Earlier this summer, on the eve of the Virginia Presidential Primary, I spent some time searching the papers of Austin Blair, Michigan’s Civil War governor, housed in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. I came upon a letter which hinted at the political divisions which plagued the Union war effort in 1864 on the eve of the Presidential election. The letter was posted on this site on July 17.
I was in Michigan again last week and, again, found time to spend a few hours looking through the Blair papers. My goal was to help two friends with projects of their own, but as I scanned the folders several letters caught my eye. I had hoped to post these letters earlier this week on the eve of the Presidential election. Obviously I missed the opportunity to do so.
As in July, I offer these letters without any political commentary. It is worth noting, however, that we survived the concerns and divisions expressed of 153 years ago, and that knowledge should give us hope we will survive the current concerns and divisions.
The first two letters speak to the political divide within the officer corps of the 16th Michigan Infantry. Col. Thomas Stockton raised the regiment in 1861, but resigned his commission in May 1863, after failing to garner a promotion to brigadier.
The first letter, dated May 29, 1862, is from Michigan Senator Jacob Howard, in Washington, D.C to Governor Blair. Michigan’s two senators, Jacob Howard and Zachariah Chandler, were both Republicans, as was Governor Blair.
Capt. [James] DeFoe, of Plymouth, Wayne Co., left [Col. Thomas] Stockton’s Regt in disgust at the pro-slaveryism of Stockton & some other slavery pimps of the regt. Stockton & his Major & other officers are perpetually denouncing the Republican Party & filling other men from our state with disgust. Pardon me for suggesting that if you can in any way give DeFoe a place in some other Regt I think you had better do so. He is a good soldier & a Republican.”
The second letter, dated June 15, 1863, is from Lt. Col. Norvel Welch to Senator Howard, and was published, in part, in Kim Crawford’s The 16th Michigan Infantry, published by Morningside Press in 2002. Welch was in command of the regiment, which was then at Manassas Junction.
I have learned with some pain that you oppose my promotion to the Colonelcy of my Regt; on account of what you are informed are my political opinions.
I do not write you for any favor, or for your esteem, though I should be glad of it, but to correct an opinion you have been helped to by others, as to my views in regard to this war. That so distinguished a man as you & one whose social position is so high, should think me a “Copperhead,” is what wounds the integrity of my spirit, engaged in this contest. I know of no viler name to attach to a soldier or a loyal man – Copperhead is synonymous with treason, & I think I have proven my fealty to the Gov’t in the numerous times I have offered my life for its preservation. If I had not supported President Lincoln & intended to, in all his measures for the suppression of the rebellion I should not have entered the service, or resigned. Now, I support President Lincoln in every measure – right or wrong – I uphold him in his Proclamation & in the enlistment of Negroes, & I would gladly command a colored regiment today.
For a young man, my politics were well known, when I entered the service. I was a war democrat. There has been no measure, since the war commenced, for its suppression, that I have not bent every energy to carry out, nor have I in deed or word even acted otherwise, & I challenge proof, either verbal or written to the contrary, and I go this far – if it is necessary to accomplish the ends of this war, I am willing to see & help to aid, the utter extinction of the Southern race – if it cannot be done otherwise, let every man, woman & child be killed, black or white. Arm every Negro with some kind of weapon, & fight this war as it will yet have to be fought.
As for McClellan, he was my general – while he was with us, I never spoke against him – when he left us I was neither vehement for nor against him. He never spoke to men, nor I to him. He is not, nor never has been, my ideal of a general, though some things about him I like, but I never have been loud-mouthed in his praise.
Gen. Burnside was also my general – I have never said aught against him, but much for him, quietly, for I have great charity for him & believe him to be a good man. Gen. Hooker is my general now – to none have I been so much attached as to him. I know him personally, & he has treated me with great kindness on many occasions. He offered me he would gladly have signed my recommendation to Gov. Blair, had he been here when I was at his Head Quarters, but he was in Washington. Gen’l Hooker has our confidence – the soldiers love him, & we are willing to abide the result under his guidance – only give him a fair trial – other generals have had the same, & under him we have never been whipped.
As for my personal [courage] I have nothing to say. I have fought under the generals I have named, & my Regt was never in but one battle, that I did not lead it – Bull Run #2 when I was in Michigan. This is a matter that does not trouble me, as my men know me, & to them I am willing to trust the verdict.
Personal motives can be the only reasons that ever called it in question – indeed personal motives – enmity – are the only reasons why my character has been assailed or political opinions impugned. I have taken no part in politics nor do I intend to, but as far as my feeble efforts can go by active service in the field, to aid my gov’t – sustain the President & carry out everything calculated to crush the rebellion, I shall do.
Excuse me Mr. Howard, with troubling you with this note, but whether I am promoted or not, I do not wish you, or any other citizen of Michigan to think that as good a soldier as I am from that State, could ever be a Copperhead – an imputation as unkind as it is unjust.
Mr. Crosby will be kind enough to hand this to you.
[Howard forwarded the letter to Blair on June 30. In doing so he mistakenly referred to Lt. Col. Welch as a major.]
I do not see what further the major could say & be a ‘Democrat.
I think it due to him that the Governor should see this.”
The last of the three letters is unrelated to the previous two. This letter was written on June 15, 1863 (the same day as the letter written by Lt. Col. Welch) by Charles E. Shanahan, a farmer from Cassopolis, Michigan. Dearbornville, modern-day Dearborn, Michigan, had been the site of a United States Arsenal since the 1830s. Dearborn, just outside of Detroit, is in the southeast corner of the state, while Cassopolis is in the southwest corner.
“His Excellency Gov. Blair,
I see by the Chicago Tribune of the 13th inst. that the First Michigan Sharpshooters have orders to be ready to march at a moment’s notice. Now Sir if that Regt is taken away from Dearbornville I think it is very important, that another Regt be stationed in their place to guard the Arsenal. I understand that some of the so called Democrats of this vicinity have said that the sharpshooters were placed at Dearborn for the purpose of preventing the Democrats from arming themselves at the Arsenal, so I take it for granted that they contemplated doing that very thing; there is nothing too mean for them to do, and through the Knights of the Golden Circle I suppose they could soon lay their plans to take the Arsenal if it were not guarded, and I think it would not be safe to leave it without a [guard] a single hour.
The Copperheads are to have a mass meeting at this place on Saturday the 20th inst., and I have no doubt, but that their object is to concoct mischief. Our Copperheads here are of the [Clement Vallandigham] stripe, they will bear watching. Our Northern Traitors are now the worst foes we have to contend with, and I think it is important that they may be dealt with in a more severe manner. I understand that Michigan is now in the department of Col. or Gen’l Wilcox, is he a man that will promptly arrest and punish Traitors? We have some awful mean traitors in this vicinity. They are as much meaner than the Southern Rebels as a Copperhead is meaner than a Rattle Snake.”
More information on the Dearborn Arsenal may be found at https://thedhm.com/2013/07/04/arsenal-at-war/
With thanks to my wife, Teresa, for locating information on Charles Shanahan