By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan is arming for civil war – and not between Tea Party conservatives and pro-union liberals.
Instead, the state’s prepping for a 5-year-long commemoration of Michigan’s role in the Civil War.
“In many respects, the issues that confronted us 150 years ago still confront us — chief among them, what type of society are we, a society of equal opportunity or a society of class structure?” said Jack Dempsey of Plymouth, vice president of the Michigan Historical Commission.
It was 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln narrowly won the presidency in a four-way race. He carried Michigan and 17 other states but took less than 40 percent of the popular vote.
Lincoln didn’t campaign in Michigan in 1860 but had visited the state four years earlier to campaign for the nation’s first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, according to historian William Anderson, a former president of West Shore Community College and ex-director of the state Department of History, Arts and Libraries.
On that visit, Lincoln told an audience in Kalamazoo, “The question of slavery, at the present day, should be not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question. This is the question: Shall the Government of the United States prohibit slavery in the United States.”
Fremont carried Michigan but Democrat James Buchanan won the election.
Lincoln’s own victory in 1860 triggered the secession of 11 southern states and the Civil War.
Looking back at the state’s part in the bloody conflict, Dempsey said, “It was a difficult time, a tragic time.
“You see 90,000 soldiers march off to war, a government apparatus that is adamant we are going to save the Union, and three quarters of a million Michiganders who, by and large, kept electing leaders who did not want two American nations to exist on this continent,” Dempsey said.
To make dusty history relevant, the commission’s Civil War Sesquicentennial plan includes a website for events around the state, classroom activities, programs at the Michigan Historical Center and development of a Civil War Heritage Trail.
How does the state intend to get children interested?
“By telling a great story and showing a great story,” not by burying them with dates, facts and figures, Dempsey said.
Telling great stories can range from historical reenactments to new technologies. One is a mobile phone application for self-guided learning opportunities – “maybe a battlefield, maybe a museum, maybe a park” – he said. “You can dive deeply into something.”
Some great stories involve little-remembered but intriguing Michigan personalities.
One was Sarah Thompson, who enlisted in a Detroit infantry unit under the name “Frank Thompson.” Disguised as a man, she participated in several battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg and First Battle of Bull Run. She also served as a nurse and spy and infiltrated enemy lines 11 times.
Another was Elon Farnsworth of Green Oak Township, who was an Army general for only five days before being ordered on a “suicide charge” against southern troops at Gettysburg.
“His career was much abbreviated,” Dempsey said, noting that Michigan wants a monument erected in Farnsworth’s memory on the Gettysburg battlefield.
There also was West Point graduate Orlando Willcox of Detroit, who commanded the 1st Michigan Infantry, the first regiment from what was then the West to arrive in Washington.
Willcox was taken prisoner at the First Battle of Bull Run. Released more than a year later, he went on to fight at Antietem, Fredericksburg and other battles.
Other aspects of Michigan’s role in the war included its key stopping-points on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, farms that helped feed Union troops and the Upper Peninsula’s expanding iron mining industry that bolstered the North’s industrial might.
The sesquicentennial celebration also provides opportunities for further research.
For example, a new book by Martin Bertera of Wyandotte and Kim Crawford of Clarkston dives into soldiers’ letters, diaries and other documents to retell the story of a Michigan unit that fought at Gettsyburg.
“We hope the picture that will emerge from these pages is not of marble statue heroes or nameless men in sepia portraits, but one of real people who walked the streets of your hometown 150 years ago, or farmed the fields where your neighborhood now stands – men who volunteered, got sick, suffered, died, did heroic things, and who were afraid and lonely,” Bertera and Crawford wrote in “The 4th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War” (Michigan State University Press, $44.95).