An unusual sidelight to the story of the First Nebraska Regiment during the Civil War is how a number of Nebraska Masons managed to maintain their participation in the brotherhood while serving with the regiment in the field and also assisted other Nebraska soldiers in joining the order. Fortunately, in 1917 Grand Secretary Francis E. White of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska discovered the original record book of the First Nebraska’s Monitor Lodge and decided to compile the lodge’s history. A copy of White’s pamphlet is preserved in the Nebraska State Historical Society library in Lincoln.
On July 13, 1863, Capt. Lee Gillette and Surg. George W. Wilkinson sent a letter and petition from Pilot Knob, Missouri, where the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry was then stationed, to Nebraska Grand Master Daniel Wheeler asking for a dispensation to form a “traveling lodge.” The men noted that the Grand Lodge of Missouri required all visitors to its local lodges to take an “extra oath” that did not relate to masonry. It is unknown what that oath was, but it probably had some connection to wartime issues. Missouri citizens were bitterly divided between those who supported the Confederacy and those who supported the Union, so the Nebraska Masons probably did not want to risk visiting a local lodge whose members may not have looked kindly on Masons who were Union soldiers.
The petition to form a traveling lodge was signed by Gillette and Wilkinson, regimental commander Col. Robert R. Livingston, Capt. S.M. Curran, Lt. Francis L. Cramer, Lt. John P. Murphy, Sgt. William L. Jaycox, and Robert C. Jordan—all members of Nebraska or Iowa lodges before the war. On July 29, 1863, Wilkinson wrote Grand Master Wheeler that the dispensation had been received noting, “I think we will do a good work in the army by promoting morality and good feeling among officers.” The first lodge meeting was held the same day.
The lodge met four times while the regiment was at Pilot Knob. After the First Nebraska was transferred to St. Louis in August 1863, at least two meetings were held there. A note in the minutes said there were no meetings in October and November, probably because that’s when the First Nebraska was busy re-enlisting veterans and changing from infantry into a cavalry regiment. The next meeting was on Dec. 9, 1863, at Rolla, Missouri, just before the regiment’s departure for Batesville, Arkansas. The regiment had been assigned to secure that part of northeastern Arkansas for the Union and drive out, kill, or capture remnant Confederate forces and guerrillas.
Beginning on Jan. 20, 1864, the lodge held at least eighteen meetings in Batesville, the last on April 13. Colonel Livingston recalled that the lodge met in the town’s Masonic Hall “and found everything in perfect condition as to necessary conveniences, paraphernalia, etc.” A large number of visiting brethren were present, which gave the author White the impression that some of them “were not fighting on the side of the Union.” His assumption seems to be confirmed by Capt. Smith P. Tuttle’s recollection that “While the lodge was holding meetings at Batesville, some Confederates attended and were given safe conduct to and from them.” Tuttle also said the lodge always used Masonic rooms or halls in the towns where the regiment was stationed and officers wore their uniforms. One additional meeting was held on May 21 in Jacksonport, Arkansas, where the regiment was camped after leaving Batesville. There is no record of meetings being held when the regiment was at DeVall’s Bluff just prior to the veterans being sent back to Nebraska on furlough in mid– June 1864.
- C. Bone, secretary of Mt. Zion Lodge N. 10 of Batesville, reported that records of his lodge revealed that members of Monitor Lodge were present on two occasions. Monitor Lodge members were also present at the funeral of a member of Mt. Zion lodge. Bone recalled that his uncle, while traveling through the Arkansas countryside, was stopped and threatened by Livingston’s troops who suspected him of being a “bushwhacker” or guerrilla. After the uncle gave a Masonic sign he was sent on his way unharmed. Clearly some of the officers who commanded this detachment of Nebraska soldiers must have been Masons.
After the regiment returned to Nebraska on furlough, Indian raids broke out along the Platte Valley in August 1864 and the regiment remained in Nebraska Territory for the duration of its service. Guarding the stagecoaches and telegraph lines from Indian attacks required small detachments to be stationed at numerous outposts throughout the valley. This dispersal of the First Nebraska prevented any further Monitor Lodge meetings. The lodge’s last meeting took place in its camp near Omaha on June 21, 1866, shortly before the regiment was mustered out. Afterwards, most of its members were reinstated or accepted into existing lodges in the towns where they lived after leaving the army. At its inception, there were nine Master Masons in the regiment’s traveling lodge and about twenty-three when it issued its final report in 1866.
As Francis White noted in his history, “What I have tried to show is . . . . that at all times the strong bonds of our fraternity held men together as Brothers, and served to aid them in time of peril and danger; that men could do their full duty as soldiers, regardless of the cause for which they were fighting, and not forget the principles of brotherhood.”
— James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian