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Historical Museum Highlights Michigan During Civil War
When you think about the American Civil war, Michigan doesn't immediately come to mind. Michigan is situated well above the Mason-Dixon Line and none of the battles was on Michigan territory.
But Michigan, which was a young state when hostilities broke out a little more than 150 years ago, sent 93,000 soldiers to fight in the War Between the States. The war had a major impact on Michigan.
That's the theme of the exhibit, "Plowshares into Swords," that runs through Feb. 5 at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. The exhibit is the first of two planned commemorations of the Civil War at the museum and covers the period from immediately before the war began through the battle at Gettysburg.
At a time when it was a scantly populated western outpost in the United States, the entire population of Detroit, by far the largest city, could have been mustered into today's Comerica Park - Michigan was an agricultural state with developing mining and timbering industries. The exhibit begins there and shows a state that did not allow slavery (as stated in the Constitution written in 1835) and how it responded to the storm.
"We wanted people to understand where the state was right at the dawn of the Civil War," said Michigan Historical Museum staff historian Eric Perkins. "We had more people who were born elsewhere than were born in the state and we were poised to make a leap forward."
That leap forward was in agriculture.
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted with a large photograph of a Michigan agricultural field complete with the large stumps from the cleared forests that farmers had to work around. It was a time of innovation, as newer farm implements had been developed, including the first combination thresher/harvester, which was drawn by a team of 16 horses and built by Hiram Moore of Kalamazoo, and captured in a photograph at Climax Prairie. Michigan was about to become an important farm state. A couple of farm implements from the era, the standard of the day scythe and cradle and an improved plow with a steel share, are on exhibit.
Moving into the exhibit, the first room is consumed with displays of Michigan's pre-war sentiments. One celebrates noted abolitionist Laura Smith Havilland and includes her dress, bonnet and a length of heavy chain that was cut from the neck of an escaped slave during the war.
A few artifacts from cabins in Ramptown, a Cass County colony founded for those who escaped slavery, that were recovered by an archeological dig by Western Michigan University, are on display. There's various paraphernalia associated with the founding of the Republican Party, including a campaign button for Abraham Lincoln for the 1860 presidential election. And a display honoring Austin Blair, "Michigan's War Governor," includes his top hat and library table.
From there, more war associated artifacts are on display, including the coat worn by Captain Abner Wood of the 27th Michigan Infantry, numerous photographs and a camp tent, which includes some reproduction clothing of the era that youngsters can try on. A heart-breaking display of a letter home from Cpl. Alphonso Crane of Kalamazoo, who was killed in action in Mississippi in 1863, merits its own display among the artifacts, which include a drum and bugle (used to signal troops for reveille, meals, etc.), a field medical kit (though soldiers were far more likely to die from disease than combat trauma), and a piece of hardtack, the daily sustenance of Civil War foot soldiers.
A display of weapons of the day includes a Spencer carbine, a pistol, a saber and a knife inscribed with the words: "Americans ask for nothing but what is right and will submit to nothing wrong."
An exhibit about the home front shows the books and common children's toys of the day and the products (such as home canned produce and hospital shirts) that volunteers made and sent as care packages to the troops.
If there are crown jewels of the exhibit, Perkins said, they are the battle flags that Michigan troops carried with them.
"The flags, either embroidered or painted, are tattered and torn, showing the ravages of battle, as well as areas where soldiers cut off pieces of them to take home as souvenirs," Perkins explained.
Most notable is the flag from the 24th Michigan Infantry, which was carried into Gettysburg. It was borne into battle by Sgt. Abel Peck, who was the first soldier in his regiment to die at Gettysburg - a fate that befell eight other color bearers of the 24th as well.
The 24th is especially noteworthy as it was an "extra regiment" made up of Detroit-area volunteers. On July 15, 1862, a rally calling for volunteers in Detroit degenerated into a riot when an angry mob thought it was the precursor to a draft. A month later, a rally featured a speech from 80 year old former territorial Gov. Lewis Cass proclaiming "the people of the North will rescue the government." The 24th Michigan Infantry was the result.
The exhibit comes to life on Saturday, Jan. 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as members of several re-enactment groups will be stationed in the galleries to talk about the lives of Civil War soldiers.
The Michigan Historical Museum is located inside the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 W, Kalamazoo St., Lansing. For more information on hours, admission and parking, call (517) 373-3559 or visit www.michigan.gov/museum.
The second part of Michigan's tribute to the Civil War era, covering the period after Gettysburg to the end of the war, is scheduled to go on exhibit in 2015.
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