Years after the war, his friends in Hemingford were quick to defend the old man.

When outsiders spat at the sight of Robert Ball Anderson carrying the flag in the Memorial Day parade, for instance.

When the hotel's new manager wouldn't serve him a meal. Or when the town doctor looked twice at Anderson and refused to eat in the same dining room.

In so many ways, Anderson -- Uncle Bob -- was one of them. Farmer, rancher, landowner. A failed homesteader who started over in western Nebraska in 1884 with nothing -- and was able to nurture that into more than 2,000 acres.

One of thousands of Civil War veterans lured west after the war, trying to start new lives -- and put old wounds behind them -- in the young state of Nebraska.

But in so many other ways, Anderson could never be one of them.

Who else in Box Butte County had watched slave traders haul their mother to the Louisiana cane fields?

Who else bore similar scars?

"He was the only black man around," a neighbor said, "and we felt that he needed support."

THE GENERAL

Before he led the charge that day, Col. Delevan Bates gave his men a standard order: Don't worry about the wounded until after you take the hill.

And then the New York native moved his men -- the 30th U.S. Colored Troops -- toward a rebel battery during Virginia's Battle of the Crater.

The shot ripped through his right cheek and exited near his left ear.

His men didn't follow his orders that day, stopping their advance to carry him to safety and likely saving his life.

If the wound hadn't killed him, Bates could have faced the fury of Confederate soldiers, who reserved special punishments for white officers of black troops.

He returned to duty two months later, a general now with a Medal of Honor.

Bates moved back to New York after the war, bought a farm and married. And then, according to his obituary, he caught "western fever."

He and Lana would cure it with 160 acres in Hamilton County and, a little later, by building a Nebraska town.

'A HOLE IN OUR STORY'

For now, Blake Bell can only guess at the number of Civil War vets who homesteaded in Nebraska. (An ongoing digitization project will someday make it possible to sort and count all homestead records.)

"That is something that is a hole in our story," says the historian at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice.

"We know it happened, we know it was on a large scale, but we just can't put numbers on it right now."

His guess? Maybe 20,000 -- or about 20 percent of the 104,260 homesteaders who broke ground in Nebraska.

These men built farms and families and businesses and legacies, laying the groundwork for the state we live in today. Some escaped hard lives, some went onto greatness and so many others toiled quietly.

Uriah Oblinger settled in Fillmore County, leaving his wife Mattie and their daughter, Ella, in Indiana until he could build a sod house and get his crops in the ground.

He wrote her frequent letters until she joined him in Nebraska.

You must make up your mind to see a very naked looking home at first. Nothing but the land covered with grass and a sod house to live in. The prospect will no doubt look monotonous enough to you at first no fences (as none is needed) in sight but we have a soil rich as the richest river bottoms of Ind[iana].

Oblinger had taken advantage of an incentive for homesteading vets, which credited them for time served in the military. Normal homesteaders stayed on their claim five years before the land was theirs; a vet with four years of service, for example, would have to stay on it only a year.

Confederate vets weren't initially welcome because they had taken up arms against the United States, Bell said, but President Andrew Johnson lifted the ban in 1866.

THE REBEL

William Buster didn't show up in Nebraska as a homesteader. The Missouri native was riding through Cass County in May 1865 when he climbed down from his horse for a break.

He never left. He became a railroad worker, a father and a friend to his former foes.

Each Memorial Day, he would press his gray uniform to march alongside his neighbors in blue. Later, he was lowered into the ground alongside his neighbors in blue.

THE SLAVE

Robert Ball Anderson -- Uncle Bob in Hemingford -- was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1843, according to an account of his life by Darold D. Wax in Nebraska History magazine.

His mother raised her five children on Col. Robert Ball's hemp and flax farm -- but then she got cross with Mrs. Ball, the slave traders came and Robert, 6, never saw her again.

The boy was a favorite, allowed to sit alongside his master in the wagon.

Until he got cross with Mrs. Ball, too. "She tortured him by whipping him and rubbing pepper into his wounds," said Susan Dittman, a Lincoln author who describes herself as a history sleuth.

Anderson ran from the plantation in 1864, joining the 125th Colored Infantry.

The 21-year-old was training for combat when the war ended, and he spent the next three years as a soldier in the American West.

In 1870, he homesteaded in Butler County and held on for 11 years -- through poor commodity prices, drought, grasshoppers -- before losing it all, according to Wax's account.

He returned to Nebraska in 1884 and started building an empire, and a reputation. He filed a tree claim, worked for the railroad, grew vegetables and started buying more land. He grew crops, raised cows, sold horses and, by 1910, was the largest black landowner in the state.

He got along well with his neighbors. "You don't work right together," he said, "you won't make it."

And he earned their respect. "If there was ever a gentleman -- if I've ever known one -- it was Robert Anderson," said a man who grew up around the former slave.

By the 1920s, Anderson had traveled the U.S. and visited Mexico and Cuba.

A half-century after he fled the Ball Plantation, he returned as a tourist, camera in hand.

His master was dead, his house crumbling.

THE TOWN FOUNDER

Once in Nebraska, Gen. Bates didn't stay long on his Hamilton County farm. He was a leader, and there was work to do.

He became county schools superintendent, moved his family into Aurora, orchestrated the town's designation as county seat, got his village incorporated, helped run the bank, saw to the building of a water system and, when his son died, funded the cemetery out of his own pocket.

He served on the city council and the school board and as deputy county clerk and he taught and, for two terms, led his growing city as its mayor.

Then he turned 70. And he rested.

"He put in fifty years of good work, true work and square work all of which was along lines of benefit to humanity," the Hamilton County Register reported, "and if every man of the present generation will do the same, he will be no longer needed in the ranks of the workmen, nor on the firing line."

The house he built in Nebraska still stands.

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Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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