Q&A: Jack Dempsey, Author of ‘Michigan and the Civil War’

Brave Hearts: A new book salutes the valor and sacrifice of Michigan fighters during the War Between the States

Whether they were fighting for a blue or gray state, those who fought in the Civil War not only endured bloody battles, but widespread disease, paltry food supplies, and amputations because of injuries. Michigan soldiers were especially valiant in defending the Union, as recounted in Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice (The History Press, $21.99), by Jack Dempsey. All proceeds support Michigan’s commemoration of the war’s sesquicentennial.

A former assistant attorney general for the State of Michigan, Dempsey, an attorney in Ann Arbor, is the vice president of the Michigan Historical Commission and a color-bearer with the Civil War Preservation Trust. He runs a website devoted to The War Between the States. As Memorial Day (May 30) nears, we talked with Dempsey about Michigan’s “true-blue” soldiers.

How did you get interested in the Civil War; when did your fascination start?

It started when I was about 8 years old. I’m not exactly sure of the reason for it, but in third grade, I was already zealous about learning about the war and that period.

You write that the abolitionist stance was popular among Michiganians well before the Civil War. That anti-slavery sentiment must have been a big reason for the eagerness to serve.

It was a strong factor. I think the overriding factor, though, was the feeling held by practically all Michiganders that the Union was something sacred and that the secession movement threatened to destroy what Michigan folks regarded as the best government on earth, something that should be preserved and not allowed to be broken up.

The book is subtitled “A Great and Bloody Sacrifice.” Proportionately, did Michigan suffer more casualties than other Union states?

It is at the top of the ranking. No other state suffered proportionately more. That’s why the subtitle is definitely accurate. [More than 90,000 Michigan soldiers served and more than 14,500 died.]

Do you feel that the attention accorded to George Custer, the “boy general” from Monroe, is due to the later notoriety he attained at Little Big Horn?

Absolutely. Without that, he would not have achieved the mythic status of being the one name that people remember from this period.

You devote a chapter to Michigan generals, such as Israel Richardson, Orlando Willcox, and Henry Hunt. Is that because most have been relegated to historical footnotes?

Precisely. Henry Hunt isn’t forgotten, but his Detroit and Michigan connection is typically overlooked in practically every historical account I’ve seen. Richardson was killed at the Battle of Antietam, and Willcox’s memoir was just published in the last decade under the title Forgotten Valor. I think that says it all.

You mention that Hazen Pingree, who would go on to serve as Detroit’s reformer mayor, was captured as a POW. The conditions must have been rough; food was scarce, and disease was rampant.

That’s true, and many Michigan soldiers were imprisoned at the most famous camp, Andersonville, in Georgia. In fact, there’s a fantastic Michigan monument at Andersonville. But the conditions there were abysmal. [Of the approximately 45,000 prisoners at Andersonville, almost 13,000 died of starvation and disease.]

Many African-Americans from Michigan wanted to serve, but couldn’t initially because they weren’t allowed to until the Second Militia Act was revised.

Initially, African-Americans were allowed to serve only in support capacities, and finally the policy was changed so they could serve in a combat capacity. There’s more knowledge of the 102nd regiment [of the United States Colored Troops] because it was the only [African-American] one from Michigan, but I think the whole story isn’t well known.

You remind readers, too, that Native Americans from Michigan fought valiantly, but their history isn’t often mentioned.

Right, and what’s really amazing is that, in a sense, they weren’t even fighting for their own country.

You make the point that many women were like precursors to Rosie the Riveter, because they had to take the reins of the farms that their husbands had run.

There’s been a lot of focus on what happened on the front, but there’s been a lack of understanding about what happened on the homefront and the need for women to step up and take care of business, whether that be farm, a store, or whatever.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Detroit was unveiled in 1872 as a tribute to those from Michigan who served in the Civil War, but it’s notable that it was financed through contributions from state residents.

Yes, because why would the people of Michigan want to do something like that unless there really was something to talk about and be proud of? And the fact that you had that kind of popular support after the war was over is testimony to the role that the state and its people played in what I think is the central event in American history.

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