Traverse City Record-Eagle


April 10, 2011

Northern Michigan and the Civil War

TRAVERSE CITY — Wilderness dominated the Grand Traverse region during the Civil War, but that doesn't mean area residents sat it out.

Dr. Morgan Leach, the area's first historian, estimated that one-sixth, or at least 200 of Grand Traverse County's total recorded population of 1,286 in 1860, enlisted in the Union Army.

Years later, Leach would tell the story of A.K. Fairbanks, an early Whitewater settler from upstate New York, who arrived in Elk Rapids by boat on May 6, 1861, to find the whole population waiting along the waterfront "with eager inquiries."

Had the War of the Rebellion started?

It had, three weeks before on April 12, when 50 Confederate cannons fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. By the time Fairbanks arrived in Elk Rapids, the 1st Michigan Infantry, hastily made up of trained downstate militia units, prepared to travel to Washington, D.C., the next week.

The story illustrates just how isolated and sparsely populated the Grand Traverse Bay region was during the Civil War. Accessible only by boat and Indian trails, it had no railroad or accompanying telegraph lines. The first state wagon road into the region from Newaygo County opened in July 1863. Even then, it was a rough ride.

In winter months, the area was on its own until the ice broke. News about President Abraham Lincoln's assassination also arrived two weeks late.

It's unclear whether Leach's enlistment estimates included a dozen Leelanau County Indians recruited in 1863 to serve in Company K of the Michigan 1st Sharp Shooters. Company K has the distinction of being the only all-Indian unit in the Union Army east of the Mississippi.

Overall, 140 mostly Odawa and Ojibwe Indians from Michigan served in the unit. About half of the company came from native villages stretching along Lake Michigan from Pentwater to the Straits of Mackinac.

Statewide, about 90,000 Michigan men and at least one woman served in the war. Overall, 2.7 million served in Union and Confederate forces and casualties totaled 1.1 million.

Probate Judge Curtis Fowler's sons were among them.

Curtis Fowler Jr. was wounded in late July 1861 in the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas Junction, Va., and sent home. His brother, Francis Z. Fowler, who enlisted after his brother was wounded became "the first Martyr from Grand Traverse County to the Slaveholder's Rebellion," as the Grand Traverse Herald put it. He was killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August 1862.

Text Only
Recent History Articles

Historical Photo of the Week

News From 100 Years Ago