The civil war remains one of the most destructive periods in American history. The war pitted the North against the South, with the South being the only side to lose in the conflict. While those who fought in the conflict are often seen as heroes, many were slaves who had no idea what was happening—a fact that is often forgotten by history.
The history of one of the most horrific events in American history is rife with stories of bravery, treason, and tragedy.
Some 140,000 men died in the war. Twice that number were wounded. The lives of more than 300,000 of those soldiers and sailors were forever changed. The war changed the country and the attitudes of both soldiers and civilians.
As civil war veterans sought to reintegrate into society, some established their own communities
The 16th. In September 1861, Albert Freeman Waugh left the comfortable civilian world of Sheboygan Falls, Virginia, and enlisted in Company H of the 1st Infantry Division. Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Private Waugh was wounded in the knee at the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, recovered six months in the hospital, and returned to Sheboygan Falls as a cripple in 1863. Although he has only lived here for two years, he no longer feels at home in his hometown. After several years of trying to get his old life back, he gave up. In 1872, he had his family forcibly relocated to Kansas, arguing that Wisconsin’s stumps and rocks made it impossible to farm – an excuse his son would call completely untenable decades later.
Similar newspaper ads urge veterans to turn away from the horrific battlefields and move on with their lives. The idea of the West as a garden was promoted even before the Civil War, and veterans saw their move to the land of bubbling water as an opportunity to rebuild their lives. (Courtesy of Kurt Hackemer)
Against his wife’s objections, Waugh moved his family to the newly formed town of King City in McPherson County, Kan, where a colony of Union Army veterans and their families settled in 1871. The colony was first organized at meetings in Ashtabula, Ohio, and was also known as the Ashtabula Soldiers’ Colony. It was one of the first settlements on the western frontier, and offered those who had served in the war the opportunity to start a new life.
The idea of colonies was not a new concept. In the 1870s, dozens of settlements sprang up all over Kansas, organized on religious, geographical, and other grounds, in an effort to support each other in the face of uncertainty. Similar settlements arose in western Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Nebraska, but settlements of soldiers serving with Union veterans were extremely rare, with fewer than 10 settlements in the northern Great Plains. Soldier colonies were an effective and inexpensive mechanism for organizing and resettling veterans on the frontier after the Civil War. But that’s not all they were. Many of those who migrated west had been exposed to very traumatic fighting during the war, and many took advantage of the anonymity and novelty of the borderlands to reintegrate into society on their own.
Albert Waugh needed the solitude and lack of an established social structure on the frontier to take control of his life. Although he worked as a judge, district commissioner and self-proclaimed doctor, he did so in silence and always refused to make speeches or participate in any public forum. Waugh’s son Frank would later attribute this decision to the thrill of adventure and the desire to think for himself and determine his own actions. But the most important factor is the way the war has annexed his life. As Frank remembered us:
I know now that those days of great excitement in the army, those wild forays into grocery stores and roadside farms, those sleepless nights in the field with eyes and heart open to the stars, those rousing marches through unfamiliar towns and hills, and especially those hours of battle when all the desirable things of this world are undone and life itself is at stake for the ultimate prize of personal integrity….. I know now that in these experiences all the old things are gone and in their place comes the urgency of a new life – a life with new goals and new sanctions. Such a life could not be projected onto the old background. He broke with his former surroundings and started over on the blank canvas of the Kansas prairie.
The war was devastating and separated the soldiers from their families and social networks for a long time. When they returned home, they often found that two parallel changes had taken place, both of which made their reintegration into civilian life difficult. First, they learned that life at home changed without them. The economic, social, and political events that shape people and their relationships are inexorable, and neither letters nor occasional resignations can prevent a persistent sense of separation. New veterans complain of missed economic opportunities, unsatisfying relationships, missed community celebrations, lack of participation in local politics, and aging children and parents. Somehow they had to find their way in this familiar but changed world.
Second, veterans learned that the war changed the social norms that defined them as citizens. As soldiers they travelled great distances and came into contact with people and cultures that were totally different from those they knew. As preppers, they participated in sanctioned theft and destruction of property, became accustomed to a harsher and boorish existence in their world where all men are men, and could participate in the organized murder of their fellow man. Going home to citizens who welcomed their return but expected minimal disruption can be overwhelming.
