This article will explain the history and impact of the 1st regiment of Michigan engineers had on the Civil War. The Michigan Engineers were a volunteer regiment from west and central Michigan. They were involved in the battles of the Mill Springs, Perryville, Stone’s River, Chattanooga and Sherman’s March to the Sea Campaign.
The 1st regiment of Michigan Engineers were a volunteer regiment that was formed in 1861 and was based in Marshall, Michigan. After their creation, the regiment marched to Camp Owen for basic training. Camp Owen is located in Marshall, Michigan, and the regiment started training on October 1st and ended around mid-December. Camp Owen did not exist when the regiment arrived to do their training. The regiment arrived in waves over a month to slowly turn a field in a fairground into a military training site. Camp Owen was set up for the training of the Michigan Engineers, no other Michigan regiment went there for their training. Unknown to them, building the camp and training at the same time helped them prepare for their future duties in the war. During the war they were in charge of building railroads, bridges and military camps in a very short amount of time. A journal entry from William Kimball, a member of the 1st regiment of Michigan engineers who served through the first three years of the war, stated about building the camp “Oct. 1…. We were drilled in the afternoon and slept in an old circus tent at night or rather lay in it as there was so much noise song singing and story telling that sleep was impossible. Had straw to lie on and a few borrowed blankets for cover. Oct. 2. We built us our bunks or barracks which were very dry and comfortable” (Kimball, 2013).
After basic training the regiment left for Kentucky to meet up with General Buell. From there the regiment was split into four detachments and were sent to four different generals in the Kentucky area. The first detachment, composing of B, E and I companies, reported the General McCook, the second detachment, composing of D, F and G companies, reported to General Thomas, the third detachment, composing of C and H companies, reported to General Nelson, and the fourth detachment, composing of A and K companies, reported to General Mitchell (Sligh, 1921). The job of each detachment was to build bridges or replace railroad tracks. These jobs required a lot of work to complete, but the regiment did enjoy the jobs, because it got them away from doing military drills at the camp. These tasks gave the regiment the view that they are helping the Union win the war. This idea was reinforced after the battle of Mill Springs.
Before the battle, the second detachment was involved in moving General Thomas’s army from Lebanon to Mill Springs. This detachment had to make a road for the army to travel and help move the wagon train at the same time. When the army got there the regiment was building the camp and then rested for the day. Then the Confederate Army, under General George Crittenden, attacked at Mill Springs. This was the first battle the regiment had faced and they did not play a big part in the battle. They were in charge of defending the camp from the Confederates. They were treated as the last line of defense from the Confederate Army, before the Union Army shattered. The battle ended in a Union victory and while the regiment played no part in the actual battle. They had the belief that they had a huge effect on the battle, because they got the army to the location and ready to fight the Confederate Army. This battle reinforced the idea that an engineering regiment has the same effect on a battle even though they did not fire a shot at the enemy, but by getting the army to the location of the battle. This idea kept the regiment motivated and proud of what they were doing and this caused the regiment to have a very high morale throughout the war. A statement from “My Brave Mechanics” enforced this idea of the regiment doing their part, “The Michigan Engineers were very proud of the role that they played in the campaign, even though they had not engaged in the fighting. Sgt. Morgan Parker of company F claimed a ‘proportionate share [of the glory] for the brave fellows’ in the regiment who struggled so hard to get Thomas’s command there” (Hoffman, 2007).
After the battle, the regiment was tasked to build bridges that connect Nashville, Tennessee to Louisville, Kentucky. They also built bridges throughout Tennessee and some parts of Alabama to help move troops throughout those areas. The next battle the regiment got involved with was Perryville, Kentucky. Battle of Perryville was a Confederate attack to open a way to Nashville, so they could retake the city. The regiment was tasked to defend the wagon train, but when the Union started to lose some ground the regiment was tasked to defend the artillery from an imminent cavalry charge. The regiment held the line until nightfall, when the Union lines got reinforced the battle was over. A quote from Kimball’s journal retells the event that he experienced,
“Oct. 8. We marched about 11 miles, a considerable [part] of the way on the double quick. Cannons were firing all the time. Gen Rousseau came along and told us we would take a hand before night. We reached the battlefield and formed in line of battle. We were placed in support of an Ind[iana] battery where we remained until afternoon when Gen McCook gave the Maj orders to pile up our blankets and go in. We fought until dark supporting Loomis battery toward the last. Just at dark some infantry falling back broke us all up… We had not lain long when I heard the familiar voice of Mic Chamberlain and Doc Walker at the spring. We occupied the greater part of the night telling our experience and who we saw wounded, etc. The stock of my gun rec’d a rebel ball that otherwise could have hit me” (Kimball, 2013).
