Civil War Collections Online

Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

"Gettysburg, July 3, 1863," from Guernsey,
Alfred H. Harper's Pictorial History of the
Civil War. Chicago, 1868.

"Civil War has commenced! The feverish excitement that has so long existed has now, in great part, given away to a sensation of horror and intense sorrow at the announcement that the long expected yet dreaded storm has burst over Fort Sumter. Alas for our beloved country!!" So wrote an Adrian, MI merchant Adrian in his journal on April 13, 1861, reflecting the speed and decisiveness with which the state of Michigan responded to the outbreak of the war.

As the first year passed, with no end of the war in sight and the Northern armies repulsed in almost every major engagement, initial enthusiasm for the war was replaced by discouragement. As the tide of battle slowly turned through 1863, people rallied from despondency and by the war's end, the citizens of Michigan felt that they had done their whole duty: their cavalrymen were among the most celebrated in the Union armies and Michigan regiments, feared by the Rebels, had borne the brunt of many well-fought fields and were present in every major encounter.

The Bentley Historical Library has more than 400 collections pertaining to the participation of Michigan men and military units in the Civil War as well as the experiences of family and friends on the home front. In 2010-2011, the Bentley digitized 157 collections that had been previously microfilmed to increase access to these important materials and commemorate the conflict's sesquicentennial anniversary.

These collections range in size from a single letter or diary fragment up to multiple folders of letters as well as volumes of diaries, notebooks, or reminiscences. The materials furthermore vary greatly in degree of literacy, legibility, and content. Diary entries might be brief comments about daily weather conditions or detailed descriptions of camp life and battles participated in. The collections of letters are strongest for what was going on the war front with less information about activities of those who remained behind. All, however, offer an authentic view of the Civil War as it was experienced by the men and women of Michigan who lived through the conflict.

These records and observations are a rich source of information that the historian can find in no other place. They record, day by day, all aspects of these experiences from the induction camps, where one recruit wrote: "I have got to be a soldier and it is a fine thing," to mustering out and the long hoped-for journey home.