Lost history II: First Michigan Sharpshooters/Company K


by Ron Robotham




The Civil War was lasting longer than all the pompous politicians had predicted.  The spectacle they had traveled out from Washington on a “Sunday-had-to-see with a picnic lunch,” had turned downright bloody.  No one was impressed by death reports; now some support for the war began to waiver.  But not in Michigan.

Michigan men had responded heartily. Units were recruited in nearly every city, village, or hamlet.  By August of ’62 Michigan had furnished 25,000 men in a variety of units. One resource listed total war units as:  Thirty Infantry, Thirteen Cavalry, Fifteen Six-Gun Artillery Battery’s, the 1st. Eng. and Mechanics Unit and the 1st. Michigan Sharpshooters.     

Why so much fervor for the war from Michigan?  That question has been debated and partially answered in many resources.  Most agree it was a certainly not about being against slavery or any special sympathy for the plight of slaves.  Michigan’s volunteers were mostly pioneers conquering a new land and were deeply thankful for that opportunity.  Many were immigrants, new to freedom and opportunity.  Many were known for hard work, farmers and lumbermen.  They were for the Union and planned to show how loyal they were to the Union cause.

First  Michigan Sharpshooters are a little known yet highly successful unit. Recruited April through October 1863, after a new request was sent to the states to provide more men, they are honored by being one of only two units with a permanent statue on the grounds of the Capital in Lansing.  Secondly, their story is well-told in a wonderful resource published in 1998 by Wayne State University Press titled: These Men Have Seen Hard Service:  The First Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civil War by Raymond Herek.

The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters were trained at Fort Dearborn.  The first six companies were mustered out to fight the rebel force named Morgan’s Raiders when he invaded Indiana. They regained their full numbers (usually 10 companies of over 100 each) back at Fort Dearborn and were sent to Camp Douglas near Chicago to guard Confederate prisoners.

All this was very frustrating for the men who had been recruited to do battle, but that wish came true quickly.  They were mustered in March of 1864 to Annapolis and joined Grants Army in Virginia. Officially, in “Army speak,” they joined the Second Brigade, Third Division, Ninth Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac.   They participated gallantly in numerous very important battles. Those included the Battle of the Wilderness in May 5-7, 1864, Spotsylvania Court House May 8-21, Cold Harbor June 1-12, and the first assault on Petersburg June 16-18.  That siege lasted on into August and they were involved in Battle of the Crater with many causalities and the loss of prisoners. Phew!  What a strenuous summer!

Later, as Grant kept up his endless pursuit of Gen Lee, the Sharpshooters were involved in the Appomattox Campaign and in the final assault and capture of Petersburg in the spring of 1865.  Surrender came soon after in late April.  They were sent to Washington, DC and mustered out on July 28, 1865.

That is a fast, exhausting summary and we need to bring us back to our reason for all that history. 

When Governor Blair called on the citizens of Michigan to form yet another regiment, called the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, many of the available recruits had gone into other units.  The first volunteer for the Sharpshooters was an Indian man from Saginaw.  He was refused. Why?  There was a law stating, “No Indians are allowed to join the Army.”  Recruitment was difficult and some areas were very low on volunteers, so….you guessed it: they changed the law and let Indians join.  Part of that was prejudice-based. That is to say, recruiting the Indians meant some of the white men, who obviously did not volunteer earlier for whatever reason, did not have to go. The second reason was genius. The Natives were great hunters and perfect for a Sharpshooter outfit.  Also, the Native Americans knew that if the South won the war, they would certainly not fare well, as the Negro already did not. Native Americans were recruited.

The Native American company, Company K, had about 150 members through its two-year life.  Native Americans from every community in Michigan took their part.  Most notably, we celebrate the contribution of some 25 men who volunteered on July 4, 1863, from Oceana County.  They came from the Elbridge Reservation formed in 1855 in eastern Oceana and Mason Counties.