Remembering Michigan at Gettysburg

Today marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most defining battles in American history and one of the most horrendous in terms of human sacrifice. Had the outcome of this 3-day battle differed, America as we know it today may not have endured.

The Battle of Gettysburg, the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place between July 1–3, 1863, in and around  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s viewed by most as the war’s turning point toward Union victory.  Union Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee’s invasion of the North. The Confederacy, which had been militarily victorious until Gettysburg, never fully recovered.

 Click here to purchase guide Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War

“Michigan sent 14 regiments and batteries to Gettysburg and 171 Michigan men are buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Eleven of them come from Monroe County,” states Civil War historian David Ingall in Toledo Blade’s Area Soldiers served Union well at Gettysburg.  (Dave is the co-author of Hometown History Tours guide: Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War).

Edward Potter statue Sighting the Enemy in Monroe, MI depicts General Custer at Battle of Gettysburg
Edward Potter statue Sighting the Enemy in Monroe, MI depicts General Custer at Battle of Gettysburg

He believes one of Michigan’s most significant contributors to the battle was George Armstrong Custer, the 23-year-old soldier who had finished last in his class at West Point and was promoted to brigadier general just two days before the fight at Gettysburg began. He is still one of the youngest generals in American history.

“When he appeared on the scene, they thought he was this young popinjay,” Steve Alexander, a Custer re-enactor and historian, said. “His uniform was described as a circus rider gone mad … After Gettysburg, his men swore by him.”

At Gettysburg, he led the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in battle against Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, nicknamed the “Invincibles.”

Dave believes Stuart’s cavalry was trying to attack the Union line from the back while Pickett’s Charge assaulted it from the front. It was crucial that General Custer hold off General Stuart so the rest of the engaged Union forces could focus on repelling the Confederate charge.

And he did. “Custer led two classic cavalry charges where they went saber to saber in a complete cavalry melee,“ Mr. Ingall said. “[He] defeats Stuart for the first time ever.”

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“He was very much responsible for his service during the Civil War for saving the Union,” Mr. Alexander said. The importance of his victory became clear through public reaction to Custer after the War.

“He was tantamount to any rock star or celebrity during his life,” Mr. Alexander said.

Click here to read Toledo Blade article Area Soldiers served Union well at Gettysburg in its entirety 

Russell A. Alger

Russell A. Alger, Colonel of the 5th Michigan Cavalry
Russell A. Alger, Colonel of the 5th Michigan Cavalry

Wounded four times during the Civil War, Russell A. Alger participated in over 60 battles and skirmishes including: Booneville, Gettysburg, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Alger was wounded at the Battle of Booneville on July 11, 1862. He was captured by the enemy but managed to escape the same day. At the war’s end, he was brevetted to the rank of brigadier general followed by major general. In 1889, General Alger was elected commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. In this role, he helped improve pensions for Civil War veterans. (From Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War)

Alger’s 5th Michigan and the Spencer Repeating Rifle

Many authors suggest it was the Spencer repeating rifle that helped derail the Confederate attack on the morning of July 1 at Gettysburg.

“Only two units of the Army of the Potomac were armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles at Gettysburg,” wrote Tom Holbrook in the 2011 blog post Weapons of Gettysburg – The Spencer Repeating Rifle (From the Fields of Gettysburg, the official Blog of Gettysburg National Park).

“In February 1863, Governor Austin Blair of Michigan purchased 680 Spencer Repeating Rifles (not carbines) with state funds which were then issued to Colonel Russell Alger’s 5th Michigan Cavalry, which during the battle was in Brigadier General George A. Custer’s brigade.  Blair and Alger were close friends which accounts for why the 5th was the lucky recipient of these weapons.  Alger had nearly 80 of the rifles his regiment received given to a ‘captain friend’ in the sister 6th Regiment Michigan Cavalry, who used them to arm two of their companies.  Ordnance records of the 5th and 6th Regiments Michigan Cavalry, submitted a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, indicate these two regiments carried a total of 572 Spencer Repeating Rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to the field.  The men of these regiments made good use of their Spencers in the July 3 cavalry battle east of Gettysburg, but this was the only place on the Gettysburg battlefield that the Spencer saw action except for those rare cases of soldiers who had privately purchased the weapon.”

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24th Michigan / Iron Brigade

The 24th Michigan, part of the famed Iron Brigade, opened the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, and was almost destroyed while holding off Confederate advances until Union forces could get into position. They suffered the highest casualty rate (80%) of any regiment in battle. Later, this regiments was called upon to escort the funeral procession of slain President Abraham Lincoln. US 12, extending west from Woodward Avenue in Detroit (Marker at Campus Martius) across to Benton Harbor is named Iron Brigade Memorial Highway. (From Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War)

Attendees of the Detroit Civil War Remembrance Tour in front of historic marker  to 24th Michigan / Iron Brigade. (Marker at edge of Detroit's Campus Martius, Michigan and Woodward.
Attendees of Hometown History Tours Detroit Civil War Remembrance Tour in front of historic marker to 24th Michigan / Iron Brigade. (Marker at edge of Detroit’s Campus Martius, Michigan Avenue and Woodward)

2 thoughts on “Remembering Michigan at Gettysburg

  1. Hi Karen: Thanks for the info on Michigan in the Civil War. Michigan men were also heavily involved in the Spanish-American War. Anyway several years ago I contributed an article that was published in the Ann Arbor Observer called ”Scholar Sailors of the Spanish-American War” It concerned a group of UM students, professors and alumni who joined Michigan’s Naval Militia and fought a battle off of the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico aboard the USS Yosemite. Most of the alumni were prominent members of the Detroit Club and their war trophies might be at the Yosemite Room in the Naval Reserve Armory in Detroit (corner of Hastings & Jefferson) contains many photographs, trophies and other mementos of the ship and its crew. Wonder if it is still there ? If so might make a great tour stop.

    Miguel Hernandez

    1. Thank you Miguel. Do you still have the article? If so, may we reprint it as a blog post with you as guest blogger? Hastings and Jefferson is a freeway, but it would be interesting to hunt down the artifacts.

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