Press "Enter" to skip to content

The 5th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War

5th Michigan Regiment Memorial at Gettysburg (from Gettysburg Stone Sentinels)

It was the spring of 1861. Tensions were high within the young United States of America. As the northern part of the United States started to become more industrialized, the south tended to stay much more rural, with many gentlemen relying on massive plantations to provide for their wellbeing. But along with these plantations came many slaves that were forced to work on the plantations. Because of the difference in the lifestyles of the north and of the south, it created a riff. Along with other factors like the difference in belief of states’ rights versus big government, it was only a matter of time before something was going to happen.

Then it happened. South Carolina had declared that it must secede from the United States of America. Upon doing this, South Carolina formed a new nation called the Confederate States of America. Under this new name, six other states seceded only four months later. Finally, the last of the 11 southern states seceded. President Lincoln attempted to reunite the states, but it was too late. By that time the Civil War had begun, only through force would it return to the Union.

From the nations beginning, a national army has been something that was seen as dangerous, let alone not necessary. The only military that was present in the United States were state militias. Many people during that time believed that a standing army would be used against them by the government to take away their rights. Thus when the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, neither side had a standing army to fight with. This is where the militias came into the mix. Many states now had to start mustering new divisions and regiments so that they had enough men to fight. By mid-1861, almost all of the states had mustered new regiments to help fight. This is where the Fifth Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment comes in. One of the best regiments in the Civil War.

Formation of the Fifth Regiment

The Fifth Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment fought in many battles during the Civil war. They were originally formed in Detroit, MI in 1861. They are notable for losing almost 450 men to fighting or disease, more than many other regiments. The Fifth Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment suffered the fifth highest casualty rate than any other Union regiment in the Civil War [4]. This is surprising given the fact that they were only mustered in after the start of the Civil War.

The Fifth Michigan Regiment was formed in the year of 1861 on June 21st in the great city of Detroit at Fort Wayne under the command of Colonel Terry. They mustered a total of 1350 men to fight for the Union. They did not stay with just one division during the length of the war. First they left state for Washington, D.C., September 11, attached to Richardson’s Brigade, Heintzelman’s Division, Army of the Potomac, until March, 1862. Then from there they were attached to Berry’s 3rd Brigade, Kearny’s 3rd Division, 3rd Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, until August, 1862. From this date until March of 1864, they fought with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps. Finally to the 2nd Brigade. 3rd Division, 2nd Army Corps, until July, 1865. The last day that the 5th Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment drilled was on July 3rd, 1865 [3].

The Regiment consisted of many different militias that came together. This was because of the need to create a new regiment to help fight in the Union. Some of these militias were the Sherlock Guards, Saginaw City Light Infantry, Huron Rangers, and the Ingersoll Rifles. But what is interesting about this is that the men who fought in the 5th regiment were actually not native to Michigan itself. Because Michigan did not officially become a state until 1837, the men who filled the ranks were actually from many southern states as well as northern. These states consisted of Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, and Louisiana. This is significant because of the fact that many of these men would be fighting against their own native state, for the Confederate States of America. What is also surprising is that almost one-third of those fighting were actually from a different country. Many immigrants who had not become Americans yet but were living in America decided that it was important to fight for the North. Some of these countries consisted of Germany, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Wales, and even Canada to name a few that filled the spots in the Fifth Michigan [4].

The fighting men of the 5th Michigan Regiment were previously men of very diverse jobs. Different individuals held the job of many different things like dentists, firefighters, druggists, clerks, blacksmiths, and railroad workers. Even their ages ranged from the age of sixteen all the way up to fifty-four [4]. This provided well for the army because many different men could do different things

During their time of service, they fought many important battles that helped to defeat the Confederates overall. Also during these main battles that they fought, they were involved in many charges and assaults that led to many casualties. A few of these battles were the Battle of Williamsburg, the Battle of Fair Oaks, The Battle at Wilderness, and the Battle of Gettysburg. At Gettysburg rests a monument to those who fought in the Fifth Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment [2].

The Fifth Regiment was one of the best Regiments to fight for the Union. They were involved in some of the bloodiest conflicts, and they obtained the majority of the casualties during fighting. This is because of their bravery and warrior spirit that was always present within the Fifth Regiment. The men who fought deserve recognition. They started off slow, but as the war progressed, they helped to turn the tide of many battles.

As stated before, they originally started off with very little fighting, as they were assigned to go to Washington D.C. to guard the Capitol. This led to very little fighting and a fair amount of time stuck in camp life. It was not until later in the month of October that they were able to do any type of mission. This mission happened to be a recon mission at Occoquan. This helped to prep them for any real battles that were to come after the winter [4].

A Taste for Battle

By spring of 1862, the Fifth Michigan boarded steamboats with the rest of the Army of the Potomac and headed for Fort Monroe. This was to facilitate in trying to capture the southern capital of Richmond. Thus they were stationed at the town of Hampton because there were too many men already in the Fort. They were looking for a fight with the Confederates, but each time they advanced closer to Richmond, the Confederates denied them a battle by retreating [4]. This was extremely frustrating for the Fighting Fifth because of the effort they put in and all the Confederates did was run away.

