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
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.