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The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War
By Martin N. Bertera Kim Crawford
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2010 Martin N. Bertera and Kim Crawford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe Will Strive to Do Our Duty as American Soldiers
He was only a small-town hotel proprietor and an officer in the local militia, but even before the Civil War's first shots were fired, Dwight Woodbury was ready to serve his country. "[We] tender to the Governor of the state and to the government of the United States, our services in case of any contingency which may require such service," he wrote in January 1861. From the south-central Michigan town of Adrian, Woodbury sent those words in a letter to his state's new governor, Austin Blair, writing not only for himself but also on behalf of the officers who served under him in the state's 3rd Militia Regiment.
Across the South the secession movement roiled, its proponents convinced that the election of Abraham Lincoln meant the abolition of slavery in the United States. The nation was lurching toward war with itself as those states broke away. While many dreaded the breakup of the country and some welcomed it, Woodbury would stand by the U.S. government. He was 36 years old, a businessman, husband, and father, well liked in his community. He stood at about average in height and build, with dark hair and beard, and had the habit of biting his lower lip, which a friend said indicated Woodbury's "earnestness of purpose." Politically he was a Jacksonian Democrat, a stripe that would soon be called "War Democrat." These Northern Democrats agreed with Lincoln and Republicans that military force should be used to stop the Southern states from seceding, though they didn't believe the abolition of slavery should be a primary goal of the federal government.
Woodbury had been born in upstate New York and come of age in Michigan and Ohio. Like many young men, he followed the Gold Rush to California to try to win his fortune. When he returned, he worked as a conductor on the Michigan Southern Railroad and married a businessman's daughter; he ran the Brackett House, a hotel in Adrian. More significantly, he had long been involved with the state militia and was colonel of volunteers from Michigan's Lenawee, Washtenaw, and Jackson counties. While many militia officers proved to be less than professional soldiers, Woodbury would prove to the commanders of the Union army that he was an effective military man—one who understood orders and could be counted on to do his duty.
Only six months before his letter to the governor, in July 1860, Woodbury and his militiamen played host to a dashing young fellow named Elmer Ellsworth, a New Yorker who was a friend of then–presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Ellsworth had been touring with his Zouaves, an exotically uniformed, precision march-and-drill outfit that thrilled audiences with their performances, and it was said that Woodbury and Ellsworth became friends. Soon both men led regiments from their states into the Civil War. Colonel Ellsworth would become a national martyr after May 24, 1861, shot by an angry secessionist innkeeper after cutting down a Confederate flag flying from the man's roof in Alexandria, Virginia.
That was still some months off as Woodbury wrote to Governor Blair early in 1861. While historians have tended to believe that the Michigan militia was not a competent military force, Woodbury was confident that his was the only organized militia regiment in Michigan ready in the event the federal government called for soldiers. The U.S. government, still under President James Buchanan, was making no such move that January. But when news of the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter reached Michigan in mid-April, Woodbury quickly reminded Blair that he and his men had volunteered months earlier. "Now that the honor of our flag has been assailed, the law set at defiance and civil war inaugurated, the third regiment renews its offer," he wrote.
Like many other would-be military commanders, Woodbury hoped he would be asked to lead the first group of Michigan volunteers to fight for the United States, since Lincoln's administration now asked the governors of the Northern states to raise troops. Though Woodbury wouldn't get the command of the new 1st Michigan Infantry Regiment, he was on the governor's short list for a state command. He was quickly authorized to open a recruiting office in Adrian. Within a month's time, Woodbury was commissioned to lead state soldiers in a volunteer regiment enrolled as the 4th Michigan Infantry. He was their first colonel, but he would not be their last; in the course of the next three years, he was among nearly 200 men of his regiment killed or mortally wounded in the Civil War.
In the wake of the surrender of Fort Sumter community meetings were convened around Michigan to raise troops and money to pay for them. Companies of volunteers that included farmers, store clerks, schoolteachers, carpenters, mechanics, and laborers formed under the auspices of local leaders, often men who served in militia units. In the town of Monroe in the state's southeastern corner, a company called the Smith Guards was named for a resident veteran of the Mexican War, Col. Joseph R. Smith. Soon the volunteers began to drill under Smith's direction. They elected as captain a local land agent named Constant Luce. "We have about 70 old Flint Lock Guns," Luce wrote to the state's new adjutant general, John Robertson, "which we would be pleased to exchange for Rifles as soon as you get them." This would take longer than Luce might have expected. Only in early in 1862 would the men comprising the 4th Michigan get rifles. The more immediate development was that the Smith Guards became Company A in the 4th Michigan. One of the company's men was an 18-year-old originally from Albany, N.Y., then working as a drug store clerk in Detroit. His name was George W. M. Yates and he'd recently returned to Michigan, where his mother had lived for several years. Yates tried his hand at trading horses in Texas, but wasn't successful. But he would prove a good soldier and become friends with a daring and ambitious young officer named George Armstrong Custer. That friendship would shape Yates's Civil War career and ultimately determine his fate.
