The Henry C. Gilbert papers consist of a substantial body of personal and business correspondence documenting a long and successful public career. As attorney, Indian agent, political hand, and Colonel of a regiment of Civil War volunteers, Gilbert served his state and nation for over twenty years, giving his life in the cause. His letters, mostly addressed to his wife, Hattie (Harriet), are extremely literate, tinged with a good natured sense of humor, though occasionally a black humor, and a deeply felt affection for family and nation. At his best, Gilbert is a passionate, keenly observant writer who never minces his words or hides his opinions. His forthrightness and firmness of opinion come through in nearly every letter, as does his sense of fun and fair play.
The Gilbert papers are arranged into several series. The first four boxes comprise the main run of correspondence, both professional and personal, written between 1826 and his death in May, 1864. The correspondence begins in earnest after Gilbert's move to Michigan. The early part of the collection is dominated by letters stemming from his work as prosecuting attorney for Branch County, providing a limited indication of crime and criminality in rural western Michigan in the 1840s. There are three extensive reports on Branch County merchants prepared by Gilbert in 1845 that give an indication of their viability for credit agencies.
Gilbert's employment as an Indian agent is somewhat sketchily documented, though there is a very nice series of five letters written while Gilbert was distributing annuity payments in the upper Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula in the fall of 1853. The best of these includes a nice description of the Indian village at Cross Village at the northern limit of the Lower Peninsula. Unfortunately, Gilbert's letters from the field tend to be somewhat sparse of detail, and are generally shorter than average.
For many researchers, the heart of the Gilbert papers is the 210 letters written while he was colonel of the 19th Michigan Infantry. These letters form a complete and detailed history of the activities of the regiment from its formation in July, 1862, through the death of Col. Gilbert at the Battle of Resaca on May 13, 1864. Although the regiment was in the rear during much of this period, assigned to reserve duty with the Army of the Cumberland in Kentucky and Tennessee, they nevertheless provide an important perspective on the war, as well as on the attitudes, motivations, and duties of an officer. Gilbert was ideologically driven, and less concerned for self-glorification or promotion than for the ardent and ceaseless pursuit of the war against secession and slavery. While he did not follow the radicalism of his cousin, Theodore Dwight Weld, he was a moderate abolitionist and held progressive views on race relations. Some of his best letters are filled with a strident patriotism and calls to sacrifice for the survival of the Union.
The significance of Gilbert's Civil War letters lies in their documentation of the activities of the army of occupation in Kentucky and Tennessee. Although the 19th Michigan was not involved in many major battles prior to Resaca, Gilbert's letters paint a vivid picture of the brutality of the guerrilla conflict in East Tennessee and the resulting devastation. Gilbert leaves no doubt that he considered the situation to be an inevitable result of civil war and a necessity in meeting the political goal of ending the war and slavery. His transformation from a stern disciplinarian into a more ruthless and rigid commander under the pressure of guerrilla violence is a particularly interesting feature of the collection.
In one letter and in his diary, Gilbert provides an account of the Union debacle at the Battle of Thompson's Station and of his capture by Confederate forces. Information on his imprisonment at Libby Prison in Richmond is sketchy, but between his diary entries for this period and five letters a strong sense emerges of the physical and psychological hardships he endured. His toughness, though, resulted in his very rapid return to active duty.
Among other miscellaneous items of note in the collection is a humorous description of Gilbert's visit to the home in of Theodore Dwight Weld and Sarah and Angelina Grimké in Belleville, N.J. (1849 July 22). To his annoyance, Gilbert, the smoking, coffee guzzling carnivore, found that the lot of them were on the Graham system, eschewing meat, caffeine, and tobacco. Of equal interest are two exceptional descriptions of séances with one of the Fox sisters, held in Detroit in 1853 (1853 August 26, 29). Gilbert is at his literary best in conveying the emotional power of these séances and the mechanics of the séance itself.
Box 5 of the Gilbert papers contains correspondence and records relating to the Southern Michigan Railroad, 1848-1852. As the only one of three railroad lines planned for Michigan to be completed in the 1850s, the Southern Michigan Railroad established an important communications and commercial link between the eastern and western parts of the state. As President, stock holder, and chief lobbyist in Lansing, Gilbert was instrumental in securing passage of a bill in 1849 to help finance the construction of the line.
The Southern Michigan Railroad series contains a considerable body of detailed information regarding the laying out and financing of the line, including 74 letters received by Gilbert between June, 1849, and December, 1851, contracts, time sheets for laborers, surveys for right of way, and information on stocks and dividends. Additional information on the railroad can be found in letters from Gilbert to his wife, filed in the main correspondence series.
Finally, the Champion-Warner series relates to Gilbert's financial entanglements with his father-in-law, Reuben Champion, with whom he was often at odds. Most of these items are deeds and legal documents relating to the grist mill in Lima, Ind.