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Michigan's civil war

Can you imagine a war in which two hundred thousand young Michigan men were killed? Well, we had one, proportionately as bad, and it was settled exactly 150 years ago today.

I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War. Michigan had only three-quarters of a million people when it started, and nearly fifteen thousand of its men would die in the next four years.

That amounted to two percent of Michigan’s entire population. Twice as many died from disease as in battle, but to their loved ones, they were just as dead. We don’t often think of Michigan as playing a major part in the Civil War.

No battles were fought here.

We were mostly a small farm state. But Michigan played an outsized role. Nearly one out of every four males served in uniform. The number killed was greater than in any other war, including World War II. Michigan lost more men than all but five other northern states.

At the war’s beginning, Abraham Lincoln was worried that the states might fail to answer his call for troops, until the First Michigan Infantry showed up in Washington.

“Thank God for Michigan,” the president said. Our state went on to produce heroes, some forgotten, some famous, and one whose civil war heroism has largely been eclipsed by his later infamy.

This was a man who was one of the Civil War’s youngest generals, who rallied his troops over and over with his famous battle cry. “C’mon, you Wolverines,” and who may have saved the day at Gettysburg by forcing the retreat of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry.

We don’t celebrate his glory much because of what happened to him thirteen years later at the Little Big Horn.

But on this very day in 1865, it was the twenty-five year old George Armstrong Custer who had blocked the starving Army of Northern Virginia from retreat, forcing the Confederacy’s main general, Robert E. Lee, to go see U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, for perhaps history’s most glorious surrender.

One thing is certain: There’s never been a war that has so captivated our popular imagination. Michigan is full of reenactors and amateur historians of that war, and a new book published this month should be indispensable for anyone fascinated by it.

Michigan’s Civil War Landmarks, by David Ingall and Karin Risko is a well-written and entertaining account of pretty much everything related to the War Between the States in Michigan, from the chair Lincoln was murdered in to a listing of the gravesites of every civil war general buried here.

It is being published by the History Press, and if you need a present for the Civil War buff in your life you couldn’t do better than pair this book with its companion volume, Jack Dempsey’s Michigan and the Civil War – each readable, paperback, and not too long. 

What I think most about that war was what happened on that April 9th so long ago. Lee thought it quite possible he might be hanged as a traitor. But when he asked what the terms would be if he surrendered, Grant pretty much said:

Go home. Go home, and promise not to take arms against us anymore. Don’t you wish we could settle wars like that today?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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