Finally the Fifth Michigan had marched with the Army of the Potomac far enough to reach Yorktown where there were many fortifications set up. Large guns and trenches stretching for miles were set up along the York River. Because the Union general was slow to fight, the Confederates were able to obtain more reinforcements. Thus making the siege for Yorktown much harder. For a month the Union had plans for a siege, yet as soon as they were about to begin the shelling, the Confederates were ordered out of Yorktown and to retreat to Richmond. Demoralized, the Union soldiers drudged on. This was just a sliver of what was to come [4].

The “Fighting Fifth”

The next major battle that the Fifth Michigan took part in was the battle of Williamsburg. The Union general wanted to attack the center of the Confederate line, which was heavily fortified by Fort Magruder. This proved to be too much for them and they were forced to turn back. This gave the Confederates a clear advantage and they decided to do a countercharge. The Confederates were able to capture a Union battery and fire upon the retreating Union soldiers. This is where the “Fighting Fifth” first earned its nickname. Once the Fifth saw what was happening, they fired upon the Confederates at the Union battery, then charged them. This shocked the rebels, resulting in them fleeing the battery. After which the Fifth started taking fire and many casualties from Confederates. To overcome this, another charge was called for, and the Fifth ended up in the rebel trenches, taking prisoners and displacing the Confederates. If it was not for their valor, the outcome of the battle would have been very different [4].

It is reported that after the second charge they held their position for six or seven waves of attacks, incurring up to fifty percent casualties. This is the reason why the Fighting Fifth is such a notable regiment. Within their first battle, they showed gallantry and guts to overtake the Confederates with not only one, but two charges against the odds. Not only did they prove themselves at Williamsburg, but they did so too during other battles as well.

After the Battle at Williamsburg, the General in charge had to refill the gaps that were created from all the casualties that happened during the two charges of the Rebel forces. The regiment of the Fifth Michigan was so thin that many Lieutenants were put in charge of a Company, a position normally held by Captains. It is also noted that some of these Lieutenants were enlisted men before they became Officers. In fact, a Major was put in charge of the Regiment, which is reserved typically for Lieutenant Colonels. All of these changes were made because of one main reason: charges.

The Fifth Michigan found much success in driving out the Confederates by charging after them and taking them in close combat. But this would almost always come at a cost. As seen by the battle of Williamsburg, and in the future at Fair Oaks, it left them vulnerable. The strategy worked wonderfully in routing the enemy, but left the regiment open for counter attack from the Confederate reinforcements. There actions changed the course of almost every battle, but started to make them combat ineffective.

Knowing this, it is obvious as to why the “Fighting Fifth” earned not only its reputation, but its infamy in losing so many men. What the men did on the field was brave by all standards, but it truly shows the mindset that all soldiers must have. A mindset that as a soldier, I am here to fight my hardest, and if I die, I die. The Fighting Fifth embodied the true warrior spirit.

The End of the Campaign

After the Battle at Fair Oaks, which resulted in a stalemate and eventually the Union returning back to Washington D.C., the Peninsula Campaign had ended for the Fifth Michigan. But this was not the end of their career. Although many new men joined the ranks of the Fifth Michigan Regiment to refill and replenish the ranks, they still kept their fighting spirit [4].

One unique view of the determination and fighting spirit comes from a personal story that was retold by 1st Sergeant Kemp of the Fifth Michigan. While the Regiment fought in the battle at Wilderness, he recalls that it was so thick that one could hardly see the enemy until they were 20 yards away. He states that he saw to his left his buddy get shot in the head, and to his right, a man patching his leg with a strip of his coat. This left Kemp alone. As the three grey coats that were in front of him changed direction to flee, one holding the regimental colors, he knew he had to take them down. He fired his musket at one, mortally wounding him, while chasing after the other two. He was able to incapacitate the second man, leaving only him and the rebel with the colors. Finally after hand to hand combat, Kemp overcame the man and took the colors back to his companions [2a].

This event truly showed that the men who fought for the Fighting Fifth were fearless and brave. They would do anything to win the battle, even taking on a three to one odds, which is never a good idea. Through this one event, it is clearly seen as to why the Fifth Regiment gained such popularity as being a dependable regiment.

The Fifth Michigan Infantry Volunteer Regiment served extremely nobly during their time in the Civil War. As seen from the battles that were brought up, they were composed of fearless men who knew what must be done. The Fighting Fifth more than earned its nickname from the gallantry and warrior spirit shown in battle. Although they lost the most men in all of the Michigan Regiments, and the fifth most in all of the Union Regiments, they were still able to persevere through it all. With sacrifice comes glory, and the men of the Fifth Michigan Regiment definitely earned it. This is why the Fighting Fifth was one of the best Regiments in the Civil War.

Here is a newspaper article of the death memoirs from Gettysburg [1a]. This shows just how fierce the men were, losing so many brothers in arms.

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

Further Reading: