Like many Michigan emigrants of the 1830s, Henry C. Gilbert and his father, Daniel, had roots in the farming regions of central New York State. Henry attended school at the Pompey Academy in his home town a few miles south of Syracuse, but before turning twenty-one, he and his father emigrated to southwestern Michigan. The Gilberts settled in the new village of Coldwater, on land that had been purchased from the Potawotami Indians just over a decade previously.
In Coldwater, Gilbert found fertile land in every sense of the word. In 1841, he received a certificate to enable him to hold school, but before long he and his father began to pursue more lucrative lines, establishing a dry-goods store while Henry pursued a legal career. His fortunes bloomed. After becoming Circuit Court Commissioner in 1845, Gilbert was appointed by Gov. Alpheus Felch as prosecuting attorney for Branch County in the following year and again by Epaphroditus Ransom in 1848. Gilbert's home life in Coldwater was equally productive. He married Harriet Ousley Champion (1827-1876) in a Presbyterian ceremony held on November 26, 1843, and the couple eventually had eight children, including sons, Frederick (1846-1850), James (1855-1871), Philip (1860-1938), and Henry (1862-after 1943), and daughters, Lucy (1844-1865), Grace (1849-1914), Rosamond (1851-1881), and Norah (1853-1905).
Thus within a few years of their arrival in Michigan, Gilbert and his family had firmly established themselves as vital elements in the political, social, and economic life of Coldwater. Gilbert was among the men tapped by eastern credit bureaus to provide information on local merchants for credit ratings, and the connections he established as a mason, merchant, president of the Sons of Temperance, and attorney enabled him to assist in the economic and infrastructural development of the county. At the same time, he was well able to further his own interests, supporting his growing family, and even assisting his ill-starred father-in-law in averting financial disaster in running a failing grist mill in Lima, Indiana.
Almost inevitably, Gilbert was drawn into political life. While he was allied with the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, his social politics were generally "liberal," favoring internal improvement and social causes such as moderate abolitionism. In 1848-49, he lobbied tirelessly in the new capitol, Lansing (then called Michigan City), for a bill to authorize public funds for construction of the Southern Michigan Railroad, of which he was President and a major share holder. Partly through his efforts, the railroad bill succeeded and the line was run through Coldwater in 1851. Though he did not particularly enjoy the work, Gilbert was a single-minded, even ferocious, lobbyist, even joking with his wife that he hoped that state senator H. H. Comstock, then dying with delirium tremens, would not die too soon: "we have paid for his vote for our R.R. bill & we want it" (1849 February 18).
Gilbert was particularly active in organizing for the Democratic Party during the general election of 1852, and was sent east to attend the Baltimore convention. A measure of his importance is suggested by a lengthy visit paid to him in October by the great titan of the Democracy in Michigan, Lewis Cass, and although Pierce and the Whigs won the election, Gilbert was rewarded for his yeoman's work with a plum appointment as Indian agent for Michigan, a position he retained for many years. Gilbert was a representative during the treaty negotiations at La Pointe, Wisconsin, in 1854, and made regular trips around the state to deliver annuity payments to the Chippewa and Potawotami.
It is unclear whether Gilbert had had any exposure to Spiritualism prior to 1853, but in August of that year, he attended two séances in Detroit held by one of the Fox sisters, probably Margaret. The séance was transformative for Gilbert, who received communications from several departed relatives, including his young son, Frederick. Henry became instantly convinced of the authenticity of the experience, and by 1855, he was purchasing Spiritualist tracts, seeking to broaden his understanding. In November of the following year he was excommunicated by the Presbyterian Church, "acknowledg[ing] himself to know nothing of experimental religion and desir[ing] that his name be taken from the records" (1856 November 22). His brother James W., was expelled in December, 1856, and Harriet followed in 1860. Henry subsequently helped to establish a Spiritualist church in Coldwater, personally inviting the new minister, Frederick L. H. Willis. Willis achieved brief notoriety in the early 1850s when he was dismissed from Harvard for mediumistic activities.
