 20 years. Affecting about 1,100 Nebraska soldiers–or roughly one in three–the changes are bringing in new military occupational specialties, such as engineering and military police.

The realignment will provide current soldiers and those interested in joining with better opportunities for personal and professional growth, from the time they enlist until the time they retire, without having to travel extensively from their hometown communities.

The Nebraska National Guard Museum, located in Seward, Nebraska, is a prime resource for National Guard history, research, and local entertainment. Visit nengm.org for more information about the museum.

Famous Omaha Guardsmen

Warren Buffett

Long before becoming the “Oracle of Omaha,” he was simply Corporal Buffett, enlisting with the Nebraska Army National Guard in 1951 after graduating from Columbia University. The future Berkshire Hathaway founder served six years as a pay specialist, telling the Prairie Soldier newspaper that his financial background probably had something to do with the assignment. One of about 70 members of the Omaha-based 34th Infantry Division Headquarters Company, Buffett told the newspaper of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard that his fellow guardsmen were “as good of a group of guys that you could’ve found.”

Andrew Jackson Higgins

Expelled his senior year from Omaha’s Creighton Prep for brawling in the early 1900s, Higgins later was praised by President Dwight Eisenhower as the man who won World War II. He designed and built the “Higgins Boat,” a landing craft that unloaded troops across open beaches instead of at heavily guarded ports. This Allied attack strategy was pivotal to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Higgins served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, attaining the rank of first lieutenant, and learned about boat building and moving troops over water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River. A historical marker honors him in Columbus, Nebraska.

Visit ne.ng.mil to learn more about the Nebraska National Guard.

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Run, Seth, Run!

April 18, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Seth Hirsch can be seen at Lake Zorinsky by 6 a.m. most mornings. He’s out there running laps around a lake most of us would struggle to walk once. He’s driven to become the best runner he can—and he is succeeding.

“He’s by far the best in the state of Nebraska,” says Colin Johnston, track and cross country coach at Millard West.

Hirsch, now a 16-year-old junior, has run the mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. He has broken the 15-minute barrier in the 5K.

For some context: the median time for a runner in their 20s to complete a 5K is about 25 minutes.

Add to his amazing times the fact that Hirsch also broke both fibulas last year.

“I was probably doing too much mileage and got stress fractures,” Hirsch says. He cracked one fibula in the fall while running cross country, the other in the spring while running track. It’s not entirely surprising, given that he ran 90 miles a week.

SethHirsch2After the discovery of each stress fracture, his doctor ordered him to take some time off. Even after taking nearly two months to rest, he was able to return in time for the track season and still place third at the state meet in the 3200.

“There aren’t that many kids I’ve worked with who have worked as hard as he does,” Johnston says. “He’s a great kid.”

That hard work extends to scholastics, in which Seth has achieved a 4.5 GPA weighted, and a 4.0 GPA unweighted. The extra weight comes from AP biology, AP European history, AP environmental science, and AP government and politics.

All of this puts him in good standing to achieve that ultimate student goal…scholarship money.

“I’ve been talking to some colleges,” Hirsch says nonchalantly. “Portland, Wisconsin. Stanford, Georgetown. Columbia University in New York. All of them have good distance programs.”

Right at the moment, it’s all just talk. Once July hits, the calls will likely start to pour in. (Law mandates that July before one’s senior year is the earliest a student can be recruited.)

He’s ready for it, he’s interested in it, and he knows what to expect. His sister, Sidney Hirsch, runs at Wichita State University.

Sidney ran for her college this fall season, even though she suffered from plantar fasciitis in both feet. This affliction is an inflammation of the tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes.

It was Sidney who got Seth into running.

“My sister ran for Omaha Racers,” Seth says of discovering he wanted to run at age 10. “I went to some practices with her and I wanted to do it.”

Seth used to play soccer, but he quit this past year to focus on running.

“I just liked it the most, so I just decided to focus on that,” Hirsch says nonchalantly.

“I thought he was pretty good,” says his mother, Liz Hirsch. “The coach and everyone else was like ‘wow—this boy can run.’ I like that he’s found the passion for this.”