Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When Sutton had an Army

The Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska by A. T. Andreas in 1882 is a great source for information about the early days of Sutton. The book was published but 12 years after Luther French dug his hole in the bank on School Creek making Sutton’s first decade perhaps its best documented.


Deep in the chapters on Clay County and Sutton is Part 8 including “Orders and Societies”. Here we learn that the early Sutton folk, at least the town folk, were a clubby bunch. There were several lawyers, doctors and businessmen (yes, mostly men) who came from established communities in the east where they had been active in the “orders and societies” so they naturally created new chapters of old, familiar organizations.
Andreas lists the Freemasons plus a Lebanon Chapter, IOOF plus an additional IOOF higher order, Grand Army of the Republic, Knights of Honor, a Military Company and Scientific Association. The same names appear in multiple organizations, but for a few hundred adult men, these guys were social creatures.

But what does it mean for a 1880’s small town to have a “military company”? Andreas spelled it out very well.

Company B of the First Regiment of the State Guards was formed on November 15, 1878 with forty members: “…Sutton’s sons whose proclivities bent in the direction of the chivalrous and heroic…” Officers were W. J. Keller, Captain; J. S. LeHew, First Lieutenant; and G. W. Bemis, Second Lieutenant. At the time Andreas wrote the piece, Keller was Lieutenant Colonel of the First Regiment and LeHew was Judge Advocate General on the Governor’s staff. The company was supplied with uniforms, guns, etc. and was the first such uniformed and equipped company in Nebraska. The company had its own armory for munitions storage.

So, what did they do? Actually, they were twice activated.

The company was ordered to arms in the summer of 1880 in response to a riot at the smelting works in Omaha. After three days the situation subsided and the company discharged.

On March 8, 1882 the First Regiment was activated to put down the strike among graders on the Burlington & Missouri Railroad again in Omaha. This time the duty lasted twelve days as the company guarded the graders’ camp. There were no open hostilities. The company seems to have acquitted itself well as Andreas reports that, “as an indication of the merit of this body of men, they were specially appointed to remain in the suppression of the strikers, and were the last company to be discharged for duty”.

As of the writing of the Andreas book the officers were: W. D. Young, Captain; F. C. Matteson, First Lieutenant; George C. Roys, Second Lieutenant; J. H. Johnson, First Sergeant. The company met for drills each Saturday evening and held target practice once a month.

It would be interesting to dig deeper into the nature of such military companies. The general concept suggests a relationship to earlier citizen forces or to the National Guard structure. It even is consistent with the famous phrase, “well-regulated militia”. A quick and limited search for corroborating, or further information was unsuccessful. I’d appreciate hearing from anyone familiar with these military companies.

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