Thursday, June 4, 2020

Author Q&A: Eric Faust on "The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War"

Eric R. Faust is the author of three books exploring the state of Michigan's contributions to the Union war effort. Conspicuous Gallantry: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of James W. King, 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry was published in 2015 as part of Kent State University Press's Civil War in the North series, and his first regimental study, The 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster , was released that same year by McFarland. Also from McFarland, Faust's most recent book, The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster, was published back in March and is the topic of this interview.

CWBA: Thank you for joining us, Eric. You’ve now authored three Civil War books, all Michigan related. What inspired your particular interest in the 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment?

EF: It was a happy accident. My first book, Conspicuous Gallantry, presented the letters of a soldier in the 11th Michigan, James W. King. King’s future father-in-law, Darius Ambrose Babcock, enlisted as a private in the 6th Michigan late in the war, so I looked into his service. He was injured in a train wreck immediately after departing Michigan and served as an officer’s cook before being discharged for disability. Nothing too exciting, but that research brought out tantalizing hints that the 6th Regiment possessed a fascinating, and largely untold, story. Even by volunteer standards, they were a poorly behaved bunch, yet you sure wouldn’t want to face them on a battlefield. There was no way I could walk away from that—their story was begging for a book-length treatment.

CWBA: What do you enjoy most about researching and writing regimental histories?

EF: Unit histories offer the best of both worlds. Like campaign and battle studies, they narrate the sweeping scope of major historical events. At the same time, like biographies and published letter collections, they reveal the daily lives and inner thoughts of individual soldiers. By the end of a good regimental you’ve gotten to know several soldiers so well that they are old friends (or enemies) by the time you turn the last page. The regiment was the infantryman’s whole world, and these histories bring us closer to understanding daily life in the armies as well as what the war really meant in the eyes of those who fought it. And it never gets old, because that answer is different for every unit, every soldier. As a researcher and writer, I enjoy watching these stories unfold and observing (and sometimes reconciling) how men who witnessed the exact same events often perceived them very differently. I also find it rewarding to stumble across all kinds of interesting little incidents that would never make it into books on broader topics.

CWBA: Tell us about the early-war period of the 6th’s Civil War service in Maryland and the Eastern Shore of Virginia?

EF: The 6th Michigan started out attached to the Army of the Potomac and was stationed in Baltimore. The Michiganders and Marylanders were on surprisingly friendly terms. There was tension here and there to be sure, but the soldiers, by and large, were on their best behavior. And they were showered with kindnesses in return: one captain, for example, received seven invitations for Christmas dinner, and many of the men courted, and in some cases later married, local women. The citizens even petitioned the War Department to keep the 6th stationed there. But all of that proved so deceptive. The instant those same troops crossed the border into Virginia for the first time in November 1861, they exhibited two defining traits: first, an insatiable appetite for foraging (which would evolve into remorseless pillaging), and second, a seething, open defiance of their brigadier, which would only worsen under subsequent general officers.

The Eastern Shore expedition foreshadowed the Michiganders’ service along the Mississippi. First, Curtenius was unavailable (on court-martial duty), so the unit marched out under Major Bacon’s command. Bacon was incapable of managing his men, and discipline collapsed in enemy territory. Next, the expedition’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Henry Lockwood, was operating under orders from John Dix to treat Confederate civilians and their rights to property (human or otherwise) with respect, and that did not sit well with the Michiganders. When they encamped in enemy territory for the first time, one officer reported, “for miles around camp could be heard all night long, the squealing of pigs, squawking of geese, cackling of hens, and all kinds of noises.” This expedition was characterized by hard marching and no fighting, a combination that bred discontent. The climax came when Lockwood confronted the entire regiment in a rage over a stolen turkey. As he departed, according to one private, “the boys forgot all military discipline for the moment, and such cheers and imitating of the fowl captured I never heard; they fairly gobbled him out of camp, and the… general retired, baffled and discomfited, pouring out vile epithets upon the Michigan men.” Bacon later testified against Lockwood before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, effectively accusing him of treason for following Dix’s orders. This was a recurring theme with Bacon—lividly attacking the reputation of any superior officer who criticized or opposed him. He should have been more worried about himself: his own subordinates “came home tittering over the frivolity and lack of executive ability exhibited by Major Bacon.” Things got back to normal, though, once the men were back in Baltimore under Colonel Curtenius. That made it easy to blame everything on Bacon, but it wasn’t that simple.