Veterans have tried to reconcile the adrenaline of battle with the carnage and destruction they witnessed, and many have had to deal with trauma after the war. The concept had not yet been medically described, making it nearly impossible for historians to label specific veterans as wounded based on contemporaneous accounts. However, given the scale and brutality of the fighting in the Civil War, there is no denying that some soldiers survived. While trauma symptoms cannot be attributed to specific veterans, those who have served in units that experienced intense combat have been shown to be more likely to have their military experience cause trauma. It appeared that many of the soldiers moving west to the settlements had served in such units and were therefore more likely to be wounded.
Albert Freeman Waugh of 1. Wisconsin Regiment before a Confederate bullet pierced his knee during the battle of Perryville, KY, in October 1862. The wound crippled him, an eternal reminder of the war. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)
The move west seemed relatively easy. The Homestead Act of 1862 theoretically opened a billion acres of public land to settlement. Interested parties found a quarter free piece of land, paid a nominal filing fee for a preliminary application and had to settle. After six months, a settler could buy a piece of land or live there for five years and improve it by building a house and working the land. At that point, the settler becomes the owner of the land. But things are rarely that simple. Much capital was required to establish a viable farm, and the new settlers hoped for favorable conditions that would last until the second year.
The veterans had certain advantages over the rest of the population when they left for the West. In 1871, Congress amended the Homestead Act to allow Union veterans to count each year of service in the Civil War as five years of residence. Military service may have been beneficial in other ways as well, such as for those who were wounded or disabled during the war and received federal pensions. In the case of Dakota Territory, 24% of all veterans were on the pension rolls in 1885, far more than the 6.5% of all veterans who received pensions. These monthly payments provided a guaranteed income during a transition period otherwise characterized by economic uncertainty.
In the 1870s and 1880s settlements arose on the northern plains. Dakota Territory, Kansas, and Nebraska actively encouraged settlers through immigration commissions, which often partnered with the railroads. Activists like George Batchelder assured would-be settlers that a man of modest means could acquire excellent land at low cost and that, by investing a small amount of capital wisely, he would become wealthy within a few years. Others have suggested the plains as an ideal location for settlements, noting: A closer look reveals that a very large proportion of the new towns and settlements, perhaps even the vast majority of settlements in the new states, were founded by cooperatives. These efforts have produced results. In the Ellis County area, Kan, for example, there were 24 settlements of various types in the 1870s.8 A 1906 study of settlement patterns in the state noted: The aliens populated Kansas in groups and colonies, not as individuals acting alone. The number of immigrants increased, in part because the railroads offered packages for land and transportation to the colony. This was not unimportant at a time when train tickets for a family of five could cost the equivalent of six months’ salary.
The advertising, promotion and propaganda that attracted so many religious organizations and ethnic groups found an equally receptive audience among veterans. A recent study found that their geographic mobility was greater than that of non-military people, and even then they were more likely than the rest of the population to move west, explaining their thirst for adventure from the fact that the war had already taught them to leave home. Whether it was their wanderlust or the fact that many veterans found it difficult to adjust to life back home after the war, the borderlands called to them. In the early 1870s, a group of disabled veterans in Dayton, Ohio, proposed the establishment of a western farming colony of 25 resilient men who had each lost an arm or a leg. A key part of their plan was that each veteran would receive a monthly pension of $15, which would provide the capital for their business. This colony, said one journalist, would be preferable to an aimless life in an asylum.
