Michigan Men in the Civil War

by Ida C. Brown

"Civil War has commenced!"

Rally round the flag, boys!

"Civil War has commenced! The feverish excitement that has so long existed has now, in great part, given away to a sensation of horror and intense sorrow at the announcement that the long expected yet dreaded storm has burst over Fort Sumter. Alas for our beloved country!!" It was thus that a merchant in Adrian wrote in his journal April 13, 1861.

The state of Michigan was quick to respond to the outbreak of the war. It offered for Federal service its entire military force of twenty-eight companies of militia. In the immediately preceding year, it is true, the militia had been neglected; it now consisted of only 1,241 officers and men. Yet around this small group rallied large numbers of volunteers to form the first Michigan regiments sent to the field. In fact the numbers reporting far exceeded the call, with the result that some companies, not immediately obtaining places in Michigan regiments, grew impatient and accepted service in the regiments of other states.

Why did these young men enlist in such numbers? In the words of Henry Potter, "We came down here to fight for the preservation of the Union, to put down the rebellion which had broken out to destroy it."

"I hated to go yet nothing could have prevented my going at the first call."

The new recruits came from farms and shops, schools and offices. They were filled with enthusiasm, loyalty and patriotism, determined to maintain the Union at any cost. They swore to serve their country "against all its enemies and opposers," and to most of them "it was no idle oath. The heart felt what the lips uttered." Perhaps typical of the volunteer's attitude towards enlisting was the comment of a Ninth infantryman: "I enlisted because I saw that our rights, all that is dear to us as a nation were in danger, and much as war is averse to my feelings, I do NOT wish to return until they are again rendered secure." Even into battle this high resolve sustained them as a Second infantryman testifies: "I always feel sad at the approach of battle, but at the same time there is an impulse, I know not what, which drives me on with ever increasing eagerness as the hour approaches. . . . it was thus when I enlisted. I hated to go yet nothing could have prevented my going at the first call." Charles Woodruff also felt this two way pull when he said, "Our country needs us all everyone. It was hard for me to leave all and enlist, but I could stay home no longer." Sometimes he found "a real enjoyment in soldiering, with a thousand details making it pleasant, lovely and chivalrous . . . a constant exhilaration attending it." Others knew it to be "a destroying manner of living" and prayed that "the curse of God light on the men who caused the war which brought them there."

Each appeal by the President for troops was fully met in Michigan. The recruiting of volunteers was, on the whole, popular and successful. As the first year passed with the end of the war not in sight, and the Northern armies were repulsed in almost every major engagement, people became discouraged, and, as one soldier expressed it, "angry at somebody they don't know who." A colonel in the Seventeenth Infantry wrote to his sister: "The fates seem against this army of the Potomac. We have tried strategy under McClellan, dash under Pope, bull dog fighting under Burnside, and failed with all." As a result of this discouragement recruits were slow to respond either to form new regiments or to be replacements in those already in the field. A convalescing officer, trying to obtain replacements for his regiment before returning to active duty, wrote to his commanding officer in December 1862: "Have been hard at work at my old business, recruiting, but have not met with much success as yet. There are several fancy regiments being raised, mounted riflemen and Ninth Cavalry, etc., with recruiting officers at every corner. Still I do not hear of their getting many men." Eventually, in Michigan as in other states, it became necessary to offer bounties in order to entice more recruits into the ranks.

Early in 1863 a draft act was passed to assist counties having difficulties in filling their quota. This act really stimulated volunteering again, and very few were drafted. The draft was not popular in Michigan. The men seemed to feel that being drafted "robbed them of their patriotism and branded them as unwilling defenders of the nation." A few, however, were reluctant to enter the service for any reason whatsoever, feigning sickness or urgent home duties to avoid going. These and other draftees could hire or pay for substitutes.

Veterans, on the other hand, re-enlisted with great alacrity and in surprising numbers in view of the hardships they already had endured. "I cannot see why it is that this rude half savage and seemingly comfortless life has such attractions," said a former lawyer, who, after recovering from a severe wound, returned to his regiment to stay until the end of the war.

"There is no shadow of a doubt but we are to conquer and put down the rebellion
. . . it is only a question of time . . ."

As the struggle dragged on through four long years, the tide of battle slowly turned. People rallied from despondency, and recruits again responded in adequate numbers. As for those in the field, the enthusiasm of the untried volunteers had turned to the "dogged obstinancy of veterans." One war-weary veteran expressed his feelings by saying: "We don't think we can whip everybody as we used to, still we are willing to try anything which occasion requires." A captain, in a New Years letter to his wife, wrote in 1864: "One year ago we thought that twelve months would see the end of this awful war but who of us today now thinks that in twelve months the sound of the Bugle calling 'To the Charge' will be hushed, that the din of war will be over. Not one, yet there is a confidence in all our army . . . that there is no shadow of a doubt but we are to conquer and put down the rebellion . . . it is only a question of time . . . we have today men enough in the field to do it, for all are anxious to get home again. . . ." This desire to push on and bring hostilities to an end is also expressed by an unhappy Sergeant in the Fourth Infantry: "I wish it would freeze up hard so we can do something and eather whip the cusses or get whipped; then we could go home with honor and be happy." Some were anxiously counting the days before the expiration of their terms of enlistment; others were determined to stay until peace was declared and they could see "the stars and stripes floating triumphantly over the whole country." Many felt as this officer who wrote: "All think if we had been better and more promptly supported by every body we would have long since finished our task."