CWBA: Serious discipline problems seem to be a common theme wherever the regiment went. As far as you can tell, what was the source of it, and how much blame do you lay at the feet of the officers (including Col. Curtenius, Lt. Col. Clark and Maj. Bacon)?

EF: Clark and Bacon were disciplinary disasters, but Colonel Curtenius was competent and respected. His enforcement was lax at times, typical for a volunteer officer, but he could step up when the situation called for it. For example, he unhesitatingly threw several men in the stockade for refusing to drill in protest of noncom pay rates. But the colonel was getting on in years, and his health failed him by the time the unit engaged in active operations. That raises the big 'what if' in this regiment’s history, because his successors failed their subordinates miserably. Clark was a drunkard and a shameless profiteer; Bacon was incapable not only of showing deference to superiors but also of performing a field officer’s command duties. He is a fascinating case. He authored an entire book covering the period from Baton Rouge to Port Hudson—less than one year—and that entire effort amounts to a thinly veiled smear campaign against his superiors, particularly targeting three officers who had him arrested on separate occasions. He was court-martialed twice and ultimately dismissed from the service. Bacon held so little regard for the truth that his book constitutes a minefield for historians because it is fascinating, well-written, and contains juicy gossip and useful information, yet it is also chock full of lies, both blatant and subtle. With all that being said, two different things had to happen for this unit’s demeanor to falter: first, Curtenius sickened and eventually resigned, leaving two lesser men in command; and second, a perfect storm of epidemics, logistical failures, guerrilla warfare, profiteering, and all the stresses incidental to active operations served as a catalyst to degrade morale and bring out the worst in everyone. This unit was ravaged by disease along the mosquito-infested Mississippi, losing a shocking 500 dead to sickness alone—far and away the record for any Michigan unit in the war.

CWBA: Sounds like their repeated flaunting of army regulations might also have extended to camp sanitation! Many Civil War volunteer units that played hell in camp and on the march redeemed themselves on the battlefield. Was this the case for the 6th Michigan at the Battle of Baton Rouge?

EF: Undeniably. One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of that phenomenon than what transpired with this regiment over just a two-month span in mid-1862. The 6th clashed with Brigadier General Thomas Williams, taunting him mercilessly at every opportunity. He was a regular army martinet if ever there was one, and he was disgusted with the regiment’s taste for plunder, so they were playing with fire. Sure enough, things got ugly fast. As punishment, Williams ordered the regiment out of its comfortable barracks in Baton Rouge to bivouac exposed to the debilitating Louisiana summer. Tents were available, yet they weren’t allowed to use them. Everyone knew this could only result in sickness and death. Curtenius was gone by then, and Clark, Bacon, and the two senior captains were all arrested, one after another, for disobeying the order to expose the men. This happened just prior to the Battle of Baton Rouge, so thanks to Williams the 6th Michigan entered a desperate fight in a sickly state and under the command of a captain who, until recently, was seventh in command. To make matters worse, Williams declined to fortify and arrayed his regiments outside of immediate supporting distance from each other. Those blunders put the Federals at a dire disadvantage. Then, at the outset of the fight, he split the already shorthanded 6th Michigan in the face of the enemy. With two companies already out on picket duty, he diverted one battalion of five companies to support the 21st Indiana, leaving just 3 isolated companies to hold the right flank.