After moving to Kansas, the Waugh family is doing well. Above is a photo of their farm in McPherson. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) has informed its various posts that preparations to invoke the [Homestead] Act must begin immediately. He wants the settlements to coordinate their actions through the GAR to ensure unity of action and mutual aid and support, with the optimistic goal of organizing a soldier state in the territories. Whether they were members of the GAR or not, veterans from across the North began to meet, resulting in the first wave of settlements in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
In Ashtabula, Ohio, organizers did not turn away non-veterans, a strategy that has been followed by other successful veterans’ colonies. Every man… Whether they were citizens or soldiers, they could pay two dollars to join a union, which entitled them to collective benefits such as reduced train fares or ground selection. The first meeting of the Ashtabula County Freehold Soldier Colony was attended by more than 300 interested persons. One of the benefits was an organizational structure and approval process that would prevent land speculation by ensuring fair land prices for all stakeholders. This approach was well received by potential settlers and the colony soon received requests from Ohio and neighboring states, prompting the colony’s leaders to change its name to Soldiers’ and Citizens Mutual Benefit Free Homestead Colony. They thought that by this union we would have a good society and soon enjoy all the advantages of the old countries in schools, churches, etc., [and] that we would avoid the hardships and privations of lonely life on the frontier.
The Waugh family. In the front row are Mary’s daughters, Lana and Fanny Elizabeth, flanked by their mother Madeline. Son Frank and father Albert in the background. (Courtesy of Lara Stone)
The link between potential settlements and railways was clear from the start. Thus, the settlers of Ashtabula stipulated that each member and his or her family would be entitled to first-class travel on all railroads, of which the managers could obtain special fares. Similarly, the New England Naval Migration Bureau worked closely with the Northern Pacific Railroad to facilitate migration. Establishments that wanted to settle on public land or buy land directly from the railroads received special rates. The railroads did their part by actively advertising opportunities for veterans in eastern newspapers. For example, the Northern Pacific Railroad informed its readers that its Commissioner of Immigration was working closely with the New England Migration Bureau to establish veterans’ colonies. Union Pacific Railroad advertises cheap farms! Free homes! in the best agricultural and mineral areas in America by the Land Commissioner, with a special appeal to veterans. Those who bought land directly from the railroad got free rides to the east.
With free or cheap transportation and access to cheap land, veterans are moving west. In 1871 and 1872, four veterans’ colonies were successfully established at Gibbon (Neb.), King City (Kan.), Detroit Lakes (Minnesota), and Colony (Kan.). The members of the colony of free soldiers who arrived at Gibbon in April 1871 were probably most familiar with the northern plains. The settlers gathered in Chicago and traveled to Omaha, where they boarded a train to the site. The train left Omaha at 6:00 p.m. on April 6, causing a rumor that we were being transported on a night train, because if we saw the country during the day, we would desert before reaching our destination.
When they arrived at Gibbon the next afternoon, they found nothing but a station building and a driveway where the Union Pacific had parked some passenger cars and boxcars for temporary shelter. Only a week before, a prairie fire had engulfed the entire country, leaving it dark, gloomy, desolate and unattractive.
One settler turned around and left, but the rest, about 65 families, stayed. Up to 18 years old. In April, 61 applications for land plots were submitted to the nearest land office. This was done in a communal way, by drawing lots to decide who would get the adjacent land first. By July 1872, about 150 families had found their way to the colony.
The migration to King City, Detroit Lakes and Colonie was similar. The Ashtabula settlers arrived in King City in June 1871. Within a year of its founding, King City had 25 houses and several businesses, including two general stores, a brickyard, a sawmill, two inns, a blacksmith shop, and a farm implement dealer. The post office and doctor’s office soon followed.
The Flagstone Collier Schoolhouse was built in 1885. Trego County Historical Society
The second wave of colonies of veterans began with a meeting in Chicago in January 1878, when a colony of soldiers and sailors was organized in Trego County, Kan. As in previous colonies, the organizers accepted citizens and veterans, charged a modest fee, and sent a committee west to find suitable land. They found a place in western Kansas along the Union Pacific Railroad and founded the town of Collier. The vanguard built a settlement next to the railroad to serve as a temporary shelter for the arriving settlers, and provided them with a harness and wagon to transport them to their homes. Because of the uncertainty of land ownership, the Chicago Colony, as it was called, was forced to move a half mile from the railroad, but in 1878, 1879, and 1880 a steady stream of settlers arrived here. The would-be settlers received support from local activists, but they succumbed: Of course there will be inconveniences, but with a good appetite and hope we live in anticipation of happy days in the land of milk and honey. These disadvantages led to fluctuations in the population when the harvest failed in the 1880s, and by 1888 the original settlers had dwindled to 37 men, women and children, but Collier survived.