This proves important because they are getting enlisted soldiers pay, not standard engineering regiments pay. Enlisted soldiers pay is $13 per month of service, but since this regiment is a volunteer regiment, the US government does not see them as an actual engineer regiment. These volunteer engineer regiments did not get equal pay until late 1862 when congress passed a law that treated volunteer engineer regiments as army engineer regiment. This meant the regiment could include two more companies, roughly 300 men, in their regiment and they got equal pay as the Army Corps of Engineers, which was $17 per month of service. These moments of valor showed congress that a volunteer engineer regiment could be as effective an army engineer regiment.
After the battle, the regiment retreated with the army back to Nashville. They started to build a new railroad track to Chattanooga, Tennessee, but stopped halfway because Chattanooga was not under Union control. Shortly after completing the railroad tracks, the battle of Stone’s River started. Battle of Stone’s River was another Confederate attempt to capture Nashville. The regiment’s task was to defend the wagon train from Confederate cavalry that were flanking to cut off the Union’s supply lines. The regiment set up defenses in La Vergne Tennessee and had to defend against various Confederate cavalry charges. The regiment only had about 400 men at La Vergne, which they had to defend against 4000 to 5000 cavalry and some artillery. The regiment set up the wagon train as a square and quickly set up some walls out of logs and brush. The regiment held their positions after six different cavalry charges tried to defeat them. After each charge the Confederate general sent a messenger to ask for their surrender when Colonel Innes, commander of the regiment, replied with “We don’t surrender much.” (Sligh, 1921). The regiment inflicted about 100 casualties to the Confederate cavalry and only had 7 casualties of their own, one dead and six wounded (Sligh, 1921). Kimball was involved in this battle and has a very good account of what happened, “Jan 1. This was one of the most eventful and trying days of service. In the morning some rude breastworks were thrown up of logs and brush …. I took my place in the ranks. We wished them a happy new year by an effective volley which sent them back in disorder… they sent in a flag of truce four different times demanding our surrender, unconditional at first when Col Innes made his famous sarcastic reply. (We don’t surrender much.) The next time they said they had heavy reinforcements and would slaughter us all if we did not. The Col said he wanted to see their reinforcements first.” (Kimball, 2013). This act of valor is the most famous story from the regiment and to prove the point that any regiment volunteer or enlisted, engineer or non-engineer that they are willing to fight for their country even if their duties are different.
After that battle the regiment started to become famous for their rapid building of defenses, bridges and railroad tracks. The regiment played more of a supportive role for the next couple years, building bridges, defending supply lines and replacing railroad tracks. A prime example is the bridge over the Elk River. This bridge had to 470 feet long and 60 feet tall and there was a competition between the volunteer regiment and the Army Corps of Engineers. The volunteer engineer regiment stated that they could complete the bridge in ten days, while the Army Corps of Engineers stated is will take three weeks to complete. General Rosecrans, General of the Army in Tennessee, allowed the volunteer regiment to do this task. It only took the volunteer engineer regiment seven days to complete this bridge (Kimball, 2013). Kimball recorded this moment in his journal, “July 12. Rosecrans & Staff came to see us. The Col told him we could build the bridge in 10 days. Morton of the Pioneers wanted 30 days with his whole brigade… July 18. Weather hot. Bridge complete by 4 p.m. and the train run over, the band playing Hail Columbia. Col Innes went with the train to Decherd where he telegraphed Rosey [Rosecrans] of the completion of the bridge and the rec’d a very complimentary reply. For a large job it was the best and quickest done of any we ever undertook.” (Kimball, 2013).
In October of 1864, they assisted in Sherman’s march to the sea. The regiment’s job was to destroy anything that helped the Confederate Army, and build bridges that helped the Union Army cross the countryside. This march put a huge strain the regiment because it required them to march twenty miles a day and at the same time destroy anything the Confederates used for their armies (Sligh, 1921). This showed the resolve of the regiment and their determination for the war effort that they were treated as real soldiers for their effort in the war.
- Kimball, W. H. & Hoffman, M (2013). Among the Enemy: A Michigan Soldier’s Civil War Journal. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Project MUSE
- Sligh, Charles (1921). History of the Services of the First Regiment Michigan Engineers and Mechanics. Grand Rapids, Hathi Trust.
- Hoffman, Mark (2007). “My Brave Mechanics”: The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Rhodes, James Ford (1901). “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” The American Historical Review, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 466–474. JSTOR.
- Sanders, Stuart (2013). The Battle of Mill Springs Kentucky. The History Press.
- Stevenson, Alexander (1884). The Battle of Stone’s River near Murfreesboro, Tenn. December 30, 1862, to January 3, 1863. James R. Osgood and Company.
- Noe, Kenneth (2001). Perryville This Grand Havoc of Battle. The University Press of Kentucky.