The great irony here is that the arrests of Clark and Bacon—who would later prove themselves of highly dubious value under fire—enabled the regiment’s two finest captains to show their mettle and save the day. Each of them literally battled Confederate regiments with Union companies. Harrison Soule’s company foiled a flanking maneuver by the 6th Kentucky at Magnolia Cemetery, employing the bayonet. They endured 60 percent casualties, including Soule himself, and even then they withdrew only when ordered to do so. And John Corden routed Henry Watkins Allen’s brigade with those three aforementioned companies on the far right. The balance of the battalion at the cemetery (4 companies) fended off an entire brigade to hold the center.

Heroics like these would be famous if they had taken place in one of the big battles out east, and bear in mind that the 6th had never seen combat before. The rest of the brigade recognized all that: Sidney Bean of the 4th Wisconsin prefaced his comments on Corden’s performance with, “However incredible it may seem.” As the story goes, General Williams, the Michiganders’ greatest critic, was moved during the battle to say, “I wish to God I had ten thousand of you western thieves!” Whatever the truth of that, sources from multiple regiments assert that he was stunned to see his indisciplined volunteers fight tenaciously, and he complimented their courage profusely. High praise from a man who’d recently said he preferred conscripts to volunteers.

CWBA: Regimental histories are often useful vehicles for exploring obscure events that occurred behind the lines or on secondary fighting fronts. Can you talk about some little-known episodes of the 6th’s service in the West?

EF: Where to begin? I will pick out some highlights. Colonel Curtenius clashed with General Williams over the latter’s insistence that slaves should not be harbored from their masters. The Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves was passed and integrated into the Articles of War by then, yet Williams ordered the refugees expelled from the Union lines after one master demanded the 6th Michigan return his slave. Curtenius was arrested for his refusal, and then released hours later without comment or personal consequence. Williams would expel all the contrabands after Curtenius resigned—there was nobody left with the will and wherewithal to protect them.

Near Ponchatoula, the regiment once skirmished with Choctaws in the swamp and captured several. One captain quoted his comrades saying “there will be some civilization taught them,” though that seems to have been an idle threat. Illustrating the intensely personal scale on which the war was fought at times along the Mississippi, the first fatal fire the 6th Regiment ever took was from an irate plantation owner—on a rare occasion where the Michiganders actually intended to pay for farm goods. And the 6th once escaped a potential rout thanks to a delaying action fought by just eight soldiers who braved a concentrated assault while comrades skedaddled around them.

River travel was hazardous: the regiment’s transports drew artillery fire on four occasions, twice inflicting fatalities. It was traumatic to come under attack with little or no means to respond—they nearly capsized one vessel by herding to the port side when they came under fire from the starboard. After the second such assault, the regiment and its counterparts disembarked and pillaged the town from which they came under fire (Grand Gulf, Mississippi)—just one example where civilians paid the price when troops were frustrated by guerrilla tactics. Clark once squandered an important local naval asset, the partially ironclad gunboat Barataria, by apparently taking it to seek plunder while the ship’s commanding officer was absent. The vessel ran aground and was abandoned in response to an attack by a few dismounted cavalry [Now there’s an interesting trivia question: how many Union naval vessels were lost to cavalry actions?].

On one larger expedition, almost the entire regiment left the line of march to forage. “One could scarcely tell what place the 6th Michigan occupied in the line,” wrote one soldier, “there was a color bearer and a few commissioned officers." In March 1863 John C. Pemberton sent a message via the 6th Michigan to Nathaniel Banks, offering to trade cotton with the Department of the Gulf. I found no evidence that this gained any traction, but it was surely an eye-opening proposition that late in the war. The department suffered systemic logistical issues—the kind you normally associate with the Confederate army—and the Michiganders marched at times in bare feet, went hungry, drank infested swamp water, and so on. This is all just a sampling, but the experiences of isolated units often differed starkly from life in the larger armies out east.

CWBA: In summer 1863, the regiment found itself in the trench lines at Port Hudson. How did it fare there?