In Adrian, the town where Woodbury lived, two companies had quickly formed after the news of Fort Sumter. Now a third organized, its men calling themselves the Adrian Volunteers, or more dramatically, the Lenawee Tigers. Their captain was James H. Cole, an acquaintance of Woodbury who also active in the militia. But after so many men from the Adrian area had already enlisted, Cole came up short of what he needed for a full company. Years later he recalled that Woodbury was concerned this shortage of men might cause the state to delay the organization of his regiment. "If we do not get another company in a few days, the boys in the northern part of the state will sidetrack us," Woodbury said, according to Cole's memory of the conversation. "Can't you scare up some more recruits and then we will be ready to be sworn in on time?" In response, Cole took a train 50 miles west to the town of Coldwater, rented a horse and buggy, and drove another 20 miles south across the state line to Angola, Indiana. There he talked to some men who wanted to join regiments from the Hoosier state, but hadn't been chosen for Indiana's initial federal quota of 6,000 recruits.
These men from Angola and Steuben County were part of a company formed under a Mexican War veteran named Baldwin J. Crosswait. Given the chance to join a Michigan regiment that was almost certainly going into federal service, 40 of them signed on with Cole. Shortly before these men left on the trip to Adrian late in May, however, they were in a confrontation with the sheriff in Angola. One of their number, store clerk Frederick W. Meech, was arrested for selling illegal whiskey and beer. The volunteers decided they weren't leaving without him. Before they departed for Michigan, they surrounded the sheriff 's house and "rescued" Meech, 24, into their ranks. Together the Indiana enlistees and the Adrian men under Cole became Company B of the 4th Michigan.
Thirty miles or so beyond Coldwater and Angola to the west, in the southern Michigan town of Sturgis, a company formed called the Peninsula Guard. These men would become the 4th Michigan's Company C. One of the recruits was 21-year-old Eli Starr from nearby Centreville. Starr may have been influenced by his friend Daniel Knipple, who joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry Regiment. Knipple was sure the war would be short. "Bring a blanket, a good undershirt, 2 if you wish, a good pair of drawers," he wrote Starr from a new camp set up in Detroit. "Leave your best clothes at home—I don't think the war will last six months." Starr's parents asked him not to go to Detroit to enlist yet, so Eli promised to wait and join men from their area. It didn't take long. Starr signed up with the local company that soon went into the 4th Michigan. Of course, his friend Dan, like so many others who believed the conventional wisdom about the war, was wrong about how short it would be.
In the town of Ann Arbor, the ex-mayor, lawyer Robert J. Barry, recruited a company that bore his name, though he soon resigned as its captain, "not being able to leave his business for so long a term." In his place, members of the company elected John M. Randolph to be their new captain. These enlistees began training at the local fairgrounds. They became the 4th Michigan's Company D. One of the volunteer-officers was a young man from Adams Center, New York, who reportedly was passing through the Ann Arbor area when he decided to join up. His name was Jairus W. Hall, and he would ultimately take the role of a commander of the "reorganized" or reconstituted 4th Michigan late in the war. Another young man who soon signed on with the company was Charles W. Phelps, from Washtenaw County. In May, Phelps, 21, was traveling around southeastern Michigan, trying to join a company that was going to be accepted into a new regiment, or if he failed at that, to find employment. But on the 22nd Phelps found out the company he'd joined in Oakland County, called the Pontiac Light Guards, was disbanding since someone in authority decided they weren't needed.
"I guess I shall go to Detroit and join the second Regiment," he wrote to his brother. "If I don't go off in the army I will come out that way.... I'll be d——d if I will stay here anyway." Phelps looked for work in Pontiac's three tin shops, but they had all the employees they needed. He soon learned that the 2nd Michigan Infantry had left Detroit. He began to wonder if he was going to get in the war at all. "[The] second regiment is gone to Washington so there is not much danger," he wrote. "Who cares anyway?" But Phelps did want to serve, and a month later he signed on with the Barry Guards Company, which by then was part of the 4th Michigan. In just over two years time, young Phelps and scores of his comrades would find themselves in battle at the edge of a field of grain belonging to a man named John Rose, who lived outside of a small Pennsylvania college town called Gettysburg.
