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EXCERPT: “Rock Island,” was the first thing Major Elon Farmer, US Volunteers, a short, stocky Michigan attorney with enormous sideburns, always remembered as he rode across the sandy, dusty rolling prairies of southwestern Kansas in the humid heat of the spring mornings. “The White House wants these Confederate prisoners, these ‘Galvanized Yankees,’ looked at. Take an NCO and join the inspection team,” the staff officer at General Grant’s headquarters said in the fall of 1864 as he tossed a thick folder to Elon.
The Galvanized Yankees enlisted to fight against the Indians as the Federal Army was thinly stretched across the Western Plains, even when bolstered by the presence of civilian militia who were sometimes little better than a mob. The need for manpower, even ex-Confederate POWs, became apparent after the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota that resulted in bloody warfare across the Plains.
“First Sergeant Sean O’Neill reporting as ordered, sir,” was the second thing Elon always thought of as his newly formed Company I rode along the Santa Fe Trail. The tall, bald, skeletal looking no-nonsense NCO served with General Grant in the Western Theater and accompanied him to the East when he took command of the Union Army. It was at the General’s headquarters, after Second Cold Harbor, that the two first met.
The General, who disliked the idea of Galvanized Yankees, agreed to let Elon, wounded at Second Cold Harbor and reassigned afterwards to the headquarters staff, go to Rock Island, but balked at Elon’s request for Sean to accompany them. He relented only when the White House, through Elon, politely inquired as to the availability of Sean.
So it was that Elon, thinking it would be a short visit to Rock Island and despite the need for officers knowledgeable of the Western Plains, found himself and Sean organizing and training a volunteer cavalry company of Irish, German, Virginian, Alabaman, and Kentuckian prisoners. Elon was fortunate that Sean served on the Western Plains before the Civil War, and his value was apparent as he obtained food supplies and clothing, and saw to it that the men were properly armed and equipped. Just as important, Sean and several of the Western Plains experienced junior NCOs ensured all of the men knew what to expect…