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Jim McKee: A general history lesson for Nebraska
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Jim McKee: A general history lesson for Nebraska

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Gen. Patrick H. Barry, shown here about 1895 in what was then the official uniform of the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard, was appointed by three Nebraska governors.

Nebraska has had a local militia since the early days of the territory, but it was 14 years before it became known as the Nebraska National Guard. The “troops” were, from the first, directed by the governor and led by generals who he appointed while their duties changed from strictly local service to ultimately worldwide deployment.

In 1854, the year Nebraska became a U.S. territory, Acting Gov. Thomas Cuming called for the formation of two regiments of volunteers, the first brigade north and the second brigade south of the Platte River, to protect the citizenry from “Indians, floods, fire, tornado and riots.”

Early the following year Brigadier Gen. John Thayer and Quartermaster Gen. Peter Sarpy formed the brigades, each with a surgeon and assistant surgeon. With the generals appointed by the Legislature, each company elected its own officers. During its first year about all that occurred was the formalization of the governor as commander-in-chief, John M. Thayer “elected major general with Brigadier Generals L. L. Bowen of the 1st Brigade and H. P. Downs of the 2nd Brigade."

With the Civil War, almost 10% of Nebraska’s male population was called for Union service, infuriating locals who felt the men were needed here for protection against Native attacks. So agitated were locals that a riot in April of 1861, in Omaha, attempted to prevent troops being boarded on the steam ship Omaha, resulting in four men being killed and a number badly injured.

The following July, Governor Saunders called for a militia of all men between 12 and 45 be formed for protection from Native attacks and in 1864 the Legislature created the full-time office of “Adjutant General” at an annual salary of $300 with W. H. S. Hughes of Omaha appointed.

Following the Civil War, the local militia became the Home Guard or Independent Guard which, in July of 1881, became the Nebraska National Guard while U.S. military uniforms were adopted for its members.

Patrick H. Barry was born in Ireland in 1844, immigrating to Boston at the age of five. In 1861 Barry enlisted in the 63rd New York Voluntary Infantry,  serving in nine battles including the Second Bull Run and Antietam where he was shot in the ankle, receiving a medical discharge. Undaunted, he re-enlisted in 1863 with the 12th Massachusetts Infantry, serving in five additional battles until another injury forced the amputation of his right arm resulting in a second medical discharge.

Barry became interested in local politics after the war, then, in 1880, after the death of his sixth son he organized the Boston Irish Colony to settle at Erina post office on Cedar Creek in Greely County, Nebraska.

Thirty-five men, women and children arrived via a special railroad car at Grand Island on March 6, 1880. The women and children stayed at Grand Island while the men headed north and staked their claims. Four years later Barry moved from Erina to Spaulding so that his children could attend school. There he continued to raise hogs and cattle and carried two mail routes.

After an unsuccessful run for the state senate in 1881, Barry was elected to two terms in the Nebraska House of Representatives in 1892 and 1894. At this point he was also active in the formation of the People’s Party, became a lecturer for the Farmer’s Alliance and was elected chair of the Legislature’s Impeachment Committee.

In 1895 Gov. Lorenzo Crounse appointed Barry Nebraska’s adjutant general and was reappointed by Gov. Silas Holcomb in 1898. The Nebraska National Guard was mobilized for the Spanish-American War that year, and because Barry thought Nebraskans should be mustered en masse, he ordered all troops to Lincoln where he organized Camp Alvin Saunders on the state fairgrounds.

The troops were mustered May 10 with General Barry saying his men desired “the hottest conflict and the most dangerous service in behalf of the Union.” Governor Holcomb then announced that “Nebraska is the first state to have a National Guard ... ready to enter the service of the United States.”

The Nebraska National Guard, with other volunteers, ultimately had over 4,000 men answer the federal call with one infantry brigade commanded by Col. William Jennings Bryan. After the war General Barry was appointed adjutant general for a third time by Gov. William Poynter in 1895.

Although defeated in his run for the U. S. House of Representatives in 1902 by Moses Kinkaid on a general Republican surge, Barry remained interested in local and national politics. In 1913 he left Nebraska, first for South Dakota, then to Los Angeles, where he was appointed to manage a soldiers' and sailors’ home. There a hospital and street were named in his honor.

There have been many Nebraska adjutant generals after Barry, but none have been appointed by three different governors and none have evidenced the extreme enthusiasm for the post and the U. S. military as General Barry.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at


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