Friday, March 23, 2012

Life in the Second Michigan Infantry

I recently finished reading the book “For Country, Cause, and Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon,” by Stephen W. Sears. This book consists of the journal entries made by a young man (Charles B. Haydon) working his way up the ranks of the 2nd Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. I picked up this book to better understand what my gg-grandfather, Edward Flynn, endured while he served in this regiment. In fact, my gg-grandfather served in the same company (Company I) with Haydon, until Haydon was transferred to Company E in the fall of 1862.

Company I of the 2nd Michigan began as the Kalamazoo Light Guard. Haydon and Flynn were not in the Light Guard, but both enlisted on April 22, 1861, a week after Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers. The Kalamazoo Light Guard, with additional recruits, was accepted into the regiment as Company I.

Haydon worked as a law clerk in Kalamazoo before his enlistment, making him much more educated than the average soldier. He began the war as a third sergeant and diligently worked his way up to the rank of Lt. Colonel before his death from illness in the spring of 1864. In the early days of the conflict he wrote in his journal virtually every day. Toward the end, his entries were more infrequent, but still provide the reader with a picture of his life.

Haydon described the daily living conditions that he and his fellow soldiers endured. In steamy summers they slogged through the Virginia mud. The mud was probably one reason that no fence was safe from the soldiers. Fences were quickly dismantled and the boards used to avoid sleeping on the bare ground. They purchased supplemental food from locals and picked wild blackberries whenever they were in season for miles around camp. During the icy winter of 1863-1864 in Tennessee they marched with no socks and only a handful of boots between them. Their battered tents didn't do much to keep out the elements at night. It didn't help that rations were scarce and some days they had only coffee and a little hard tack all day.

Through Hayden's eyes we can picture the countryside they marched through. On some occasions, Haydon's descriptions were almost poetic.

Haydon also shared his opinions of his fellow soldiers as well as the higher commanders. I didn't find any mention of my gg-grandfather for good or ill. Being in the same company, Haydon certainly would have known who he was. While finding a reference to him would have been exciting I would rather have found nothing than find he was one of the men who tried to desert or was put in the guard house for some other infraction.

It was interesting to watch Haydon settle into a soldier's life rather easily. Despite the discomforts and even hardship they experienced, Haydon at least, grew to enjoy the life and when away from the regiment (and not at home) would rather have been with his comrades than elsewhere.

Naturally, Haydon described the engagements his regiment was involved in. There are no maps included in the book so if you are like me you will want to have a book of state maps, or even better, Civil War battlefield maps handy so you can “see” what Haydon was talking about. One thing I found interesting was that despite the number of battles the Second Michigan was engaged in, in many cases the regiment as a whole (or sometimes company I in particular) was held in reserve, covered the retreat or was in an area of the battlefield that did not see much action. So, at least during the period covered by Haydon's journal, not including when he was recuperating from being wounded, Company I did not see the worst of the fighting. This certainly may have changed after Haydon's death, but as of this writing I haven't had a chance to look into it.

If you have an ancestor who served in the Second Michigan I would highly recommend reading this book. Even if you didn't have a relative who served in this regiment this book will provide a true sense of what daily life was like for many Union troops. The Kalamazoo Public Library has two copies, one in the circulating library and one in the local history room.

Really doing genealogy, at least for me, is so much more than simply plugging another name into my family tree software.  I want to learn about the lives of my relatives.  Reading this book has allowed me to better understand at least a little of what life was like for all of the Civil War soldiers in my family. If you don't want to buy or borrow this book you can read some Civil War era letters online through the WMU archives  website.

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