by Caleb Klingler
The American Civil War proved to be the most violent and catastrophic events in American History. Historians are only beginning to understand fully the horror of the Civil War battlefields. Through personal experiences, such as Benjamin Safford of Company E 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, historians can peek into a small window of individual moments of the war. These stories are invaluable resources to understanding the soldier who faced unknown trials. Upon the Confederacy’s secession from the Union, the established military hierarchy was undermined by veteran soldiers and officers choosing sides, either going north or south. This split created two new armies untested by war, which were led by men from similar doctrine and training and only naturally illustrated problems encountered in the first year of war. By the spring of 1862, the style of warfare witnessed by veterans had not improved, and after the disastrous Peninsular Campaign it became abundantly clear that more troops were needed to fight the war. The men of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment are an example of Lincoln’s call for more troops in 1862, and their introduction into combat at South Mountain and Antietam highlights the neglect of proper training new recruits received. Within the 17th Michigan, Company E formed in a unique manner compared to other companies recruited during the war. The men were comprised of college students from the local college at Michigan State Normal School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which at least a third of the men were students, and all the officers and sergeants.
The American Civil War began with the first solemn shots fired upon Fort Sumter. This gave rise to the Confederacy’s declaration for independence and President Lincoln’s response of 75,000 volunteers to reform the Union army. In Michigan the order was filled vigorously, and many would-be recruits had to be turned away due to the massive amounts of volunteers. The goal in 1861 was to see a fast end to the war, however this hope quickly faded as the First Battle of Bull Run shattered any notions of a swift conclusion to the war.
The earliest soldiers to respond to Lincoln’s call were ninety day militia and untrained or green volunteers. The early battles of 1861 thrust these inexperienced soldiers into combat where they witnessed the slaughter and confusion of war, and these raw soldiers cannot be blamed for their individual responses. During the Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war, casualties on both sides amounted to 4,300 killed, wounded, and missing. No soldier that fought at Bull Run ever witnessed carnage to such a scale in American memory. Even veteran soldiers from the Mexican-American War had not fought a battle that encompassed such magnitude. The Union army deployed over 35,000 troops, whereas as the South’s 33,000 combined to put 68,000 men into a small and restricted area. What followed after Bull Run were battles that prevented any swift conclusion to the conflict, and established a lull in the fighting as the Union recovered from countless failures.
In May 1862, the 17th Michigan Infantry Regiment formed. As the summer term ended for the Michigan State Normal College, and students were sent home for the summer, many students joined local regiments. However, a small number of the students decided to form a unit from the college as their local units were already full. They were unable to fill the company exclusively from the college, and local men joined to swell the ranks. Students, James Morgan (Muskegon) and Gabriel Campbell (Ypsilanti) recruited the surrounding communities to fill the company. James Morgan searched throughout parts of western Jackson County; where as Gabriel Campbell searched Washtenaw County. His recruitment through Washtenaw County brought recruits from every corner; volunteers from Chelsea, Manchester, and Sylvan in the western reaches; the middle villages of Dexter, Ann Arbor, and Saline; and the eastern half came from Ypsilanti, Augustus, and Superior townships. James Morgans’ recruitment of Jackson County proved to be more localized; he kept his search along towns from the eastern region of the county around the towns of Napoleon and Brooklyn.
The company was combined mixture of local populace and students, and as the students constituted at least one-third of the unit, the nickname “Normal Company” was applied in honor of the school. The students filled most of the roles of officers and noncommissioned officers, such as sergeants and corporals. The other two-thirds of the company were filled by local people. The company mustered into service, August 19, 1862 with ninety-five men at Detroit, Michigan and Captain Gabriel Campbell commanding, Thomas Mathews First Lieutenant, and James Morgan as Second Lieutenant. The noncommissioned officers were Delos Phillips, first sergeant (Ypsilanti), Benjamin Safford (Plymouth), George Hough (St. Clair), John Maltman (Ypsilanti), and John McDougall (Superior) as sergeants. William Weir (Manchester), Salmon Haight (Ypsilanti), G. Myron Hawley (Napoleon), David Howard (Pontiac), Henry Clark (Elyria, Ohio), George Harmon (Stony Creek), Philo Lonsbury (Allegan) and Fred Webb (Pittsfield) were the company’s corporals.
By August 27, 1862, the company shipped to Washington D.C. to guard the Navy Yard Bridge. The company had barely formed a week before their departure, and this helps to explain their lack of preparation. One Normal volunteer, Irwin Shepard, wrote in a letter home how life as a new soldier was burdened with “hard marches with heavy packs that broke down many a new soldier that was unaccustomed to the life.” The men of the 17th Michigan were only one example of new volunteers, as many new recruits answered Lincolns’ call, these newly formed units lacked any combat experience or possession of soldierly qualities. The recruitment process of 1862 rushed many of these fresh volunteers straight from the mustering process right into the frontlines. The Union found it easier to form completely new regiments rather than replacing veterans and infusing them with fresh troops in order for them to learn combat from veteran soldiers. The campaigns of 1862 left many veteran units tired and their ranks depleted of manpower, new regiments were required to replenish the army.
