DEMPSEY: Michigan and the Civil War (2011)

Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice by Jack Dempsey. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011. Paper, ISBN: 1609491734. $21.99.

The North may have won the Civil War, but the South has captured most of its historiography. Since the vast bulk of the fighting took place there, and since slavery—the cause of that fighting—was a southern institution, historians have directed their gaze accordingly. As a result, it can be hard to think of the Upper Midwest as Civil War country; if New England was the geographic core of abolition and Union, Wisconsin or Minnesota or Iowa can seem a bit like the hinterland. In Michigan and the Civil War, Jack Dempsey examines his upper-Midwestern home state’s contribution to the North’s victory. If you are a native Wolverine and/or a Civil War buff with a keen interest in the state’s history, you will find much to like in the book. For more serious scholars, though, it will be less satisfying.

The book’s main weakness is that it is heavy on old-school Civil War history. In the last two decades, Civil War studies have ventured well beyond the battlefield, but Michigan and the Civil War still camps out there resolutely, with few forays into other territories. After brief chapters on Michigan’s founding and its prewar political leanings (decidedly free-soil/abolitionist), Dempsey dedicates most of the book to the combat experiences of the state’s forty-plus regiments. One chapter does focus on Michigan’s wartime politicians, and another on P.O.W. life, but most involve soldiers under fire. There is very little treatment of non-combatants, particularly women (the chapter “Women of War” deals almost exclusively with female soldiers), or of the home front more broadly. Nor is there any discussion of the war’s aftermath and memory, two subjects which are front-and-center in recent historiography. In short, we learn a great deal about Michigan’s personnel contributions to the war—troops, officers, generals—but virtually nothing about what the war might have contributed to Michigan. A partial explanation for this lies in the bibliography and footnotes; the book draws from an impressive amount of primary sources, but its secondary sources are thin and sometimes dated.

Meanwhile, the troops in Michigan and the Civil War fight with enthusiasm, honor, courage, and utter devotion to the Union; there are few if any incompetents, opportunists, drunks or cowards in Dempsey’s ranks. The book makes no bones about its lionization of the Michiganders who “blazed their names and units in glory” (p. 71), and as a proud Michigander myself, living in the Deep South, I certainly appreciate the idea of “Northern pride.” But as a professional historian I am far less comfortable with it, and would have liked a more nuanced and decidedly less reverential narrative than what Dempsey offers.

Lastly, the anecdotal nature of the book limits its impact. It opens with the Stars and Stripes, blasted from its flagpole at Fort Sumter, being rescued dramatically by Michigan second lieutenant Norman J. Hall, and closes the war with the Michigan cavalry unit that captured Jefferson Davis. In between we meet a parade of generals, officers, enlisted men, sailors, politicians and drummer boys who either hailed from or had associations with the state. On one level this works well; Dempsey succeeds in making his case that Michiganders were deeply involved in the war or at least in its combat (and I was personally excited to see men from my hometown of Jackson featured prominently in several places). Yet I did not come away from Michigan and the Civil War with a sense that the state was any more (or less) important than its neighbors. One could easily write a book about Wisconsin or Indiana and say virtually the same things about participation, vital contributions, bravery, and honor. Dempsey does not argue that Michigan was especially important to the Union—another weakness of the book is that it lacks a clear, strong thesis—but the idea is implicit, and a comparative approach at some point in the book would have gone a long way towards proving or disproving the assumption.

In the end, while the writing is solid and certainly passionate, the book will be of far more interest to the general reader than to the specialist. That said, its bibliography will still be useful to future scholars focusing their research on the state, and they should find Michigan and the Civil War a helpful if rather incomplete guide.
Brian Allen Drake (Ph.D.,Kansas) is a lecturer at the University of Georgia.

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