The American Civil War is the single greatest event in our Nation’s history — “grand and terrible at the same time, tragic in every moment and in every overtone, eternally bewildering and yet lit with an unmistakable significance for the world of today.” – Bruce Catton of Frankfort, Michigan
Terrible and tragic? Michigan suffered the loss of some 14,700 soldiers and sailors out of 90,000 who went off to fight. One out of every 7 uniformed personnel never came home alive. The cost was staggering, approximately 2 percent of the State’s population (749,113 in the 1860 census). One of out every 51 Michigan lives was lost.
By comparison, Michigan lost 15,415 men and women in uniform during World War II. This, too, was an awful cost: approximately .3 percent of the State’s population (5,256,106 in the 1940 census). One of out every 339 Michigan lives was lost.
That’s a differential of nearly seven times the impact between the two conflicts. Each life, of course, was precious and irreplaceable no matter percentages and ratios. So how summarize Michigan’s role in the Civil War? According to the record published by the State’s military department, as nothing less than “a great and bloody sacrifice.”
Historic sites associated with the Civil War are found in every corner of our Great Lake State. A statue near the town hall in Williamston. A veterans building on the main street in Marshall. A world-class soldiers and sailors monument in Detroit’s central square. A boyhood home in Benzonia of the greatest Civil War historian. Four monuments on the Capitol grounds in Lansing. A fort on the bank of the Detroit River. The list goes on and on. All contribute to the story of how Michigan helped preserve the Union and forever end the scourge of human slavery in America.
The legacy of the Civil War is that it brought forth a new birth of freedom for this great Nation of ours. Its unmistakable significance for the Michigan of today is this: even during dark days of conflict, despite all odds, soldiers continued to enlist, people on the homefront continued to labor, and leaders continued to boldly proclaim faith in an ultimately bright future.
Michigan’s sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War during these next four years can help us comprehend how we’ve arrived at today and inspire us with hope and confidence for the future. It is our own greatest story.