Excerpts from the book about the Mustering In of the
21st Michigan Infantry in September of 1862
by James Genco
We who reenact the Civil War era usually center our reenactments around battles. But rarely does one get to show the modern public just what it was like to take part in a town celebrating their boys volunteering, signing up, and even getting physicals by the town doctor.
Written below is a large chunk of a chapter from a recently printed book (see the end of the post) giving the details of just what it was like for the boys in blue as well as the townsfolk during a mustering in ceremony. Since this year - this month of September in fact - is the 150th anniversary of the 21st Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the Michigan City of Ionia, the village in which they were originally mustered out of, threw a heck of a birthday party celebrating, as close to the way they did it a century and a half ago, the pride and adoration they felt for the brave lads about to go off and fight the rebellion. The wonderful citizens of historic Ionia really went all out to give us quite a welcome by providing a free luncheon for us, as well as a ball, movie, and even a police escort to the original camp sight.
|Main Street in historic Ionia, Michigan|
I would like to thank the City of Ionia for the fine treatment they gave us, as well as the members of the 3rd Michigan and of the 7th Michigan for becoming, for a day, soldiers of the 21st Michigan. Oh yeah, and the members of the 21st!
Inserted in author Genco's text are photographs taken at the 150th anniversary party that took place on September 8, 2012.
I hope you enjoy it:
The genesis of the call for volunteers in the summer of 1862 was a telegram sent by the Governors of the eighteen Union states, including Michigan’s Austin Blair, to President Abraham Lincoln. The governor’s reiterated their commitment to preserving the Union and proposed sending 500,000 more men. President Lincoln accepted the offer, but requested only 300,000, since the administration recognized it could not arm, equip, and train a larger force at that time. Upon hearing of Lincoln’s call, four enthusiastic men from the vicinity of Hastings, Michigan immediately began forming the nucleus of a company.
The 21st Michigan Infantry was raised in the western part of the state. This region, including the counties of Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa, Montcalm, and Ionia, was sparsely populated. The village of Ionia, founded in 1833 and the seat of government for Ionia County, had less than 2,000 inhabitants. The camp of rendezvous for the regiment was established on the eastern outskirts of the village, a short distance north of the Grand River. The camp was ideally situated, with ample cleared, leveled land and an abundance of fresh water from the Prairie River, a tributary to the Grand River. Probably as an allurement to the numerous Germanic immigrants in the region, the camp was Christened Camp Sigel, in honor of Franz Sigel, a popular German immigrant who was a general in the Union Army. John H. Welch, a prominent local resident and businessman, was appointed Camp Commandant. Welch, who ran a meat market on Main Street in Ionia, oversaw the daily operations and needs of the camp until a colonel was appointed and the regiment was mustered into the service of the United States.
|The ORIGINAL 21st Michigan Infantry from a century and a half ago|
Contributing to the closely-knit fiber of the regiment were sixty three pairs of brothers, six sets of three brothers, and three sets of fathers and sons. Since recruiting was so localized during the Civil War, it was common to find large numbers of family members and friends in the same company.
For many, particularly those from towns and cities, the initial training and outdoor experiences were invigorating and exciting.
The lack of training in the basics of camp sanitation is illustrated in a letter written by Private Chauncey H. Peck, age twenty one, to his brother. He describes how the men bathed in the Prairie River in the cold water, but notes they “had plenty of soap and a good deal more fun.” He proceeds to relate without concern that their washtub was “the same kettle used that morning for boiling their coffee” and that “after completing their washing they filled the kettle with water to use for dinner.”
The formation of a regiment in a community was an exciting event, and the young men felt proud to be soldiers and the objects of so much public attention. Obviously, the influx of more than 1,000 men to a village of 2,000 changed the dynamics of the area. Swept up in the excitement of the event, each day hundreds of visitors, including public officials, prominent town residents, family members, sweethearts, and news reporters visited the camp.
|Making our way the two mile journey to visit the boys in camp Sigel|
John Clark Taylor, writer for the Ionia Gazette, remembered:
“Every day was show day and visiting day at Camp Sigel…Always several hundred, and occasionally the numbers reaching into the thousands, made their way into the camp to see the new soldiers striving to adapt themselves to the new life, and not a little proud themselves in their role as armed defenders of their country. These were truly, and with good reason, exciting days for everyone.”
|The 21st Michigan and a few of their visitors|
The 21st Michigan blossomed into a true regiment in appearance, as well as in name, with the arrival of uniforms and guns. Their uniforms were of the standard Federal blue wool and consisted of dark blue “blouses” (a heavy wool tunic or shirt worn over the pant waist and not tucked in), and sky blue trousers.
In addition to their uniforms, the men were issued accouterments including a bayonet and scabbard, a leather cartridge box on a leather shoulder sling, leather waist belt, tin canteen, tin cup, leather percussion cap pouch, tarred canvas haversack, and tarred canvas knapsack.
When the day arrived for the regiment to receive its rifles, the men found that they were to receive arms imported from Europe. Due to a shortage of firearms during the first half of the Civil War, the Union Government was forced to purchase a large number of muskets and rifles from European governments. The rifles issued to the 21st Michigan were imported from Austria commonly called the ‘Lorenz.’
The official mustering-in ceremony for the regiment took place on the lawn of the Ionia County Courthouse and spanned a day and a half. On the first day, September 3, 1862, Captain James McMillan of the Second United States Infantry swore in Companies A through G. It was a time-consuming process as each man signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. The following morning, McMillan completed the task, mustering companies H, I, and K.
The following four days were consumed by long hours of drilling and training. Now officially in the service of the United States, the regiment took on a more serious and intense tone. All recognized that there was little time left to learn to fight as a unit or to familiarize themselves with their new weapons and accouterments.
Monday, September 8, was the most festive day the regiment was to experience. The public was invited to the camp to celebrate the regiment’s official mustering and to send it off to war. Special trains brought hundreds of family members, friends, and well-wishers from across western Michigan and included groups such as the Grand Haven Sabbath School. An estimated 2,000 visitors were in attendance, a number equal to the village’s entire population and undoubtedly the largest crowd ever assembled there up to that time.
Beginning at 11:00 a.m., the day’s activities featured speeches, music, marching in review, food, and gifts. The program opened with a ceremonial administering of the oath of allegiance to the United States, followed by a brief patriotic speech.
Next, battle flags were presented to some of the companies. Around noon a generous banquet was held. After three weeks of army rations, the men found this to be nothing short of a feast. Afterwards, Colonel Stevens formed the regiment, fully equipped and armed, into a hollow square formation on the parade ground. A platform had been erected in the center of the parade ground for the speakers. Women, speakers, and officers filled the interior of the square, while countless others stood outside and peered in around the wall of men and rifles.
David B. Smith, a prominent Ionia businessman, delivered the opening speech marked with patriotic rhetoric. Smith admonished the Michigan men to bring glory and honor to their state. He presented the regiment with a beautiful battle flag, a gift from the women of Ionia. The silk and embroidered flag was one of exceptional quality and beauty and cost $225.00, an enormous sum at that time. The Detroit Free Press said the flag was “one of the finest that has yet been gotten up for any Michigan regiment.” Smith concluded his remarks with a call for “three cheer” for Colonel Stevens.
At 3:00 p.m., the keynote speaker, United States Senator Zachariah Chandler delivered a fiery speech, offering encouragement to the men and pleaded with the civilians to give their unqualified support to the war effort.
Following the speeches, numerous gifts were presented to several officers. This was a common practice during the war as communities, co-workers, and friends lavished expensive swords, guns, and other personal items on their champions. State Representative Thomas W. Ferry of Grand Haven made several presentations on behalf of the people of Ottawa County, including an impressive horse, complete with martially decorated bridle and saddle, along with a sword and revolver to Major Hunting, and a “handsome and costly sword, sash, belt, and revolver” to Captain James Cavanaugh of Grand Rapids. After each presentation, the crowd again joined in giving three cheers, this time for the recipients and donors of the gifts.
The Master of Ceremonies, Congressman Francis W. Kellogg, concluded the day’s festivities with a short speech. One member of the regiment enthusiastically wrote home that the speakers, especially Chandler and Kellogg, were “first rate.”
Before returning to camp, the 21st Michigan held a dress parade for its visitors. Although far from well-drilled, they impressed and pleased the bias crowd. A Detroit newspaper reported that they “presented a very fine appearance in their new uniforms, carrying their beautiful new Austrian rifles.”
Just as they were concluding, a heavy rain moved in, and before they could reach their tents, every man was drenched. Despite the weather their spirits were high. Fifty years later, John Clark Taylor recalled their feeling that night:
|Reenactors on Sept. 8, 2012 portraying the 21st Michigan Infantry on the same ground as the original camp from 150 years earlier on Sept. 8, 1862|
“The regiment, over 1,000 strong, made an imposing appearance, not only in being much larger, but much handsomer in its new uniforms, than ever again. We did not dream how few days would pass before we would be such a small, bedraggled, dirty, unkempt, miserable little squad of sick wanderers, nor what we would go through in order to reach such forlorn condition in such a brief time. Our dreams were of terrific fighting, heroic actions, and glory.”
|The 21st Michigan reenactors pose next to the memorial marker set by the original 21st Michigan survivors 50 years after the War, in 1912|
This was one of those "Best event ever" events. It was, for most of us, a once in a lifetime experience in paying homage of a group of whom you do your best to represent.
I believe I can speak for all who participated on this September 8, 2012 day that we were truly honored.
(If you are interested in reading the complete story of the 21st Michigan and their adventures, please check out the book I copied this text from: Into the Tornado of War)