Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Civil War stories from Michigan

Michigan might not have been a hotspot of battle and intrigue during the Civil War, but our state still made a significant mark on the War Between the States. Following are stories about various war-related people and events that have a connection to the Great Lakes State.

Frank Baldwin
Manchester native Frank Baldwin received not one, but two Medals of Honor—the highest military award a serviceperson can receive—for bravery during and after the Civil War. Baldwin earned his first medal for actions he took in July 1864, when, as a captain in the 19th Michigan Infantry, he led a countercharge against Rebel forces in Georgia that led to the capture of two Confederate officers. He earned his second medal after the war, in 1874, when, as a first lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Infantry, he helped rescue two girls from Native Americans who were trying to kidnap them. Baldwin is one of only 19 servicemen to receive more than one Medal of Honor. He died in 1923 at the age of 80 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Johnny Clem

Johnny Clem was 10 years old when his mother died in 1861. Heartbroken, he ran away from his home in Newark, Ohio, and tried to join the 3rd Ohio Infantry as a drummer boy. The 3rd Ohio refused him, as did his next choice, the 22nd Michigan Infantry. Clem tagged along with the 22nd Michigan anyway, and, despite his youth, saw a bit of action on the battlefield. He shot a Confederate general during the Battle of Chickamauga (earning him the rank of sergeant and the nickname “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”), and was briefly detained by Rebel forces in Georgia. Following the Civil War, Clem continued his career in the military, from which he retired in 1915. He died in 1937 at the age of 85 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

George Armstrong Custer
Probably the most famous military man to come out of Michigan is George Armstrong Custer, who grew up in Monroe. Though he graduated last in his class at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, Custer proved adept at leading troops on the battlefield. During the war, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming general of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade when he was only 23 years old. Custer was involved in several of the war’s major conflicts, including the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of the Wilderness. He was also present when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia in April 1865. Custer left military service after the war, but eventually signed back on and took part in campaigns against Native Americans in the west. He died in the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory on June 25, 1876.


Harrison Jeffords

Dexter native Harrison Jeffords held the American flag in such high regard that he died defending it. Jeffords, a colonel in the 4th Michigan Infantry, was traveling around Michigan, recruiting soldiers for the war effort, when a group of women in Monroe gave him an American flag to use as his regiment’s standard. Jeffords promised that he would guard the flag with his life. He followed through on that promise in July 1863, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. During a retreat from Rebel forces, the 4th Michigan’s color-bearer dropped the flag that Jeffords had received in Monroe. Jeffords got into a skirmish over it with a Confederate soldier and received a bayonet wound, dying of his injuries the next day. Jeffords was the highest-ranked officer, Union or Confederate, to be bayoneted during the war, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Dexter. 

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Franklin Thompson was a little different from the other members of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. From the outside, he looked like any other soldier, but on the inside, he was all woman. That’s because Franklin Thompson was actually Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Flint resident who, in a fervor of patriotism, cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and became a soldier. Undetected, she worked first as a field nurse, then as a spy. When Edmonds contracted malaria, she deserted before a medical exam could expose her true identity. After the war, Edmonds’ story was revealed, and she settled into domestic life, getting married, having three children, and eventually receiving a pension for her wartime service. Edmonds died in 1898 at the age of 56.

Anna Etheridge

Anna Etheridge might not have been a soldier, but she showed the bravery of one. As a nurse and vivandiere (in other words, someone who sells provisions to soldiers) for the 2nd and 3rd Michigan Infantries, she brought water to dying combatants and pulled wounded men from the field of battle. During one skirmish, she got so close to the action that a minie ball pierced her hand. Etheridge was known as “Gentle Annie” to the men she served. Her kindness and courage were so well-known that she was one of only two women to receive the Kearny Cross, a Union award given to individuals who showed bravery and heroism. Etheridge died in 1913 at the age of 73, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

4th Michigan Cavalry flag
When the Confederacy dissolved in May 1865, its president, Jefferson Davis, became a hunted man. Davis fled the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and began heading west, many believed to re-establish the Confederacy on the western frontier. If it wasn't for the 4th Michigan Cavalry, he might have succeeded. Members of the unit, along with soldiers from the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, captured Davis, his family, and several members of his staff and household in Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10. Despite rumors that Davis tried to hide his identity by wearing a hoop skirt and sunbonnet, a soldier from the 4th Michigan reported that Davis had, in fact, been wearing only his wife’s dress and shawl over a man’s suit. The soldier didn’t seem to hold that fact against Davis, noting, “that was a perilous moment for [him]. He had the right to try to escape in any disguise he could use.” 

The Sultana

The Union soldiers who boarded the steamship Sultana in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 24, 1865 were exhausted and disheveled, but above all, excited. They had just been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, and the Sultana was taking them home. Among the group of nearly 2,500 passengers were more than 250 soldiers from Michigan. Legally, the ship could hold only 376 people, but the more men the Sultana’s owners could cram aboard, the more money they made, so passengers literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Around 2 a.m. on April 27, one of the Sultana’s boilers exploded, causing two more boilers to explode as well. The ship burst into flames and sank, resulting in the deaths of about 1,600 passengers. The explosion of the Sultana remains the biggest maritime disaster in American history, but because it occurred shortly after the war ended and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it remains largely unknown today.

You know who this guy is.

Michigan was a step ahead of other states in recruiting volunteers to fight in the Civil War. Even before hostilities began in April 1861, the state legislature had authorized the governor to create two militia regiments should the need arise. In addition, the city of Detroit, as well as the state government, donated a combined $100,000 to outfit the soldiers with clothing and provisions. President Abraham Lincoln was so pleased to see Michigan soldiers march into Washington, D.C. on May 16, 1861—the first combatants to arrive from a western state—that he is reported to have said, “Thank God for Michigan!”

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