Gen. O. P. Hurford, of Oakdale, who commanded the First Brigade of Nebraska Militia under the Territorial Government, contributes to this work the following letter, descriptive of Antelope County’s earlier military experiences, which will no doubt be of much interest to our readers.
Oakdale, Neb., March 11, 1882
Western Historical Company
In undertaking to comply with your request to furnish some account of the military transactions of Nebraska as far as they have passed under my observation, I realize that it is not always easy to hold the militia above ridicule at a time when the fashion was to go to war on the national account. During the rebellion, the animus of the Indians on the plains seemed to change as the fortunes of the Union forces varied, and when it became necessary for the Government to pay them their annuities in greenbacks instead of gold and silver, they became restless and impudent. Frequent depredations were committed by them upon freighters and the graders and tie-cutters of the Union Pacific Railroad. This state of things was a constant source of anxiety to the settlers along the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers. In addition to this, Gov. Saunders was frequently in receipt of anonymous letters from Kansas and Missouri, warning him that the rebel Quantrill was planning a raid on Omaha, to sack the town and rob the banks. These letters were brought to my attention by the Governor, with instructions to adopt such means as I had at my command to meet the danger should it arrive. While the public mind was thus agitated, we awoke one morning in July 1864, to find some of the streets of Omaha full of refugees from the Elkhorn, who brought with them the dire report that the Indians were down upon them in force. Whole settlements packed up what movables they could in a hurry, and rushed into Omaha for protection. The thing looked serious. Word was sent to Bellevue, in Sarpy County, where the good people rallied and hastened to the scene of the reported danger. At Omaha, we rushed to arms; horses enough for two companies of cavalry were pressed into service, mounted by willing volunteers and sent to the front. I remember well the high character of some of the volunteers. Side by side in the ranks appeared Hons. P. W. Hitchcock and A. S. Paddock, both of whom served afterward with distinction in the Senate of the United States, and Mr. Hitchcock, also a Delegate in Congress from the Territory of Nebraska
The battalion, when formed and equipped, was put under the command of Maj. John Taff, who afterward served three terms in Congress for the State of Nebraska. Maj. Taff was ordered to proceed to the front, with instructions to protect the settlements but to avoid hostilities if possible. But when he arrived there he found that the Indians “Had folded their tents like the Arabs, And silently stolen away.”
To use a well-remembered expression of Senator Paddock, “It was no great war anyhow.” Instead of their being Sioux, as reported, they were a band of Omaha who were returning from a visit to the Otoe. They had camped at the mouth of the Elkhorn, within easy range of some of Edward Creighton’s cattle, and needing something for their larder, they appropriated a steer or two to that account. The keepers of the cattle took fright and fled, bringing with them every settler to whom they could communicate their own panic. When the Indians saw what had been done they were as badly frightened as the rest of us, and pulled out for their reservation. In the meantime, the situation farther west grew every day more and more serious, and the demand for help more urgent. Gen. Mitchell was in command of the Department of the Platte, with headquarters at Omaha, but owing to the necessity for troops at the South, he had not men enough at his command to keep the Indians west of Ft. Kearney in check and protect the commerce of the plains. In his extremity, he called upon Gov. Saunders for help, and I was ordered to raise and equip a battalion of mounted militia to cooperate with Gen. Mitchell in the field. In order to do so I called for volunteers, but while our people were ready and willing to protect their own homes, it was a much more serious matter for many of them to leave their families and go to the far front without present compensation. To meet this difficulty, I raised a bounty fund by subscription, which was liberally supplied by the businessmen of Omaha. A number of persons volunteered and supplied their own horses, while other horses had to be pressed or hired, as necessity seemed to require. I obtained the necessary ordnance stores to equip the horses from the War Department. Lieut. Northop was the ordnance officer at Omaha, and as ordnance stores can only be issued on the order of a Brigadier General, I had to apply to Gen. Mitchell, who was on the plains, operating against the savages. The General telegraphed the officer in charge of the stores to deliver me what I wanted, whereupon I wrote an order for what we wanted of cavalry equipment and gave it to one of my staff officers (Col. N. R. Hays), with directions to deliver it to Lieut. Northop, draw the supplies, and have them turned over to the officer in command of new recruits. Col. Hays took the order, and in his zeal to do things just right without knowing exactly how, put his own approval upon the order, to the great amusement of the better informed on such subjects. The order, with the endorsement of approval by a subordinate, passed as a joke in military circles for some time thereafter. But here in passing, let me pay a willing tribute to the memory of the late Col. Hays. His zeal was only equaled by his usefulness. Located as he was at Columbus, in charge of the Loup Fork Ferry, he was ever watchful and prompt. By his vigilance I was kept fully advised at all times of the movements of the Indians on the Upper Loup Fork River. And thus a company of horse was raised and equipped, put under command of Capt. Ira R. Porter and sent into the field. At Ft. Kearney, they were sworn into the United States service for two months, went to the front and did good work. They claimed to have actually killed more Indians than all the United States forces put together. They were honorably discharged when their services were no longer needed, and I had the satisfaction afterward of hearing them well spoken of by the army officers with whom they came in contact.
In closing this hasty sketch, I wish also to bear witness to the uniform courtesy and consideration with which we were treated by the United States Army officers. They seemed to realize the fact that we could do but little, but that what we could do was done promptly and with a cheerful zeal.
The militia law of the Territory of Nebraska was notable for the high rank it conferred upon officers serving on the staff of a Brigadier General of militia. My military family was as follows: Col. John R. Meredith, Adjutant; Col. N. R. Hays, Aid de Camp; Col. Frank Welch, Quartermaster; Col. John I. Redeck, Aid de Camp; Col. D. W. Hitchcock, now of railroad fame, was also an Aid de Camp. As there were no applicants for positions on my staff with rank below that of Colonel, the vacancies were never filled.