Military Resource Center

Fred Greguras
1274 Estate Drive
Los Altos, CA 94024

Camp Alvin Saunders was the muster in camp for the 1st and 2nd Nebraska Volunteer Infantry regiments for the Spanish American War. The camp was at the state fairgrounds in Lincoln, Nebraska. The camp was named after Alvin Saunders who was governor of Nebraska Territory during the Civil War. The camp had a short-life, primarily from April 26-May 19, 1898. The 1st Nebraska left Camp Saunders on May 16, 1898 for San Francisco and the 2nd Nebraska departed on May 19, 1898 for Camp Thomas, Chickamauga, Georgia. William Jennings Bryan, who became the Colonel and regimental commander of the 3rd Nebraska regiment, was reported being at Camp Saunders with “[a] corporals guard of volunteers” when the 2nd Nebraska departed on May 19. No recruits had been accepted yet for the 3rd regiment as of May 19, but these men were temporarily used to maintain order and guard the state’s property at the camp. The 3rd Nebraska assembled and mustered in at Fort Omaha beginning about June 12, 1898 so the stay of the regimental “cadre” at Camp Saunders was also very short.

There do not appear to be any maps of Camp Saunders. The state historical society does not have any photos of the camp in its collections. Most articles in Omaha and Lincoln newspapers do not describe the camp layout, probably because the camp was expected to be moved to Fort Omaha. The approximate locations mentioned below were identified using descriptions in the April and May, 1898 Nebraska State Journal, the 1897-98 Report of the Adjutant General of Nebraska, 1893 and 1903 Sanborn Insurance maps and a current fairground map.

The 1897-98 Report of the Adjutant General of Nebraska, pages 45-47 describes Camp Saunders as follows: “The brigade encampment [was] north of the city of Lincoln, near the city limits, on a plat of ground known as the Lancaster County Fairgrounds. The ground was of ample size and sloping gently affording good natural drainage, and were lighted by electricity connected with the city circuit. A line of water pipes had been laid and connected with the city mains affording an abundant supply of good water. Previous to the arrival of the troops, the camp was laid out so as to conform as nearly as possible to the form given in the United States Army drill regulations and staked off in the most convenient manner taking into consideration the lay of the ground and the buildings thereon. The First Regiment encamped on the south side of the encampment grounds and the Second Regiment on the east. The regiments were divided into battalions of four companies each and were assigned to places according to rank. … The regimental bands encamped on the right of their respective regiments. The line and field officers were encamped in their proper places with their respective regiments. The general headquarters was located in the secretary’s building on the Fairgrounds. . . . The camp had been designated Camp Alvin Saunders in honor of the Territorial War Governor, Honorable Alvin Saunders, and the only living [civil] war governor of the States today.”

In 1898, Dunham Avenue, one street east of the present extension of North 17th Street into the fairgrounds, was the main street of the fairgrounds. The current fair administration building on the west side of Dunham is on the site of a smaller fair office which served as the general headquarters for Camp Saunders. Several other 1898 era buildings on the west side of Dunham, south of the headquarters site, served Camp Saunders. The Bee and Honey Building was the guardhouse and the Dairy Building served as the commissary. The south end of the current Food Plaza at the southwest corner of Morton Avenue and Dunham is on the approximate site of the Bee and Honey Building. Morton Avenue is the east-west street at the south end of the administration building and Furnas Avenue is the east-west street to the south across the “mall” from Morton. The Dairy Building was about 200 feet directly south of the Bee and Honey Building near the present UNL Building.

Other camp activity was centered around Art Hall, an octagon-shaped wooden building in the “heart” of the fairgrounds, and a larger building to the southwest of Art Hall named Mercantile Hall. Art Hall can be seen in 1920s era photos and was on the “mall” between Morton and Furnas Avenues east of Dunham and west of the present Industrial Arts Building. Art Hall was about 80 feet in diameter and served many purposes for Camp Saunders. It was used as the camp hospital, for pre-muster physical exams and for Catholic mass. Officers’ physical examinations were done at the Lindell Hotel.

Mercantile Hall was located between the tent camps of the 1st Nebraska and 2nd Nebraska where present day Ag Hall is located. It was in the form of a plus sign (+) with a dome in the center. The cross wings were each about 175 feet from east to west and north to south. Physical examinations were planned for Mercantile Hall but the building proved impossible to heat. The actual muster in ceremony of the Nebraska volunteers, company-by-company, was done in the larger Mercantile Hall.

The 1st Nebraska was camped on the east side of Dunham south of Furnas. The camp site was where the Morton Building sits and south of the building. The 2nd Nebraska camp site was north and east of Mercantile Hall in the vicinity of the north end of the current Industrial Arts Building and north to the west side of the present 4-H Building (built in 1931) and perhaps as far north as the south part of the fair’s midway area. The 2nd’s regimental headquarters was just north of Mercantile Hall and the officers’ tents were east of the regimental headquarters on the north side of Morton Avenue.

Religious services were held in the amphitheater and Catholic mass was held in Art Hall. The amphitheater was the area in the racetrack facing the grandstand.

The drill field was open ground to the north of the fairgrounds.

The book Stevens, Bright Lights and Blue Ribbons: 125 Years of the Nebraska State Fair, Journal Star Printing Company, 1994 has several old photographs at pages 8 and 30 that show fairgrounds buildings that existed in 1898. A 1920 era photo on page 35 shows the Industrial Arts Building, built in 1913, along with several of the older buildings which helps with 1898 site orientation.

Many states’ fairgrounds were used as muster in camps for volunteers in April and May of 1898. While there are no remaining 1898 buildings, the Nebraska State Fairgrounds are particularly interesting because the street layout of the original area has not changed and many open spaces remain. This makes it possible to visualize the sites of the 1898 buildings used for Camp Saunders as well as the tent camps of the Nebraska volunteer regiments.

©2005 Fred Greguras


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