Civil War 150th Anniversary
Michigan in the American Civil War (1861-1865)
By: Kerry Chartkof -Michigan State Capitol Historian
Here is a very brief synopsis of Michigan's extraordinary involvement in the American Civil War (1861-65), America's bloodiest war:
Michigan was the first "western" state to answer Lincoln's call for volunteers following the CSA (Confederate States of America) attack on Fort Sumter in the early hours of April 12, 1861. Despite a depleted treasury and an almost complete lack of a military organization, the First Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment (three months) marched into Washington, D.C. one month and one day from Lincoln's call. Lincoln personally greeted the regiment and said, "Thank God For Michigan!"
Before the war ended four years later, Michigan had sent 50 such regiments into the field, including infantry, artillery, cavalry (among the most famous of the war), engineers and mechanics, and sharpshooters. More than one half of the able-bodied males in the state marched away from Michigan, and over 15,000 died. Michigan troops fought in more than 800 battles on almost every major battlefield of the war, from First Bull Run in 1861 to Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865. The First Michigan Sharpshooter's flag was the first Union flag raised over Petersburg, Lee's last stronghold, to signal the virtual end of the war, and the Fourth Michigan Cavalry captured Jeff Davis, the President of the Confederacy, as he tried to flee the country.
Even though there are no Civil War battlefields in Michigan, there are several places in the greater Lansing area where visitors can learn about this history:
- The Michigan Historical Museum has an entire gallery devoted to a permanent exhibit of Michigan in the Civil War.
- In addition, the temporary exhibit area of the Michigan Historical Museum will feature a rotating display of Michigan Civil War battle flags. Each flag will tell the story of one Michigan regiment and the men who carried the flags into battle. This exhibit, titled Plowshares into Swords examining how the war changed Michiganians' lives.
- Mt. Hope Cemetery not only has a Civil War section with at least 50 headstones, but also features Lansing's official Civil War monument, erected in 1877. The monument was rededicated on October 14, 2007 by the descendants of Civil War veterans. There are also many others in the cemetery with notable Civil War connections: an example is George E. Ranney (Ranney Park is named for him), who served as an assistant surgeon in the Second Michigan Cavalry and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery at the Battle of Resaca in 1864.
- The Michigan State Capitol: the capitol was built in the shadow of the Civil War, and even its architectural form owes its meaning to the war. The dome had emerged during the war as a powerful symbol of the Union, but our capitol was the first to fully recognize and pay homage to that. Almost every northern state wanted a capitol with a dome after the construction of ours. This fact is one reason why our capitol has been declared a National Historic Landmark.
- The rotunda of the Capitol features eight cases encircling the walls with generic reproductions of Michigan's Civil War battle flags. Part of the reason the Capitol was built in 1870s was to provide a fireproof and dignified shrine for 165 tattered, bloody battle flags, brought back to the state at great price. These flags stood as the state's greatest monument to the memory of the sacrifices of the approximately 90,000 Michigan men and boys who fought during the war.
- The Capitol portrait collection features fine (and rare) portraits of two of Michigan's leading figures during the war: Governor Austin Blair and U.S. Senator Zachariah Chandler. Both are on public display.
In addition, there are several notable Civil War monuments on Capitol Square. One is the statue of Austin Blair, the only person the state has ever honored with a statue on the grounds of the Capitol. Blair is recognized as one of the finest of the nation's "war governors," yet he remains largely unknown today. I have been researching him for several years and hope to publish an article about him during the Sesquicentennial.
We also have a monument dedicated to the First Michigan Sharpshooters, whose flag was the first raised over Petersburg. This regiment had an entire company of Native Americans (Company K). Historian Ray Herek has recently published a book, "These Men Have Seen Hard Service," on the history of this famous regiment.
Another monument is dedicated to the First Michigan Regiment of Engineers and Mechanics, the forerunner of today's Army Corps of Engineers. This regiment's job was to build roads, railroads, bridges and buildings, and tear down enemy roads, railroads, bridges, etc.-all while under fire in the worst possible conditions.
Finally, there is Grand Army of the Republic monument on the grounds, erected by the Michigan Women's Relief Corps in 1924. At one time, the GAR was one of the largest and most powerful political organizations in the country, lobbying for veterans benefits and issues.
Learn more about Michigan & the Civil War at Seeking Michigan.