Throughout the decade, political demands and work as an Indian Agent took Gilbert regularly away from home, much to his and his wife's regret. In his mind, though, the demands of public life and the duties of citizenship left him little choice. "As you are a good Democrat," he joked to his wife, "you will of course cheerfully acquiesce [in the separation]... I have become a missionary, a regular missionary & you know that peculiar & very useful class of people always sacrifice themselves & their personal desires & predilections to what they consider duty. In fact, I have had a call and must respond" (1852 October 15).
Gilbert was again called upon to sacrifice his "personal desires & predilections" when the Civil War erupted. Although he was well over 40 years old in the summer of 1862, Gilbert agreed to raise a regiment for service in the Union army, and accepted a commission as colonel, driven by a fervent patriotism that made the decision inevitable. "I'm not unmindful of the claims that family have upon me," he informed Hattie, "They are sacred beyond comparison... I accept it [the commission] not with feelings of personal pride... but with profound thankfulness that I am thought capable & worthy of being assigned to such trust " (1862 August 10).
Raised in Coldwater and other towns in Branch County, the 19th Michigan Infantry mustered into service at Camp Wilcox in Dowagiac, Mich., in August. They had little opportunity to drill before being attached to the Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in September and sent to the Ohio River near Cincinnati to guard against possible Confederate invasion. A month later, they were ordered into Kentucky itself. From the beginning, Gilbert was a disciplinarian in his role as regimental commander, insisting that his soldiers refrain from the common practice of "foraging" for supplies. "It will not do in this country to let every soldier be the judge when it is right to confiscate & when not," he asserted, "They would hurt friends more than foes. Besides it demoralizes & ruins a regiment" (1862 October 27-29).
As part of the reserve, the 19th Michigan saw little action while stationed near Nicholasville, Ky., and area firmly, if only recently, in Union hands. Among their more demanding tasks was to deal with the deluge of "contrabands" escaping from slavery. Unlike some commanders, Gilbert did not prevent slave owners from recapturing fugitives, but neither did he prevent his men from getting in the way. In general, it appears as if his experiences in Kentucky, and later in Tennessee, slowly galvanized his moderate abolitionism into a more radical form. Eventually, he half-jokingly suggested that for every African-American enslaved in the south, a white rebel ought to be enslaved in the north. In his mind, there was no doubt that the war was being fought over slavery and that the fighting "must last as long as Slavery, the cause of the war, exists" (1863 September 22).
While in the reserve, Gilbert and his men complained bitterly of the inactivity of life in the rear, and were frustrated by the sense that they were accomplishing nothing to ending the war. "[H]ow can we write about war," he asked "when we neither see nor hear or know any thing about it. Our journey thus far has been more like a pleasure trip than it has like service in the field" (1862 November 22-23). After two months at Nicholasville, the 19th were ordered to Danville, apparently in an effort to check the marauding cavalry of John Morgan, but instead of Morgan, they found renewed stagnation and frustration. Gilbert, however, never flagged in his enthusiasm for prosecuting the war. He demanded that sacrifice was necessary to wage and win a war, and that a wholehearted sacrifice was absolutely necessary. "Let every man & every policy & every institution that stands in the way be unhesitatingly sacrificed," he wrote to his teenaged daughter, Lucy, "Let blood run every where & Death in every form decimate the people but let right prevail. The constitution about which so much nonsense has been printed & spoken has had its day. It is now dragging us to destruction. In such a crisis one good patriotic song is worth more than a thousand such dead carcasses" (1863 January 15-16).
At the end of January, 1863, the 19th Michigan were again ordered to move, boarding a steamboat for Nashville. Finally, Gilbert seemed to have found what he had expected. Guerrillas and Confederate cavalry operated freely in the countryside, putting heavy pressure on Union forces at every turn. It seemed that the Confederates knew how to wage "aggressive warfare" while the Union did not. "They haven't half as many men as we have but their Generals have a great deal more gumption" (1863 February 26). After moving on to Franklin, Tenn., on March 4th, the 19th Michigan (as part of 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the Reserve), were ordered on a reconnaissance toward Columbia, Tenn. As if to confirm Gilbert's opinion of the generalship in the two armies, they were surrounded near Thompson's Station by Confederate forces under Earl Van Dorn, W.H. Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and nearly half of the federal force were taken prisoner. Gilbert was held at Libby Prison until his parole in May, but despite being weak and ill, he allowed himself only one month of recuperation at home before returning to his regiment in June.