Men from the small southern-central Michigan towns of Hillsdale and Jonesville in Hillsdale County, just west of Adrian, soon became the regiment's Companies E and H, recruited by their respective captains, George W. Lumbard, a Hillsdale attorney, and Moses A. Funk, a businessman and carpenter. Funk's volunteers, from the Jonesville area and the northern part of the county, called themselves the Grosvenor Guard after a state political figure. Lumbard's men were known as the Hillsdale Volunteers. "I think I can say that if called [to service], we will not disgrace the state," Lumbard wrote to Adjutant General Robertson. "Don't forget us." Lumbard would play an important and sometimes controversial role in the regiment's leadership. Within less than a month after writing that letter, Lumbard's company was accepted into the 4th Michigan Infantry.
About a dozen of Lumbard's volunteers were students at Hillsdale College, and one of them, sophomore Moses A. Luce, had just turned 19. "Together with twelve fellow students, I enlisted in Company E, 4th Michigan Infantry," Luce wrote years later. He was six feet tall but slim enough that people thought of him slight in build, the son of an abolitionist pastor. In time, he would receive the Medal of Honor from Congress for running through enemy fire near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, to rescue one of his comrades.
Volunteers from around Hudson, about 15 miles west of Adrian, formed a company known as the Lenawee Guards or alternately, the Hudson Volunteers. These men would become Company F in the 4th Michigan. They selected as their captain Samuel DeGolyer, a local politician and partner in a company that manufactured wagons and parts. DeGolyer wanted to make sure state military officials didn't forget them. "We wish to urge our claims in every honorable way with a view to our acceptance at an early day," he wrote to the state adjutant general. "We drill every Night..... Please advise me as to our future prospects."
In the Lenawee County town of Tecumseh, a few miles northeast of Adrian, the Tecumseh Volunteers organized under their captain, Deputy Sheriff David D. Marshall. They became Company G in the 4th Michigan. Marshall resigned his post from the sheriff 's office shortly before the company left to rendezvous with other volunteer companies in Adrian. One of the first recruits for the company was a 24-year-old named Harrison Daniels. "Being the second man to enlist in the Township of Franklin, I walked to Tecumseh, nine miles from home, and was soon drilling," he remembered. Daniels said Tecumseh residents "took good care of us and furnished us a very neat uniform which consisted of a red cap, blue jacket and red pants, so that with clean faces and blackened shoes, we made a very good appearance." Soon that colorful uniform would be given up for one of gray—the color all the men of the 4th Michigan would wear until later that summer.
In the village of Trenton, a few miles south of Detroit on the Detroit River, some men formed a company organized under David A. Granger, though he would not go off to war with them. Since Granger's group didn't have enough for a regulation company (roughly 100 men), they traveled to Detroit on May 7 to join enlistees from the Continental Fire Company No. 8. This combined group was quartered in the Continentals' engine house. A Detroit newspaper called this company the Continental Rifles, but they were also known as the Trenton Volunteers. They became Company I in the 4th Michigan. William Vreeland from Wayne County was allowed to sign up with the company, though he was only 17. "You look young," Granger said to him, according to an account Vreeland later gave. But Vreeland's cousin, the company's first lieutenant, Marshall W. Chapin, intervened on his behalf. "He is all right, Captain," Chapin assured Granger. "I know him.
A young schoolteacher from upstate New York, Edward H. C. Taylor, had been working on Grosse Ile in the Detroit River, but his relationship with his boss wasn't going smoothly. He joined the company as a lieutenant. "The pay is good—$100 a month and rations," he wrote about his new post. A Democrat from a Democratic family, Taylor was put off when his sister was saddened to hear he joined the army. "I am sorry that my volunteering has caused any sorrow, but this is a time when anyone with the least spark of patriotism ought to come forward," he wrote. He added that "several gentlemen of education and wealth" joined as privates right along "hard working men," and that he would have done the same. "The people of this city—Detroit—are very kind in fitting out the men," he wrote.
Like many if not most regiments in the Civil War, there was no Company J in the 4th Michigan. The regiment's Company K was comprised mostly of men from in and around Dexter, a small Washtenaw County town a few miles northwest of Ann Arbor. Their captain was a 44-year-old attorney, Alexander D. Crane, who held the rank of major general in the state militia. Like most organizers of volunteer companies, Crane asked the state for "arms of any kind" so his men could drill. These Dexter Union Guards were soon joined by about 30 men from Howell, a town in nearby Livingston County, who figured that they ought to sign on with a company going into a regiment certain to be mustered into federal service. Dexter residents, like others sending off their sons, brothers, and husbands, presented the company with a flag, waterproof capes, sewing kits, and other necessities.
Excerpted from The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War by Martin N. Bertera Kim Crawford Copyright © 2010 by Martin N. Bertera and Kim Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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