Putting the Wolverine State’s heroics under the microscope

Two new books celebrate, in mostly commendable fashion, Michigan’s contributions to the Civil War. Rick Liblong’s Answering the Call to Duty: Saving Custer, Heroism at Gettysburg, POWs and Other Stories of Michigan’s Small Town Soldiers in the Civil War (Arbutus Press, 2011, $21.99) is the more narrowly focused of the two, though it is not so much a conventional narrative as a collection of snippets loosely fashioned into eight chapters.

Liblong’s book provides no particular chronology. The first three chapters, for example, touch on a variety of topics about rural Michigan, Lapeer County and the author’s hometown of Almont. To his credit, Liblong flavors his text with quotes from contemporary letters and journals, though casual students of the war (and re-enactors in particular) may cast a sour glance at some of his commentary, such as this description of soldier headgear: “Most of the men wore a slouch hat or ‘kepi,’ which was black, wide brimmed and looked like a mini-stovepipe hat [that] was falling forward.”

Vignettes about soldiers from his hometown and neighboring communities form the lion’s share of this book. One notable was Private Norvell Churchill (spelled at times as Norville and Norval) from Berlin Township. Churchill was credited with rescuing future star George A. Custer, a fellow Wolverine, from possible capture or death during a clash with Confederate cavalry at Hunterstown, Pa., during the Gettysburg Campaign.

Alas, readers may scratch their heads over some of the author’s skewed history. For instance, in a list of Virginia battles in which the 1st Michigan Cavalry fought in “early 1863” are Harrisonburg (actually fought in April 1862) and Second Bull Run, Thoroughfare Gap and Cedar Mountain (August 1862).

The book includes two appendices genealogists and researchers should find useful.

Jack Dempsey’s Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice (The History Press, 2011, $21.99), on the other hand, will appeal to those seeking a wider-ranging and concise account presented in a more conventional format. Among the topics Dempsey tackles are the state’s rapid response to Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms in April 1861, its role in some of the war’s memorable battles and some of its many intriguing personalities.

Each of the book’s 14 chapters provides a unique Wolverine State connection to the war, some more obvious than others. Subjects in a chapter titled “Special Forces,” for example, include the Michigan Cavalry Brigade; youthful Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth (who was born in Green Oak, Mich., though none of the four regiments in his brigade was from Michigan); and Hiram Berdan, namesake of the famed Berdan’s Sharpshooters. That unit, Dempsey admits, originated “from many states including Michigan.” Berdan himself was born in New York, though he lived in Plymouth, Mich., from the age of 6.

The author is Michigan’s former assistant attorney general, which may explain why the longest chapter is titled “The War Politicians.” Dempsey evaluates several statesmen, including Zachariah Chandler, a transplant from New Hampshire who served as Detroit’s mayor and later rose to prominence in the Republican Party—and the U.S. Senate, where he was a vocal member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Michigan’s wartime political leaders, Dempsey writes, were pro-Union, pro-“hard war” and decidedly anti-slavery. “They were looked at as radicals,” Dempsey notes, “and…did not shrink from the title.”

The book covers a wide spectrum of related topics. Dempsey touches on the participation of women, the service of black units and POW experiences. One chapter, “War on Water,” looks at the USS Michigan, “the lone navy ship” on the Great Lakes. Dempsey’s narrative is succinct, punctuated with quotes from contemporary and modern sources. Illustrations are abundant, though not a single map appears, which would have enhanced chapters emphasizing combat.

Tighter editing might have caught flaws such as references to “Philip A. Sheridan” (instead of “H” for Henry) which appear in both the text and index, and a passage about “sewing confusion” behind Union lines. But these are minor distractions to an otherwise entertaining read.

George Skoch

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