Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sutton's Civil War Reenactment - 2012

Sutton and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

This article first appeared in Sutton Life Magazine in May, 2012.

There will be a new and exciting addition to Sutton’s annual Dugout Days this summer. The First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War reenactment group from Omaha and Lincoln will be in camp north of the park replicating camp life and will engage in two skirmishes demonstrating tactics and maneuvers.

The 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry - coming to Sutton
The Civil War Sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) has been underway for a year. The war began in April of 1861 and lasted until April of 1865. Although Nebraska did not became a state until 1867 and Sutton was settled in 1871, Nebraska and Sutton settlers played a big part in the war.

The reenactment group chose their name in honor of the Nebraska Territory’s 1st Nebraska Infantry Regiment. This regiment was mustered into service in Omaha under the command of Colonel John M. Thayer immediately after the beginning of hostilities. The unit was only half formed when it boarded the river steamer “West Wind” bound for battlefields in the south in late July, 1861.

The rest of the regiment caught up weeks later and the Nebraska 1st was assigned to scout in Missouri and Arkansas engaging in several skirmishes. In February, 1862 the unit saw its first of two major battles at Fort Donelson, Tennessee followed by the Battle of Shiloh a couple of months later.

It was at Fort Donelson that the 1st Nebraska Infantry earned its reputation as a superior fighting force. Nebraska history buffs need only a bit of imagination, some revisionist history, a dash of reductionism and pride to claim that the 1st Nebraska Infantry’s performance at Donelson was the turning point in the defeat of the Confederacy. (How’s that again?)

Follow me here: The front at the beginning of the Civil War stretched from the Atlantic west to the Mississippi Valley and even into Texas and New Mexico. A long front like that favors a smaller army willing to operate as an insurgency force striking quickly and fading away then moving on to strike again forcing the larger force to spread out and defend large territories. The larger force will be unable to bring its strength to bear in any decisive manner. The Confederacy was very successful in the early stages of the war especially in the West. The Battle at Fort Donelson became a critical battle in the war.

The Confederate Army was carrying the day when at one point the focus of the battle came to the 1st Nebraska Infantry. In the words of Battalion Commander General Lew Wallace (later author of the novel “Ben Hur”) writing of the Nebraskans,

“They met the storm, no man flinching, and their fire was terrible. To say they did well is not enough. Their conduct was splendid. They alone repelled the charge.”

The 1st Nebraska Infantry “repelled the charge” turning the tide of the Battle of Fort Donelson in the Union’s favor. That battle was the turning point of the war in the West leading shortly to General Grant’s win at Shiloh and the Union Army’s control of the Mississippi Valley. The defeat of the Confederate Army in the West enabled the Union to concentrate forces in the East where their greater numbers, superior transportation system and industrial strength wore down the Rebels. See what I mean?

Of course, other advocates may point to other critical turning points but Nebraska’s claim is credible, supportable and we’re going to go with it.

But what was Sutton’s contribution to the Civil War? There wasn’t much here on the banks of School Creek at the time. Well, many, if not most of the early Sutton settlers were Civil War vets. And a particular Sutton dentist gave us our next story. Dr. Howe learned about 1896 that the War Department was honoring him with a medal – The Medal of Honor.

Orion P. Howe was 12 years old when he and his younger brother Lyston joined the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment as musicians where their father William was the regimental band leader. Subsequent events suggest that the job description for musician probably included the phrase, “…and other duties as assigned.” For on May 19, 1863, Howe’s unit was surrounded by Confederate forces at Vicksburg and running out of ammunition. He put down his drum.

Howe and others volunteered to sneak through the enemy lines to find General W. T. Sherman and request more ammunition. But Howe’s commander, Colonel Malmborg apparently ordered the wrong caliber of ammunition so Howe and more volunteers agreed to finish the assignment – accounts are somewhat vague here. On the second run the others were all killed or otherwise taken out of action and only the severely wounded Orion made it through to Gen. Sherman.
Col. Malmborg and Pvt. Orion P. Howe

Orion P. Howe’s Medal of Honor citation reads,

“A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he reported to Gen W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.”

Howe’s further distinction, not surprisingly, is being the Medal of Honor recipient who was the youngest at the time of the action that earned the award.  

Dr. Howe had moved his dentistry practice to Clay Center, Kansas by 1900 and in 1920 he was a 71 year old retired widower in Jefferson County, Colorado. Orion Perseus Howe died on January 27, 1930 and is buried in the Springfield National Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri.

Author G. Clifton Wisler wrote a novel “The Drummer Boy of Vicksburg” based on the story of young Orion. There will be a copy in the Sutton Library by the time you read this.

The list of Sutton’s founders and early settlers is filled with the names of Civil War vets: Clark, Gray, Walton, LeHew, Lewis, Corey, Dinsmore, Stewart, Wittenberg, Merrill, Meyer, Longstreth and many more. Our cemetery is dotted with emblems from veterans of that war including two Confederate soldiers.

The addition of a Civil War enactment during Dugout Days adds a major entertainment event, a chance to recognize the 150th anniversary of that war and to remember those in Nebraska and Sutton’s past who served with distinction in that war, especially Corporal (and Dr.) Orion P. Howe. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some young fellow making an ammo run in our reenactment this summer.

This article first appeared in the May, 2012 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about this local Sutton publication contact Jarod Griess at or 402-773-4203.

Youngsters, MEDAL OF HONOR is a big deal.

No comments: