The three sons of the Aplin family of Genessee County, Michigan all volunteered for service in the Civil War and remained in the army until death or war's end. Apparently the Aplin family circle offered little in the way of warmth or security, and in fact teen-aged Arthur, or "Tommy," had run away from home to escape the unhappy situation there. Writing to his sister Sarah in 1859, Tommy denies running away, but says that in any case "I do not think I done wrong for it was not Home..." The collection reveals nothing of family life, but the parents separated a few years later, and mother Elvira Aplin never made reference to her husband or his family without bitterness and criticism. To the Aplin boys, joining the army probably seemed like an improvement on their present lot. But they were not to have an easy time of it there, either.
Henry, known as Tip, served with the Army of the Potomac in Fitz John Porter's 1st division. The 16th Michigan started its service with the ill-fated Peninsula campaign, then fought at second Bull Run in August, 1862, taking heavy casualties at Gaines Mills, Malvern Hill, and Bull Run. In the Maryland campaign the regiment supported the line of artillery at Antietam and afterward participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Middleburg, and Gettysburg, coming out of the fight for Little Round Top with 55 killed or wounded. Moving back into Virginia, the regiment saw action at Kelly's Ford and Mine Run and then, reforming after reenlistment and furlough, rejoined the same brigade, division, and corps of the Army of the Potomac. It remained in Virginia for the rest of the war, participating in various engagements and in the siege of Petersburg, and was mustered out in July 1865.
Henry Aplin was captured at Savage Station, Va. on July 30, 1862, but spent only a couple of weeks in a Richmond prison before parole to Annapolis. His exchange took some months, so Tip profited from the enforced free time by running a small-scale sutler's business. Meanwhile, his company sustained heavy losses, and by the time he returned in late 1862 only 27 of the original 96 remained. Now assigned to the Quartermaster's department, Henry Aplin continued to sell goods on the side up until being made a sergeant in the spring of 1865, at which point he decided that speculating was unbecoming an officer. Although he was never wounded, and managed to endure his short prison stint well because he had money to buy extra food, Tip did suffer a seriously debilitating case of diarrhea in the summer of 1864. He was able to recover thanks to a cousin who took pains to get him proper food and understanding officers who relieved him of duty so that he could regain strength.
After the war Henry Aplin married and ran a news and stationery business in West Bay City, Michigan and, becoming a leading Michigan Republican, served in a number of local, state, and national political offices. He was, at various times, postmaster of West Bay City, township clerk and treasurer, chairman of the 10th district Republican Congressional Committee, state auditor general, state representative, and Congressman. He had been elected to fill a vacancy in 1901, but was not re-nominated for Congress.
George Aplin had been a schoolteacher before the war, and also owned some land and livestock which he hastily left in the care of his uncle upon joining the army. His 10th Michigan regiment served with the western Army; ranging from Tennessee to Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. It was first assigned to General Pope's division, taking part in the siege of Corinth and then acting as provost guard at Tuscumbia, Alabama. Marching to Nashville in September 1862, the 10th was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland and spent the winter guarding trains and doing reconnaissance. In the fall of 1863 the regiment moved into Georgia to occupy towns around Chickamauga, and in February 1864 took part in fighting at Buzzard's Roost, near Dalton, Ga. After a furlough the men returned to Chattanooga to begin the Georgia campaign with General Sherman's Army. The 10th disbanded on August 1, 1865.
George Aplin covered a lot of ground in hard marches, but did not take part in the kind of grueling, bloody campaigns experienced by Tip in the Army of the Potomac. Like his brother, he did some minor speculating in goods acquired from home, but George's real amateur avocation was journalism -- he wrote long letters to the Flint Citizen, whose editor praised his detailed accounts of army life. He also had the time and energy for minor romantic pursuits during his extended stay in Nashville, and considered settling there after the war. Other than bouts of ague and bowel complaints, George Aplin weathered military service well, and attained the rank of first lieutenant shortly before his regiment disbanded. Afterward he returned home, married, and unsuccessfully tried his hand at farming. Debts forced foreclosure on his property and, in poverty, he managed to get a political patronage appointment through the influence of his brother Tip. He tried, evidently unsuccessfully, to collect on military service claims. Until the end of his life George Aplin faithfully attended 10th Regiment reunions and kept in touch with fellow veterans.
Youngest brother Arthur [Tommy] Aplin enlisted after running away from home. His 35th Illinois infantry regiment, part of the Army of the Cumberland, saw action at Pea Ridge, then remained mostly in Tennessee, with forays into Mississippi and Kentucky. In late 1862 and early 1863 it participated in the fighting at Perryville, Kentucky. and Stone's River, Tennessee Tommy was wounded at Pea Ridge, suffered complications from ague and recovered slowly. For his bold participation in raids and skirmishes in the vicinity of Murfeesboro, Tennessee he was cited for bravery and made corporal in the spring of 1863, but by May, for unknown reasons, had been demoted to private. Part of the 35th regiment was placed on guard duty at Lunette Thomas, a convalescent camp near Murfeesboro, in July 1863. Tommy soon tired of this "easy duty" and petitioned to rejoin his comrades at the front, but was not permitted to do so until March of 1864. Shortly thereafter he was wounded, and in July died in a military hospital after being moved several times and developing complications.
Tommy was the temperamental, rebellious Aplin brother, and he accused his mother and relatives at home of criticizing and abandoning him. At one point he vowed never to return to Michigan. After he died his mother was overcome by guilt to learn that her son had had no money to acquire things he needed while in the hospital, and blamed herself for his death. She became obsessed with having the body returned home, which evidently was accomplished, as the collection includes a receipt for his zinc coffin.
At home, mother Elvira Aplin shifted for herself with the help of money sent home by her sons, especially Tip, whose sutler's business prospered. In July 1863 she left her home and husband, taking "only my clothes and bed" and began living with various relatives. During this period she tried to look out for George's business affairs, but as he had given her no legal power to do so, she could mostly only report on how things were being mismanaged by his Uncle Wilson. Elvira frequently sent packages of foods, medicine, and stationery to her sons, both for their own use and for Tip and George to resell. She wrote to all of them (although only the letters to George survive), passing on information from one to the other, giving news of home, offering commentary on the war as she heard about it from them and from the newspapers, advising them on conduct and morality. After the war she made her home with George and his family.
A daughter, Sarah Louisa Aplin, supported herself meagerly as a schoolteacher during the war, and like her mother, awaited her brothers' return in hopes of having a settled home once again. Another daughter, Mary, also called Helen, was married to George Wheeler and lived in Bay City, Michigan. The Wheelers took in Elvira Aplin for extended periods after her separation from her husband.
The Aplin papers are most valuable not as a record of military service, for the news of battle and camp is meager and often second-hand, but as an expression of life on the home front, largely from a woman's point of view. Most of the letters (78) are from mother Elvira Aplin to son George. They are lengthy, colorful, and highly opinionated statements of her views on southerners, Copperheads, Union officers, the economic and political scene at home, the draft, war strategy, religion, and -- above all -- the behavior of her sons. On June 11, 1863 she writes, "I feel as tho I could bear any other trouble better than to hear my children have lost their good names," and admonishes George that "[y]our patriotism is all right, but you are apt to be a little tardy, and do not always render that obedience to superior officers that your oath requires." Of his journalistic efforts, she remarked that it was not proper to write "how many die there every week, and how the dead are buried after battle. I don't doubt the both of them, but it does no good to tell it, and it makes the friends of the sick and of those who die in battle feel very bad to read such accounts, while they cannot do anything to make it better." (1863 March 16) Elvira found fault with Tommy and George for not saving any of their money, as Tip did, and provoked her youngest son's fiery temper with such criticism.