EF: Port Hudson was an unmitigated nightmare for the 6th. Nathaniel Banks was the worst kind of political general. He had no business leading an army, and half his force was comprised of nine-months men who, as one Michigander put it, “cannot tell the difference between an Enfield rifle and a ten-inch siege gun." The 6th went straight from having zero experience assaulting fortifications to joining in the longest siege in American history up to that point and participated in hopeless charges supported only by raw troops. The regiment went into Port Hudson with capable brigade and division commanders for a change (and even got along with them), but Generals Neal Dow and Thomas W. Sherman were both wounded straight away in the first assault on May 27, 1863. The Michiganders entered that engagement with 450 men and officers. By July 4, they could muster a mere 160 present for duty (they’d lost about one-third killed or wounded and another third to disease in the muck of the trenches). Corden, on Independence Day, was the sole officer present above the rank of lieutenant. After May 27, division command devolved to William Dwight, a rigid disciplinarian and heavy drinker (love that combination) already infamous for using volunteers as cannon fodder. Even Corden and Soule, heroes of Baton Rouge, refused to implement suicidal attack orders on separate occasions. Dwight went on to devise multiple schemes where a few soldiers were supposed to sneak into the Rebel fortifications under cover of darkness and somehow engineer the doom of an entire Confederate army. (Thirty thousand men couldn’t do it. Let’s try thirty instead.) Some of the 6th Michigan’s finest rank-and-file boys were shot dead in the dark following alcohol-inspired orders—and only days shy of surviving the last of their unit’s active combat operations.

CWBA: Interestingly, all of the regiments in Gen. Thomas Williams’s original brigade at Ship Island (21st Indiana, 4th Wisconsin, and 6th Michigan) were later converted to a different service branch (the 4th to the cavalry, and the 21st and 6th to the heavy artillery). At least for the 6th Michigan, what was the rationale behind the change?

EF: These conversions became almost commonplace for experienced infantry in the Department of the Gulf. I assume Halleck prioritized the main battlefield armies when it came to requests for cavalry and artillery, and this was the workaround. I’ve seen no official explanation for the 6th’s conversion. The men considered it a reward for meritorious service at Port Hudson, but that may have been wishful thinking. The soldiers knew it would mean a lot of garrison duty and considered it cause for celebration because, as Corden put it, “we shall have an easier time of it, and not near the exposure to all kinds of weather and hard marching and fighting we have had to endure as infantry.” Conversion from infantry did not guarantee that the Michiganders wouldn’t have their old rifles shoved back in their hands and be told to play infantryman now and again. “We have been artillery,” one officer joked, “then infantry [again], the engineer corps now, and next I think we will be the Invalid Corps or Corps d’Afrique.” In any event, the move to artillery signaled a virtual end to active operations for the 6th Michigan in July 1863, although they wouldn’t muster out until August 1865. This period was so uneventful that I summarized it in the final chapter, emphasizing the highlights (some of which are amusing—bored volunteers do the darnedest things). In the doldrums of camp life, discipline grew so lax that one late-war inspection report makes the regiment sound like something out of an episode of F Troop. It makes for hilarious reading now but probably not so much at the time. The unit almost mutinied four months after Appomattox, impatient from awaiting orders to return home.

CWBA: What’s next for you? Do you have more Michigan regimental studies in the pipeline?

EF: I am serving on the oversight committee for a lengthy documentary film about the 11th Michigan Infantry (the subject of my first two books). I haven’t settled on my next book topic yet, though I’ve been kicking some ideas around. It is likely I will author another regimental at some point—Michigan or not—and I have come across a letter collection or two I’d like to publish. I also hope at some point to research a lesser-known battle. There are always a hundred things I’d like to be doing, and never enough hours in a day. While pondering what’s next, I’ve been writing a novel of the Reconstruction period.

CWBA: Thanks again for your time, Eric. Our talk has made me look forward to reading your book even more. And readers, once again the title is The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster.

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