Louis A. Holmes, author of Fort McPherson, Nebraska, had a friend who was brought back from Iwo Jima for internment in the Fort McPherson National Cemetery. Upon inquiry, he found out that there was little historical information about the fort, and became curious to know more about Fort McPherson. Mr. Holmes embarked on a mission to compile a good history.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Fort McPherson. In anticipation of a formal anniversary tribute to the fort that will be held in late summer, the Bulletin is publishing a series of articles. - Editor.
Holmes died just before this book was published in May 1963. His family had a limited, signed edition (using signatures from documents around his home) published. I consider my number, 883, to be one of the prized books in my collection.
An order was issued on Sept. 18, 1863, for a small military detachment to proceed to Cottonwood Springs, Nebraska Territory to erect a small fort. The mouth of Cottonwood Canyon was selected so that it could protect the Oregon Trail, the stage line, the pony express, control the area for the Union, and it was along the trail used by Indian tribes moving north to south.
The name changed, along with the times, from Cantonment McKean to Post Cottonwood to Ft. Cottonwood to Ft. McPherson. The final name was to honor Brigadier Gen. James B. McPherson, United States Army, who was killed during the Civil War while commanding the Army of Tennessee in the Battle of Atlanta.
The fort was first occupied by the 7th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry on Sept. 29, 1863. The fort covered 38 acres and had 19 buildings including a hospital.
In June, 1880, the fort was abandoned.
Ft. McPherson saw a wealth of “old west” history during its days as an active military post. This included two major Indian councils in April and June 1864. Tribes participating in these conferences included the Sioux tribes of Ogallallah, Minneconjons and Brules. The Sioux indicated that they owned the land and were willing to permit whites to only pass through.
In the meantime, the Confederate Army was stirring up the Osage, Cheyenne, Arapahoes, Kiowas and Commanche tribes against the Union. To complicate the situation, the Sioux were at war with the Pawnee.
Personnel at Ft. McPherson had responsibility for an area just west of Julesburg (Colorado Territory) to just east of Kearney and from the Republican River Valley in the south to the Loup streams in the north.
The Army had to accompany wagon trains and stage coaches, try to protect white settlers in the region, and stop Indian wars between tribes and with the whites.
Only by reading the book will you understand how “wild” it really was.
One incident occurred on Sept. 20, 1864. Scurvy had broken out in the hospital and the fort did not have the facilities or supplies to cope with this problem. The staff doctor recommended eating as much fruit as possible.
The patients suffering the most were placed in an ambulance wagon and taken up Cottonwood Canyon to a thicket of wild plums. While eating fruit, a war party of Indians began firing rifles at the patients and soldiers.
The soldiers made a desperate attempt to escape. Suffice it to say that with the wagon racing a full speed, a corporal and a captain bounced off the wagon and into some bushes. The Indians killed everyone except the captain. They found the corporal and killed him after a pitched battle when many Indians were shot. They did not find the captain, who they never saw fall into the bushes.
The book tells how Lt. Gen. Sherman visited the fort in 1866 and a young Lt. Col. George A. Custer visited in 1867.
In the spring of 1868 James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock spent some time at the fort, scouting for soldiers and hunting buffalo.
In May 1869, the 5th U.S. Cavalry assumed command of Ft. McPherson from the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. The 5th was transferred from what is now Kansas to the fort. Along with them came a young scout.
When the scouting job ended in October he found himself with no occupation and no income, so he started racing horses. Having fallen in love with the area, he built a small cabin outside Ft. McPherson and sent for his family residing in Topeka, Kan. There is much more in the book about this young scout, who eventually became known by the name Buffalo Bill.
If you are into true old west history and want to know true stories about life in the U.S. cavalry, fighting Indian Wars and life on the prairie, this is a book for you.
A to Z Books in North Platte has a few copies of the special collector’s edition.