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MICHIGAN AND THE CIVIL WAR: 150th anniversary of the Michigan First

(courtesy photo)

By Scott Pohl, WKAR News



This year, America is marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

As sesquicentennial events are noted, one of the most talked about involves the Michigan First Regiment.

The Michigan First mustered at Campus Martius in Detroit on this date in 1861, called by Abraham Lincoln to protect the nation's capital.

WKAR's Scott Pohl talked with Roger Rosentreter about the Michigan First. He's the former editor of Michigan History magazine and an adjunct professor at Michigan State University.

Rosentreter says this is the anniversary of the day the regiment received its flags, made by the women of Detroit.


ROGER ROSENTRETER: "Once they receive them, then they will make their journey to Washington. Again, one of the more famous photographs taken in Michigan during the Civil War."

SCOTT POHL: "Do you know if any of those flags remain?"

ROSENTRETER: "The state museum downtown has a number of flags. The First Michigan flags do still exist, to the best of my knowledge. The flags would get deteriorated over a period of time, and then replaced. These are the flags that used to hang in the state capital rotunda. Now, they are, as most people know, replicas in the rotunda. Many of these flags do still exist."

POHL: "Once they have mustered at Campus Martius, what happens next? How do they get to Washington?"

ROSENTRETER: "They will take a boat from Detroit to Cleveland. Then, they will board rail and take the train to Washington, and all along the way, they will be well received by other northerners excited about what's taking place. The stories from some of these Michiganians who have made their way to Washington talk about being fed by everybody, and there's great enthusiasm as they make their way to Washington."

POHL: "Why Washington, as opposed to being sent to the front lines wherever they happened to be by that time? South Carolina somewhere, perhaps?"

ROSENTRETER: "Well, that's a little too early in the game. Washington, certainly, because it's the fairly undefended capital, and as you know, right between two slave states of Maryland and Virginia. Virginia is now leaving the union, Maryland is thinking about it. Washington was very vulnerable, and President Lincoln was quite concerned that there were not enough federal troops in Washington to protect the capital. So, logically, that was where the early troops would be sent."

POHL: "Tell me more about the day they arrived in Washington, then, and the famous response of the president upon their arrival."

ROSENTRETER: "Well, as I tell anyone, it's legend. We don't really know that this took place, but I'd like to envision the First Michigan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, a very apprehensive president Lincoln recognizing that this regiment has arrived, along with some others, we weren't the only northern regiment, but we were certainly the first western troops coming into Washington, allegedly standing on the second floor of the White House, you can see him pulling the drapes, seeing the Michiganians, "thank God for Michigan." I don't know that it took place. Nobody knows, but it's a great legend."

POHL: "There is some debate about that right now, whether he actually uttered those words or not."

ROSENTRETER: "Legend's okay. I'll go with it. There is some debate, yes, but it's okay."

POHL: "So the First Michigan then does what? They defend the capital, and beyond, what happens then?"

ROSENTRETER: "Well, again, because of the enthusiasm and the naivete', these troops are only enlisted for 90 days, and the presumption is the war will end that quickly. They will be part of the first union army that will advance to, first, Manassas, and fight the battle of Bull Run in July of 1861, and that is a union defeat as you know, and they will come back to Washington, then they will return to Michigan, where they will be re-enlisted for three years, and then they will go back to the front, and they will serve throughout the entire war."

POHL: "What can you tell me about the totality of Michigan's involvement in the Civil War?"

ROSENTRETER: "Well, I can tell you we sent 90,000 men, and a few women, into the union army during the course of the war. That was 50% of the military age male population. We fought at all major battles and subsequent little battles as well, but we have a presence throughout the war. I don't want to be too much of a cheerleader and say we won the war, no, but we have a major presence, yes."

POHL: "And what about Michigan casualties?"

ROSENTRETER: "Michigan will lose 15,000 men during the Civil War. Two-thirds of that number are lost to disease."

POHL: "Well, Roger, there are other Michigan-related stories to tell as the 150th anniversaries continue to roll out over the next months and years, and we'll have you back to tell some of those stories."

ROSENTRETER: "I look forward to it, Scott."

Scott Pohl has maintained an on-call schedule reporting for WKAR following his retirement after 36 years on the air at the station.
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