Mrs. Aplin's disapproval focused on larger targets as well; as the war dragged on, she lost all patience with Union officers and developed a simmering hatred of Confederate leaders and sympathizers. A letter of March 28, 1865 tells of her fervent wish to hear that "the officers of the Southern empire army and navy have been suspended from the trees. Hunt the gurillas like wolves till the land is rid of them. Then I want the soldiers to come home and punish the northern Copperheads till they will never dare to sympathize with the south again." Southern culture also failed to impress; Elvira remarked of a magazine George had sent home "[i]f that is a specimen of southern literature I think almost any of our northern blockheads could write for periodicals in that country. ... They need a little more larnin as bad as I do." Behind Elvira's ornery criticisms lay a deep sadness and unease as she yearned for "this butchering of human beings be done away ... while there is a few left alive." She came to see herself and Sarah as perpetual wanderers who would "spend the rest of our lives alone, in this dreary world alone, without home or friend."
14 letters from Sarah Aplin to George also offer commentary on the home front, but are less detailed and expressive. School-teacher Sarah was clearly of milder temperament than her mother, but did indulge in good-natured teasing about her brother's southern girlfriends. Two brief comments in letters of her mother and of friend Ellen Johnson refer to Sarah being left a "grass widder." Since there are no references to a child being born, presumably this means she had been spurned by a suitor -- another of the many trials she and Elvira had to bear during these years.
Sister Helen [Aplin] Wheeler's 7 letters to George offer a contrast to Sarah's articulate and grammatical writing, revealing her prejudices and lack of education. Expressing the opinion that blacks are better off enslaved, she asks whether her brother went to war "to liberate them paltry slaves or for the constitution..." Helen teasingly requests that he send her "some collard girl that knows how to work," carefully noting that she prefers "a darkey girl ... that was quite good looking not one of the real black ones..." (1863 February 9, March 16)
An interesting subset of correspondence consists of 20 letters to George from Ellen Johnson, whom he later married. Some of the letters feature coy references to their courtship, while others remark on more substantive matters. "There is to be another draft and I hope they will take all the cowards and runaways that is in the country. And those that have gone to Canada have got to be branded so that we will know them in after days if they ever return," she writes on February 15, 1863. As the war drags on Ellen bitterly remarks that "some of our nigger loving friends say that the war will be ended in two months. I don't see what reason they have for thinking so." (1863 March 23)
23 letters to George and Sarah from brothers Tip and Tommy include some information on their war experiences and attitudes. Tommy's letters are particularly revealing, as he expresses resentment of his mother's criticisms, chafes with impatience to get back in the fighting, boasts that he does not fear death and has had a premonition of dying, and shows his disregard for military rules and regulations. On August 1, 1862 he writes of his dislike for guard duty: "I tell you this kind of guarding goes against the grain with me & when I am guarding a secesh orchard or cornfield I never see anything that is a going on if I can help it I never see any of the boys till they get their haversacks full & they always outrun me I never catched one yet..."
The collection contains just 8 wartime letters by George Aplin, who shows his journalistic bent in a long July 5, 1862 missive to "James" which chronicles his regiment's journey south and initial war experiences around Corinth, Mississippi, including colorful opinions on the people, houses, and landscape. One of 4 letters from George to Sarah Aplin includes a description and pencil sketch of Iuka, Mississippi, a watering place with mineral springs. (1862 July 27)
Although the bulk of the Aplin Family Papers date from the Civil War years, there is enough post-war material to round out the family saga. Tip fared reasonably well in business and politics, while George struggled. Elvira had a home once more, with George's family, but must have shared in the hardships. Post-war correspondence with lawyers, creditors, the War Dept., and Tip offers a sad picture of George's financial difficulties and failures, as he lost his farm and had to rely on his brother for money and help in getting work. His war experience was to be the highlight of George Aplin's life. The collection includes a photograph of him in military uniform at the age of 77, reliving past glories.