Commentary
10:27 am
Fri April 29, 2011

Great and Bloody Sacrifice

Many of us have been so consumed with our modern economic struggles that we’ve barely paused to note that we faced a much greater crisis one hundred and fifty years ago his month.

South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union, fired on federal troops at Fort Sumter that April, and the Civil War was on.

When it ended four years later, more Americans had been killed than in any war before or since, and the country was a different place. We don’t often think of Michigan in connection with the Civil War. We were then a small, pretty new, and not very major state.

Our entire population was only three-quarters of a million people - far less than the population of Macomb County today. Yet Michigan answered the call enthusiastically.

We overfilled our quota of volunteers. Abraham Lincoln had some anxious moments those first weeks of the war.

Would the states really respond by sending the troops necessary to put down the rebellion? Michigan did. From Detroit, Adrian, Marshall, Ypsilanti and Grand Rapids they came.

Washington asked Michigan for a single regiment. Governor Austin Blair protested. No. We could furnish more. Much more.

The first Michigan troops arrived in the capitol in May, lifting the President’s spirits. “Thank God for Michigan!”Abraham Lincoln said when they arrived.

Jack Dempsey, an attorney and lifelong history buff, has long felt that Michigan didn’t get proper recognition for its role in the most important conflict in our history. So he has written a new book, “Michigan in the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Conflict, just been published by the History Press. Less than two hundred pages long, it is well-written and lavishly illustrated with pictures, line drawings, and posters and handbills from the state archives.

This ought to be an indispensable book for anyone interested in our state’s history, and especially in the civil war. I certainly learned things I didn’t know, including that Michigan cavalry captured Jefferson Davis at war’s end, and that a soldier from Jackson was the man who put the noose over alleged conspirator Mary Surratt’s neck, the subject of Robert Redford’s new movie.

What may surprise most readers is the  heroism of a man we have come to revile, George Armstrong Custer, a native of Monroe. These days, when we hear Custer, we think Little Big Horn. But had he died ten years earlier, his reputation would be altogether different.

Custer was a dashing young general in his early twenties during the Civil War. He may have saved the day at Gettysburg, and then at the end, cut Robert E. Lee off from any chance at escape, and forced him to the surrender table at Appomattox.

There are haunting stories here that I wanted to know more about, such as the tragedy at war’s end, when hundreds of returning Michigan troops died when the steamer Sultana blew up on the Mississippi. Before the war ended, nearly fifteen thousand Michigan soldiers died or were missing on the battlefield - proportionally equivalent to almost two hundred thousand dead today.

Why are we still so fascinated by all this? Perhaps that old confederate William Faulkner put it best. The past isn’t dead and buried, he said. It isn’t even really past.