Friday, February 6, 2015

Michigan exhibit: They fought for liberty, opportunity -- and brought back an oddity

Children can have a hand at building a bridge (Michigan Historical Center)

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address provides the framework for an exhibit that details Michigan’s contribution during the second half of the Civil War and what many of the veterans did upon returning home.

Themes from the address are used throughout “Conceived in Liberty” at the Michigan Historical Center in downtown Lansing.

“It set the tone for both the end of the war, this time when Native Americans and blacks are allowed to fight in the war, and this period of Reconstruction of the South after the war,” center director Sandra Clark told the Picket this week. “It asks what does liberty mean and what does it mean in achieving it for everyone?”

One area focuses on Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. The company was comprised of Native Americans who served with valor in the Virginia campaigns. (The Picket will be doing a separate story on Company K soon and will include pertinent photos then.)

While “Conceived in Liberty” has a good bit of information on the struggle for civil rights, it includes a wide range of items about the entire Michigan experience, and includes a couple of oddities. Clark provided an overview of a few of the highlights of the exhibit, which continues through Sept. 27.

(Photos courtesy of Michigan Historical Center)

Michigan made a significant contribution to Union cavalry. Its most famous horseman? George Armstrong Custer. James H. Kidd of the 6th Cavalry served with Custer during part of the conflict, and Kidd’s saddle is one of the exhibit’s focal points. “Little girls walk in and see saddle and think about horses and they are interested,” said Clark. But cavalry duty wasn’t a piece of cake. “They rode hard and slept on the cold ground.”

Capt. McCarter drew sketches for cannon mounts

They saw no glory in battle but make no mistake: The First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics made a vital contribution to the war effort in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“It was fascinating how quickly they could move, build a sawmill and build pontoon boats, whatever,” said Clark, referencing a book about the unit, “My Brave Mechanics.”

The engineers constructed the Elk River bridge in south-central Tennessee and built block houses and other structures to keep the army and supplies moving.

Exhibit artifacts include a diary, tools, instruments and sketches. “We have some pretty amazing photographs of some of their work at the time.”

The unit was pretty good at destroying stuff, too. They crippled Confederate infrastructure during Sherman’s March to the Sea and Georgia.

Talk about an attention-getter. “Conceived in Liberty” includes a copy of a newspaper printed on wallpaper at the end of the siege on Vicksburg, Ms., which ended in a significant loss for the Confederacy.

“When they see wallpaper on the back, it stops them and makes them curious about this,” said Clark, who wants people to see how tough the siege was on Southern civilians. “The town was without any kind of supplies by the time it fell.”

It’s not known whether the editor of the Daily Citizen peeled wallpaper from homes. More likely there were stocks somewhere in town. On July 2, the newspaper made a snide remark about Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s plans to have dinner in Vicksburg on July 4. Grant first had to catch the rabbit, an article said.

Once the city fell, mischievous Union soldiers reprinted that final edition with an updated article to show that Grant, in fact, had caught the rabbit. This copy was brought back by a Michigan soldier, said Clark.

The exhibit includes a coat worn by a sailor who served on a Union gunboat during the campaign against Vicksburg, a Rebel strong point on the Mississippi River.

Luther Baker helped in the successful hunt for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and received a handsome reward for his contribution. After the war, the native New Yorker moved to Michigan and eventually lived in Lansing.

The exhibit includes a case Baker carried during the war and a cabinet card showing him with his old war horse, Buckskin. The text of a card details the exploits of the horse, from his point of view.

After Buckskin died, his remains were displayed. His whereabouts are unknown today, says the Detroit Free Press.

African-American men could not become Federal soldiers until after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

The 102nd U.S. Colored Troops was organized first as the 1st Michigan Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The unit was sent to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, where it participated in smaller skirmishes and picket and guard duty.

Clark told radio station WKAR that a Detroit newspaper urged black men to join the Michigan unit rather the famous 54th Massachusetts. The exhibit provides examples of men who joined both units.

The exhibit includes a  tobacco pouch belonging to abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth.

The men of the First Michigan Engineers were among those who came home and got into the furniture-making business.

“They upped their game,” said Clark. “Grand Rapids becomes the furniture capital of the world.” 

The exhibit includes this bed frame made by a soldier.

(Dr Pepper Snapple Group)

The story of Vernors, a Michigan soft-drink staple, adds a little extra fizz to “Conceived in Liberty.”

James Vernor, who served in the 4th Michigan Cavalry, was a Detroit pharmacist who experimented with flavored waters.

According to legend, Vernor stored a secret mixture containing ginger in an oak keg before he shipped off to serve as a hospital steward. Upon his return, he found the ginger concoction tasted pretty darned good. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to what you have to write about Co. K.