This month we pause to remember the men of the State of Michigan that left their farms, businesses, families, and their way of life to “March off to War.”
On September 4th, 1862 over 1000 officers and men mustered into federal service at Camp Siegal in Ionia, Michigan. Eight days later they left Ionia for Detroit. Less than one month later, they would “see the elephant” just outside a small Kentucky farming community — Perryville.
HISTORY OF THE 21ST MICHIGAN VOLUNTEER INFANTRY 1862 -1865
Condensed History of the 21st Michigan by Ron Webb with input from Lowell White.
The glorious colors that daub Michigan’s countryside in the early fall must have just begun to show as the 1,000 or so officers and men of the newly-formed 21st Michigan assembled in Ionia halfway between Grand Rapids and Lansing on September 12, 1862. The ladies of Ionia, undoubtedly with suitable pomp and circumstance, presented the new regiment with its state colors, as it marched off to war in the western theater, bound for Louisville, Kentucky.
These men were somewhat different from the Michigan regiments that began recruiting earlier. Some regiments from further downstate took nearly five months to fill the ranks, but recruiting for the 21st had begun in mid-July, and the ranks were filled by late August. These men came from the northern counties, many of whom could be called pioneers in the classical sense. The toughness characteristic of pioneers would be needed because these men would face death in 13 separate battles over the next 32 months, seeing some of the sternest tests of human courage ever provided by the Civil War.
The first test was not long in coming. Barely four weeks after boarding the railroad cars in Ionia, the regiment joined the Army of the Cumberland and was bloodied at Perrysville, Kentucky. For almost totally green troops they acquitted themselves well, winning individual praise from their commanding general, one of the North’s toughest warriors, Phil Sheridan.
Two more battles followed, and then on the banks of the Stone River, December 31, 1862 — January 3, 1863, the regiment’s mettle was tested to the maximum. Sheridan’s men bore the brunt of the furious Rebel assault on the Union right. Time and again the Rebels surged forward, and time and again the 21st emptied their cartridges boxes. The Union line bent back at right angles to their original position, but they didn’t break. Bragg’s troops did, however, and he retreated.
After four battles in less than three months, the troops were exhausted and were relatively inactive the rest of the winter. However, that winter was a tough one on the troops. Their mostly rural, pioneer backgrounds may have prepared them to give the Rebels all they could handle and more in battle, but it did not give them a defense from the greatest threat of the Civil War, disease. The record for that winter shows man after man succumbing to illnesses that today are easily cured in one trip to the family doctor. Dozens perished. The summer of 1863 must have brought welcome relief, but it also meant a renewed campaign.
However, when Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland south toward Chattanooga, he did it so skillfully that the Army’s triumph was comparatively bloodless. But that success did not hint at what awaited the 21st Michigan in the early fall. October 6 would see one of the war‘s most horrendous fights along Chickamauga Creek. That battle was a terrible defeat for the Union, but the sacrifice of the 21st Michigan probably enabled General George Thomas to prevent a total collapse. The 21st was the last regiment on the far right of the Union line when Longstreet’s screaming troops came pouring through a huge hole left by poor communications.
The fighting around the Widow Glenn’s cabin was furious all day long, some of it hand-to-hand with the bayonet, clubbed muskets, and even rocks. To be sure, the 21st gave ground, but they didn’t break, they didn’t run. They held, giving Thomas just enough time to solidify his position and prevent the dissolution of the entire Army of the Cumberland. Only 100 or so of the 300 men ofthe 21st Michigan who went into that battle were able to rally to the colors that evening, but the Army of the Cumberland had survived.
The 21st Michigan’s sacrifice had been worth it. That winter in Chattanooga was a repetition of the first the regiment had spent in the war. but with the threat of starvation added to that of disease. However, vigorous recruiting back home brought the regiment back to something like fighting strength by the time the siege of Chattanooga was lifted and Bragg was sent running from Missionary Ridge.
The 21st Michigan was next given the task of running down Nathan Bedford Forrest. The 21st Michigan missed almost all of Sherman’s relent less pursuit of Joe Johnston, which finally ended with the capture of Atlanta. However, they rejoined Sherman’s army for the famous sweep through Georgia to Savannah. Only two more battles remained, but the veteran’s of the 21st Michigan set their teeth and plunged ahead in the battles of Aversboro and finally, Bentonville, North Carolina, March 19. In that last contest, out of 230 men, all of whom must have known the end of the war could not be far off, the 21st lost 92 officers and men, 40 percent of their strength. The strength provided by their backgrounds had enabled them to
stick it out to the end of the very last bitter fight.
After Johnson’s surrender, the long march up through Richmond to Washington, D.C. must have been sweet indeed after nearly three years of the ravages of combat, disease and punishing marches in the southern sun. The regiment participated in the grand parade on May 24, and then was mustered out on June 8, 1865. They returned to Detroit on June 13, and were finally paid off and disbanded on June 21, 1865.
During the many engagements the 21st participated in, many soldiers were captured. Several of these were sent to Andersonville Prison. A list of 21st Michigan soldiers held at Andersonville is available on the 21st Michigan website.
Source : Marching Along, 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Co. H Inc., Volume 4, No. 9, September 2007. Includes pictures.