Whether in his imagination or not, after his return, Gilbert focused more intently than ever on the total destruction caused by the war, and the evacuation of huge portions of the countryside. During the summer, the 19th Michigan were posted near Guy's Gap, New Fosterville, and Murfreesboro, Tenn., attempting to suppress guerrilla activity and maintain a watch over Confederate sympathizers. In Murfreesboro, he took a young slave boy under his wing whose master had run off, and helped him to learn to read. Although tinged with a paternalist racism typical of the times, Gilbert was more prepared than most of his compatriots to accept African-Americans as soldiers and equals. He considered Black soldiers as a great benefit to the Union, and equal in quality to whites. "Give us 100,000 of them. They will fight," he wrote, adding that their very presence demoralized the south and provided a constant irritation to southerners (1863 September 26).
Shortly after losses at the Battle of Chickamauga forced reallocations of Union forces, the 19th Michigan were sent to occupy McMinnville, Tenn., a town recently captured from rebel forces and an important rail center. On October 7th, Company D was engaged nearby in a fierce fight with Confederate cavalry commanded by Joseph Wheeler, but two weeks later, the regiment was able to enter McMinnville unopposed, entering headlong into duty in a land wracked by guerrilla warfare. It did not take Gilbert long to develop a low opinion of the morality of the Tennessee guerrilla, nor of Tennessee Unionists. The 4th (East) Tennessee Cavalry, temporarily assigned to provide support to the 19th, were a "set of coarse, illiterate, lawless fellows who plunder every body & are almost as much dreaded by the Union men as by the rebels" (1863 October 26-27).
McMinnville was desolate, its citizens divided between the Union and Confederacy. Some families, he found, had sons in both armies. When he first arrived, Gilbert again displayed his disciplinarian side, refusing to permit his soldiers to plunder or forage, but the ruthlessness of the warfare soon convinced him of the tactical value of a hard hand. Eventually, he even seemed to relish the public executions of guerrillas and their sympathizers, not for the cruelty or even vengefulness, but as an instrument in pursuing a war that seemed to respect no laws or bounds. By the winter months, with no cavalry to support him, he embarked on a program to take hostages from among the local citizenry who had relatives in the Confederate army, threatening to hang one hostage for every Union man harmed. His plan worked to perfection, stopping some of the depredations committed on civilians. When possible, the regiment was also occupied in pursuing guerrillas. It was an awful business, according to Gilbert, "but there is an excitement about it that places it far above anything recorded by Cumming or Gerard the Lion Hunter. Their game were mere brutes without intelligence. Here we hunt men with brains" (1864 March 23).
The immediate task, however, was to build fortifications around the city and rail lines, for which Gilbert impressed every African-American man remaining who had not enlisted. There was a certain irony in protecting even the most extreme southern sympathizing families. When the regiment were detailed to assist local families during the hard winter with food and fuel, Gilbert expressed delight that "Women who not long ago held their heads very high & cursed the Yankee vandals in their hearts if not their lips are very glad now to get fuel & Yankee rations just as the negro family next door get theirs... Today we are feeding women & children & tomorrow perhaps killing their husbands & fathers in battle" (1864 January 7).
While McMinnville itself remained firmly in Union control, murders abounded, and guerrillas infested the countryside where no quarter was given on either side. Nonetheless, in February, 1864, Gilbert arranged for his nine year old son, Jamie, to come to Tennessee for a visit. Jamie became a popular mascot among the soldiers, learning to play the drum. He seems generally to have enjoyed himself in McMinnville, but when the regiment was ordered to join in the Atlanta Campaign in late April, Jamie was sent home. Passing through Gordon's Gap and falling into entrenchments near Buzzard's Roost, the regiment entered the front lines expecting a stiff fight at Resaca. On May 12th, Col. Gilbert wrote to his wife, "Our cause is holy & just & we must succeed. Whether I shall live to see & share the triumph the future must determine." The next day he died of wounds received at the Battle of Resaca. He is buried with his wife, children, and brother in the cemetery in Coldwater, overlooking Randall Lake.