When new counties formed in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, two more veterans’ colonies took root in the newly formed towns of Gettysburg and Loyalton. The Gettysburg Colony was first organized in Chicago in the spring of 1883. By the fall of 1884, 700 settlers had settled in the area. The organizers invited all classes of businessmen to join the veterans and successfully lobbied the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad to run its line through the new community. In 1887 there were 400 people living in the town alone. After Gettysburg was established, a group of veterans in Royalton, Washington, organized their own colony. Beginning in 1885, the Vermont colony met with representatives of several railroad companies to determine the location with the best route, soil, and other natural advantages, and to negotiate wholesale prices for passengers and freight. They settled in a place in Edmunds County called Loyalton, and the first settlers arrived there that spring.
The other Gettysburg
The Civil War still affects this small Dakota town. (The Medicine Rock Cafe)
Founded in 1883 by veterans of the Civil War and named for the titan’s battle in the eastern seaboard, Gettysburg, N.C., is still a thriving town. The town was founded in 1907 and named Gettysburg, where there was no battle. Today it has about 1,150 inhabitants. After the scandalous death of George Floyd in 2023, the city changed its police logo to show the American flag alongside the Confederate flag. Floyd’s uncle, Selwyn Jones, was one of the townspeople who lobbied to change the logo on the patch worn by the two-headed police.
As in the case of Albert Waugh, there is evidence that some of these veterans must have suffered war trauma. In Gibbon, Neb. most of the settlers were Civil War veterans who found an answer to their restlessness in their new lives. Among these wrestling veterans are men like Adam Zimmerman, who was shot in the head near Petersburg. When he was found on the battlefield, there were maggots in his head and you could see a rib in his brain. They had to put a steel plate in his head. Newspapers in Colony, Kan. reported on reunions of veterans where boys were encouraged to tell army stories, or how a dozen veterans gathered on the anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh to remember each other. Only a few months after the founding, a GAR post was established in Gettysburg. At the first reunion, old battle scenes, heavy marches and old jokes were rehearsed and discussed, and the general good mood prevailed as the veterans exchanged stories.
In the more developed regions of the United States, veterans regularly use their status to take collective political action, often under the auspices of the GAR. This is not the case in the colonies. The local newspapers show a total lack of political commitment. Instead, veterans who lived in the colonies participated in the GAR and focused on community events, Memorial Day and Fourth of July celebrations. The Gettysburg Herald newspaper notes that the July 4, 1888 celebration was not marred by serious accidents, fights, or drunkenness. It was celebrated in a reasonable and glorious manner. Veteran status was fully celebrated in these communities. For the rest, the veterans quietly went on with their lives.
McPherson Hotel, along with Kansas County named for Major General James Birdsey McPherson of the Union Army. (McPherson Library)
And that could be exactly what these veterans wanted and needed. They had experienced war trauma more often than the veterans in general, which made reintegration into civilian life after the war even more difficult. When they moved to the border, they consciously chose the company of fellow veterans with whom they shared a common bond.
At the border, veterans could define a new relationship and even a new existence on their own terms. As Frank Waugh recalled about his father, in founding a new community, he resolutely built a new life and character in the place of those he had so passionately abandoned.
Kurt Hackemer is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of South Dakota. This article is excerpted from an article by Hackemer Colony about Civil War veterans on the western frontier, published in The War Went On: Revisiting the Lives of Civil War Veterans, edited by Brian Matthew Jordan and Evan C. Rother, published by LSU Press.We all know that the Civil War was fought over slavery and states rights. What we often forget is that it was also fought over the integrity of the United States Constitution. I have been a teacher for more than a quarter century, and I have never had my students forget this fact. They know that the Constitution was written to protect the rights of all Americans, not simply the wealthy and slave owning elites. ~. Read more about sons of union veterans of the civil war grave registration and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did any Civil War veterans fight in ww1?
No, the Civil War ended in 1865.
What happened to veterans after the Civil War?
Many veterans of the Civil War found themselves out of work. Some found work in the railroads, and many found work in the coal mines.
Where can I find Civil War Soldier Records?
Civil War Soldier Records are available at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
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