Upon the company’s arrival to Washington, they arrived in time to witnessed the aftermath of the Second Bull Run, and Irwin Shepard wrote on August 30, “It is with the strangest feelings I ever experienced that I take my pencil to tell of the condition tonight…We are in Virginia (and within ten miles of a raging battle, and as I write the reports of cannon are plainly heard and with a rapidity twice faster than I can count).”
The men of the 17th Michigan found themselves marching towards similar sounds of battle only two weeks removed from the Second Bull Run, as they faced South Mountain. Benjamin Safford, wrote after the war about his experiences leading up to South Mountain, “Guarded the Navy Yard Bridge for four days or five days and then ordered to Frederick City Maryland…Their [sic] we saw for the first time a man killed by a shell - half of his head the back part taken clean off leaving the face.”
On September 14, 1862, the men of Company E got their first taste of combat at South Mountain, Maryland. Benjamin Safford remembers how excited they were for the romance of combat, however reality quickly set in and the aura of the romance disappeared after the first shots were fired. Safford continued, “The 17th Regiment going into battle with over a thousand strong and coming out with less than half that number”. The men of Company E suffered, four killed in combat and another that died of his wounds. With five killed during combat the numbers do not seem very high, but when compared to Civil War statistics the company lost five percent of its effective fighting strength. The company suffered another five wounded and another to desertion. Counting killed, wounded, and missing in action, the company lost twelve percent of its strength, and could only field eighty-four men for the next battle; which would come three short days away at Antietam.
Many of the Union forces present at South Mountain were just as untried as the men of 17th Michigan. The regiment, assigned to the 9th Corps, fought alongside two other green regiments, the 9th New Hampshire and the 35th Massachusetts. During the battle, the 17th Michigan as a complete regiment suffered around eleven percent casualties; the men of Company E took relatively the same number of causalities at twelve percent. The 35th Massachusetts took nearly twenty-one percent comparatively. Much can be deduced about the high rates of casualties. Those units that lacked any serious amount of training took higher than normal rates of casualties. The 35th Massachusetts and the 9th New Hampshire, in their lack of discipline fired a volley of rifle fire into their own comrades, and after the enemy fired a volley into the 35th Massachusetts, many dropped their rifles and ran, and not all the regiments managed to fare as the 35th. The 17th Michigan captured three hundred prisoners while suffering eleven percent casualties.
The Battle of Antietam, demonstrated the full might of what inexperienced armies could suffer; as this was the site of the single day’s bloodiest battle in the war. The Union lost 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded, and 753 missing, amassing a total of 12,410 casualties. Their personal images of war came crashing down after their first taste of combat, as they witnessed its devastating effect on their comrades. The company lost twelve percent of its strength at South Mountain and now had to take part in one of bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Although, the Battle of Antietam was considerably larger than South Mountain, the 17th surprisingly suffered similar numbers of casualties. The company lost four killed, suffered another three wounded and another two deserted for eleven percent casualties.
In their first week of combat, the company lost twenty men of its original ninety-five, an attrition rate of twenty-one percent. As high as the casualty rates were, they cannot be entirely accurate. The official Michigan state records mention more men that were discharged shortly after the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. The exact reasons for their release from service are listed simply as disability or death from various other illnesses. Because the battles were fought so close together, accurate accounts of exactly what became of these soldiers are tricky to estimate. Those that are directly mentioned in the state records do not allow for a definitive explanation of their outcome during battles. An example of this type of discharge, Monroe E. Hillman, discharged for disability at Washington D.C., December 25, 1862. The reason for his discharge is unknown and vague. After three short days, the 17th Michigan regiment was a shadow of its former self. This builds to the testament of losses suffered during the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, “Going in on the 14th at South Mountain with 1000 strong and losing one half on the following Wednesday, three days afterwards at Antietam and losing half we had a second time…Things were blue and homesick then I assure you.” The regiment did not suffer as grievously as Benjamin Safford implies, however for a unit that just formed, the previous three days of fighting was hell and these men had fought in some of the most violent clashes of the war.
The men of Company E, as with the rest of the 17th Michigan suffered severely in their first week of fighting. It is hard to imagine the psychological trauma these losses had on these men. But by looking at their battlefield experiences, a pattern of neglectful training illustrates why high casualty figures followed from one year of the war to the next. There are numerous reasons why casualties were so high during the war, however, looking at why these men as untrained help to shed light on one aspect to understand casualties of the war. The company had barely been in service for a month before being fired upon. The privates lacked basic knowledge of soldiers and the officers were of similar experience. When the Civil War thrust large numbers of inexperienced soldiers together, then it becomes clear why casualties were high during the war. That is not to say that veteran regiments did not suffer during the war, but the habitual cycle of throwing untrained recruits in to combat signifies the unnecessarily high casualty rates they suffered in their first few battles.
Caleb Klinger recently graduated from Eastern Michigan University with an M.A. in History.