A humorous exchange between opposing pickets expresses rather succinctly a sentiment which both sides were beginning to feel: "I say Yank, what are you fighting about?" "I don't know." "Say Reb, what are you fighting about?" "I don't know." "Let's throw our guns into the river and end the d--d war."

When the war was over Michigan felt that she had done her whole duty. Her cavalry was so celebrated in the Union armies that she had been allowed a larger proportion of her troops in cavalry than any other state. The Fourth Michigan had spectacularly distinguished itself in capturing the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Michigan's regiments, feared by the Rebels, had borne the brunt of many well-fought fields and were present in every major encounter. An officer making the rounds of the picket lines overheard this dialogue between one of his men and a rebel picket: "Halloa there, where did you come from?' 'New Jersey,' was the reply. 'All right,' said Secesh setting his gun against a tree, 'I didn't know but it was one of them Michigan cusses." Significant, too, is the comment of this First Michigan cavalryman: "It seems that the rebels have got a pretty good opinion of our fighting propensities, for when they retreated through Strassburg they told the inhabitants that the Yankees were coming and the Michigan devils were leading them." Yet in 1861, the citizens of Alexandria circulated a petition praying that a Michigan regiment might remain among them because "The Michigan fellows are so gentlemanly and kind."

It was on May 13, that the First Michigan Infantry regiment, which had assembled at Fort Wayne, Detroit, left for Washington fully armed and equipped. Before the war was over, Michigan had furnished over 90,000 men, of whom over 85,000 were volunteers. These forces formed thirty regiments of infantry and eleven regiments of cavalry, plus one each of engineers and mechanics, artillery, and sharpshooters. At the University of Michigan student companies were organized and formed a University battalion in which nearly every student was enrolled. They drilled well into 1862 and then enlisted in regiments in every part of the Union. However, the Literary Class of 1861 gave thirty-two out of sixty-two of its members to immediate service, the Medical Class, thirty out of forty-four, and the Law Class, twenty from a class of forty-six. Of Michigan's soldiers, 13,405 never returned. Four thousand one hundred and seventy-five died in action or of their wounds and 9,230 died from disease in camps, hospitals, and prisons. Today monuments to the memory of these Michigan regiments can be found on all the battlefields of the war.

"I have got to be a soldier and it is a fine thing."

The letters and diaries the men left are likewise memorials to their sacrifices made in maintaining the Union. These records of personal experiences and observations are a rich source of information that the historian can find in no other place. They record, day by day, all aspects of these experiences from the induction camps, where one recruit wrote: "I have got to be a soldier and it is a fine thing," to mustering out and the long hoped-for journey home.

There are details of camp life such as Sunday inspection, the men "looking as boys rigged out for Sunday School . . . in new coats, clean white gloves, boots well blacked and guns as bright as new dollars." After inspection there was "dinner, reading newspapers, letter writing, euchre playing," singing, dancing, or listening to the band "which put new life into everyone."

In the letters to home folks and in their journals the men expressed their religious and political views, opinions on the freeing of the slaves, on the use of Negro Contrabands as laborers and soldiers, on the Southern people among whom they were encamped. They criticized the "Stay-at-Home Patriots" and the Copperheads, and passed judgment on their officers, some of whom they considered "no better than wooden men," others for whom they "would go to the Devil" to please.

Mail was almost as necessary to the soldiers as their rations. A doctor wrote: "I wish you could have seen our camp last night about 9 o'clock, after the mail had been distributed, and watched the eager faces of the earnest groups of tired and war worn men and boys as they were gathered in silence around the blazing camp fires--made bright for the purpose--anxiously reading long-looked for letters and papers from home and friends--the eager eye--the absorbed air--the impatient stopping to put on wood--the hushed stillness. . . ."

Picket duty, a very necessary activity in all camps, was at first frightening to some, exciting to others. But in a week's time they shot "at one another with as little concern as they would at squirrels" or talked and joked when the bullets came near "swinging their hats and telling [the rebels] to try again." On occasions they exchanged trinkets or serenaded each other.

