Miles, Mules, and Men: The Forgotten Front of the Civil War

Note: the word Indian is used instead of Native American as it was the norm at the time.

Imagine your car. Now consider the amount of gas that it requires to keep it running. Picture that your car is in the middle of rural, untamed Nebraska: there are no gas stations for miles. Multiply your car into several hundred cars, and imagine you must organize a large group of men to drive them. You will be doing your best to chase down and capture men driving another group of cars. These other men know the landscape, and their cars run on grass instead of gasoline. What’s more, their drivers hate you, and attack any gas stations that you don’t guard. Oh, and your cars break down if you drive them too far or too fast. You get replacement cars occasionally, but sometimes, just for fun, your replacement cars come with wheels of different sizes.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But imagine with me just a little longer. Turn the cars into horses, the fuel into corn, and the wheels into horseshoes. Turn your car drivers into soldiers, and the other cars’ drivers into Indians. You now have a fairly accurate picture of the problems facing U.S. soldiers in the American west during the 1864 and 1865 on the forgotten front of the Civil War.

The soldiers stationed in the West were there primarily to make sure that the U.S. government could stay in close contact with the western states and territories, which provided much of the gold and silver that financed the war effort. The most reliable form of communication was the transcontinental telegraph, which stretched for hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, followed by the stagecoaches that carried the U.S. mail. However, the Native Americans of the region took every opportunity to attack these lines and surrounding settlements, attempting to undermine the white government that was steadily usurping their land. Protecting the telegraph lines and other assets was vital, not only for communication, but also to protect the territories from potential Confederate attacks. Among those sent to combat these difficulties were the First Nebraska Volunteer cavalry.

In the Winter 2011 edition of Nebraska History, James Potter explores the U.S. Army’s Plains campaigns during this time in his article Horses: The Army’s Achilles’ Heel in the Civil War Plains Campaigns of 1864-65. Specifically, Potter researches one crucial element of the Civil War on the Plains that is often overlooked: the horses that were provided to the troops. Because of the Civil War, horses were used up at an alarming rate. By 1864, good horses were difficult to find, and most of those went to the Union Armies fighting Confederates in the East. When the government did obtain horses for the cavalry, many were unfit for service. Some of the horses provided had never even been ridden, and were often unruly and skittish.

By 1864 Indians were a greater threat to the telegraph and stagecoach lines. It was the soldiers’ job to protect them, a job made more difficult by their poor horses. Procuring able-bodied horses was not the only difficulty. Unlike the Indian ponies that could survive only on prairie grass, the cavalry horses also required large amounts of corn and hay. Providing this corn necessitated long, clumsy wagon trains of supplies, which were also frequent targets for Indian raids. As a result, the cavalry regiments in the West rarely had the grain they needed to feed their horses.


Soldiers resorted to killing their exhausted mounts for food during Gen. George Crook’s 1876 campaign against the Lakota, a level of hardship reminiscent of the Plains campaigns of 1864-65. NSHS RG2278-19-1 (at right).

Repeated entreaties to the government seemed to fall on ears deafened by the roar of war in the East. Forced to do their best with the resources they had, many of the cavalrymen often failed in their assignments. This failure was due, in large part, to their “Achilles Heel,” their horses.

Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Buffalo Bill’s Big House

Buffalo Bill’s Big House

Marker Monday: The Seedling Mile

Marker Monday: The Seedling Mile

Vacationing on a Budget in 1909

Vacationing on a Budget in 1909

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.