Soon after the Civil War broke out, the federal government recalled the regular U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Forts Laramie, Kearny, and Randall in the Nebraska Territory and sent them to other theaters of operation. Seeing the possible threat to the territory by the native tribes, John M. Thayer, commander of the Nebraska militia, proposed to Secretary of War Simon Cameron that a regiment of Nebraska volunteers be raised for service in the territory. Cameron agreed and assured territory leaders that the regiment would not be sent beyond the territory's borders, “but assigned for the protection of your own people and interests against hostile Indians and foes.”
The new regiment was designated as the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry with Thayer as its colonel. Contrary to Cameron's promise, one battalion of the regiment departed Omaha on July 20, 1861, onboard the steamboat West Wind, bound for Missouri. The men were equipped with Springfield Model 1842 muskets, converted to percussion, and were issued frock coats and US Army dress hats (known to some as the Hardee hat). By mid-August the First Nebraska was at Pilot Knob, a Union base southwest of St. Louis, then wintered at Georgetown, Missouri, where duty was mostly dealing with guerrilla forces and avoiding disease.
In early February 1862 the Nebraska regiment was sent to join Grant’s campaign to take Forts Henry and Donelson in western Tennessee. Thayer was now placed in command of the Third Brigade of Lew Wallace's newly formed division with Lieutenant Colonel William D. McCord taking over the regiment. On February 15th the regiment was posted along the high ground southeast of the modern day Stewart County Visitor Center. Reacting to calls from John McClernand for support during the Confederate breakout, Wallace moved his division eastward and took up a position straddling the Wynn Ferry Road. It was here that the Nebraska men saw their first true combat.
An anonymous soldier from Company C penned the following account that appeared in the Nebraska Advertiser on March 6th, 1862.
From the Nebraska First, After the Battle.
Fort Henry, Tennessee,
February 20th, 1862
By 10 o'clock, P. M., we touched at Smithland, Ky., when we were again hailed by the firing of Union cannon. - We soon were gliding up the Cumberland river, and as the bright moon shimmered down her mild and beautiful light, we passed many a beautiful landscape, which with the steamers on the stream, with many a throng on upper decks, and clouds of smoke and steam resting against the sky, formed a scene so interesting that an enthusiastic painter would have hailed it with extreme delight. Whoever writes the history of this rebellion, will find many a grand subject for a splendid theme, and may write a book that will transcend the most absorbing novel ever written.
Without pausing to recount the many incidents of the boat-ride, or the exuberance of the spirits of our officers and men during the trip, I will draw near the more thrilling interests of the day of battle, and pen the valor of our boys during the attack.
On Friday, February 11th, long ere the day dawned, the fleet landed about three miles below Fort Donelson; and before the sun rose, most of the troops were on shore surrounding many a fire, for the morning was cold, snow having fallen during the night. Although we are In a portion of the warm and "sunny South," we feel the icy winds of the frozen North, which, mayhap, have followed us down to the land of "Dixie," to keep us brave and fearless to meet the Southern knights.
In the afternoon our Brigade, and our Regiment in the van, took up the line of march in a south-westerly direction to gain a position west of the Fort and fortifications. while the run boats moved up the river to attack the Fort itself.
About a quarter to 3, P. M. the cannonading commenced; slowly at first, but gradually growing faster and more terrific, until night's black mantle covered all, and the gunners rested from their arduous labors.
About sunset our Regiment gained a position on high ground immediately south-west of the Fort, and a mile west of the breast-works. We slept on our arms that night; but slept soundly - heeding not the fall of snow which threw over us a white covering. The pickets of the two armies were firing at each other all the night; yet our boys heeded them not, for they slept as soundly as though they had been ten thousand miles distant from war's dread tumult.
Early Saturday morning the battle recommenced. Cannons in front and on our left belched forth their balls, and shot, and shell, and bade roaring defiance to the enemy. Volley after volley of musketry in front and on our far right reverberated among the hills, and bullets went whistling through the branches of the trees. Early in the morning our Regiment was summoned into line of battle, but was not ordered forward until ten o'clock. In the meantime news came that the 11th Illinois was cut to pieces; that the 17th Ky., (Union) had fired upon our own men; that the 30th Illinois had fled without firing a shot; that two of our field pieces had been captured by the enemy, and that another Regiment or two had been driven back. Then the Nebraska 1st was ordered forward, and the men marched with alacrity. After a half-hour's march we reached the ground, and formed in battle line on the right of two field pieces, - a portion of Taylor's (Chicago) Battery.
We had not more than formed in line, when we were attacked by three rebel Regiments - one a Regiment of Texan Rangers, a Mississippi Regiment, and a Kentucky (rebel) Regiment (ed. - the Seventh Texas, First Mississippi, and Eighth Kentucky of Simonton's Brigade). We have since learned of themselves that they came fully determined to capture the Battery, and exterminate its supporters. But they "reckoned without their host." They did not dream of meeting such stern and unflinching opposers as the men of the Nebraska Regiment.
For half an hour we bade them welcome with a ceaseless storm of leaden hail. A continued stream of fire flashed along our line. It seemed as if the men were armed with Colt's revolving rifles, so steady was the fire. The men loaded their pieces as if by magic. Not a moment's delay was perceived by the most accute [sic] ear! The aim was none too high nor low; and the shots were very destructive, for three hundred or more of the enemy fell. The enemy soon fled, repulsed by the little Nebraska Regiment! No Regiment but ours was engaged at the time; and, supported by the two field pieces, we did the work most admirably. The Regiment did not flinch a particle; and company 'C’ gained ground forward during the action! It was in the most dangerous position, along with companies "D" and "I," forming the left of the second battalion, nearest the cannon, where the enemy's grape shot, ball, and shell were hurled the thickest. Captain Majors, Lieut. Berger and your correspondent, had the good fortune to dodge some of the large, leaded messengers of death, else they might now be numbered on the list of killed, or that of mortally wounded. But they were spared for another fight; perhaps for a field of more refulgent glory in the future. Corporal Buckley was slightly wounded in the thigh by a buckshot. Our Regiment lost but four killed, and had fourteen wounded.
Soon after the firing ceased, General Wallace rode along in front of our line and praised us, saying: Boys, you have done finely: you. drove them back, and you shall be heard from. The artillerists say they could scarcely hear their orders, our firing was so fast and steady. Old soldiers say they never heard such steady firing; and the enemy, after being taken prisoners, testified that they thought they were fired upon by ten thousand men!
We slept on our arms another night, expecting a terrible battle on the morrow, when we expected to storm the breastworks. The Sabbath morning came, and we were marched, around to the South of the breastworks, where the fighting had been most destructive during Saturday morning and evening, and from which point we expected to march, fighting our way over the breastworks, and into the town of Dover. But morning had not far advanced when the news came that the enemy had surrendered unconditionally, and the fighting was at an end.
The particulars you have heard ere this reaches you. I would not seek to eulogize our officers, but acting Brigadier General Thayer, Col. McCord and Captain Majors stood near and spoke brave words and calm, to the men. Captain Majors urged his men to do their whole duty, and stood near by during the battle. Lieut. Berger acted well his part, and deserves a share of praise. He has a trophy for the Editor of the Advertiser in the shape of the murderous bowie knife, which he will express soon.
Major Livingston told the men of the second battallion [sic], when they saw the enemy, to give them the cold steel; and they would have done it.
We marched to this place on the I8th inst., and expect to go to Alabama; but where, I know not.
A copy of the Advertiser would be acceptable now and then but it may not come to hand, owing to our peregrinations.