On foraging parties the men were "absolute vandals." They carried away houses, barns, and straw stacks "for boards to make floors in their tents, for straw to sleep on, for bricks to make ovens, for something to cook in their oven when built." They "saved the inhabitants a great deal of trouble by gathering their corn for them, digging their sweet potatoes, killing their hogs, fat cattle, etc."

"I am tired clear out with idleness and inactivity. I want to be doing something."

Before the surrender at Appomattox, the colorful pageants of the Grand Review, and the mustering out before going home, there were weary frustrating weeks in camp with little to do in spite of attempts to amuse themselves. Many became homesick, ill, drunken, and quarrelsome. Few men escaped the ravages of disease brought on by bad water, inadequate food and exposure. As one soldier remarked, "I am tired clear out with idleness and inactivity. I want to be doing something." The boys wanted "this miserable chapter in history to be finished. . . . One thinks too much of home." George Woodbury wrote, "It is not the convenience of home that makes me long to return, but the voices and presence of those I love, the refinements and pleasures of good society, and the harmless enjoyments that I miss."

On the march, whether on foot or horseback, driving supply wagons with their stubborn mule teams, or crowded on the decks of river steamers, they were conscious of the beauties of the country about them or of the devastation left by invading armies. They endured bone-chilling cold often poorly clad when it was "fashionable to have . . . toes sticking out of . . . boots." They suffered from heat and choking dust. Often they plodded through "a perfect deluge of rain," the road in some places "a running stream a foot deep," and in others "almost impassable for mud."

Frequently at the end of a march a new camp was set up, the men working "very briskly . . . levelling the ground, felling trees, putting up tents, digging wells [and] building log huts." Quite as frequently before the day was ended an order came "to strike tents and be ready to move in two hours." At the end of the two hours "the tents were down [the men] were on the move again, the band playing 'Ain't I glad to get out of the wilderness.'" Perhaps at the end of this march no camp was built. The men spread their blankets on the ground for the night but not sleeping, as one soldier said, "until we had told so many stories and joked, so much that I nearly laughed myself to death."

Likewise in the records there are vivid details of raids, skirmishes and battles. They fought light-hearted skirmishes. As William Stevens wrote to his father, "We have no trouble to find the Rebels here, and can 'get up a fight' any time. To be sure they are a little dangerous, but the men all like it first rate and are willing to run some risks for the sake of amusement." They also fought terrific battles--"grand and exciting"--such as Gettysburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness, the Crater--battles in which courage was tested to the utmost, and heroes on both sides were born and died. One major battle so described pictured the Boys in Blue, tense with excitement, as they watched the enemy "sweeping slowly down across fields and woods . . . 5 or 6 lines deep moving majestically forward, looking like a host strong enough to sweep everything before them," then hurling "themselves upon the [Blue] lines with great fury. Batteries flashed and thundered along the crest of the hill . . . bayonets glistened in the waning daylight as regiment after regiment fixed bayonets to repel the charge, then flash upon flash, volley upon volley roared."

At the end of the battle many were numbered among "the dead [who] lay thickly around." Some were marched off to prisons--"cities of lice, misery and starvation"--always hoping for escape or exchange until death or the end of the war released them.

Then the end was in sight. "I am happy to tell you that we are encamped within the limits of the City of Petersburg, Va. We entered the city in company with the 1st Mich. at 15 minutes past 4 yesterday morning, and at 1/2 past 4 I put the Regt. colors on the Custom House. No other troops than the 1st and 2d Mich. entered the city until after daylight." So reported Lieut. John Boughton to Col. Edwin March, April 4, 1865.

"A courier came dashing along announcing the surrender of Gen'l Lee to Gen'l Grant."

The siege of Petersburg began June 17, 1864 and ended with its capture April 3, 1865. It had been a long and desperate struggle, with the Battle of the Crater one of its most tragic moments. Michigan men were there through it all. The fall of Petersburg heralded the beginning of the end. With the surrender of Lee, April 9th, the four years of Civil War were drawing to a close.

Charles Woodruff of the Twenty-fifth Infantry expressed the general feeling among the men when he wrote, "A courier came dashing along announcing the surrender of Gen'l Lee to Gen'l Grant. Cheer after cheer rent the air as he progressed along the line. The men were wild with joy. Hats, haversacks, and knapsacks flew in the air in all directions, Officers were caught up by the men and carried upon their shoulders. . . . The greatest uproar imaginable took place. It seemed as if the men could not make noise enough."

Even after enduring and surviving the years of war, death still stalked them. Hundreds of Michigan soldiers, rejoicing because they had been released recently from southern prisons and were on their way home, were among the 1,500 casualties of a boiler explosion on the steamer Sultana, April 27, 1865.

Most of them did reach home to take up their interrupted tasks as best they could; to tell stories to children and grandchildren; and to write reminiscences to be read at reunions of their regiments. Each, according to his ability as a narrator, has given us a picture of the life he lived as a soldier and his place in the drama of the Civil War.