The Sixth Michigan Infantry In the Heat of Louisiana
by Gordon Thorsby
The Interior of the Confederate Fortifications at Port Hudson (holes were dug by soldiers hiding from large caliber shelling)
The fame that Michigan regiments earned were most often for the severity of the battles that they were engaged in and the glory for their deeds. However, who suffered the most deaths? Surely the renowned 24th Michigan Infantry of the Iron Brigade? No. How about Custer’s 7th Michigan Cavalry? The 22nd Michigan Infantry who made the suicidal defense on Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga? Not them either. How about the 16th Michigan or the 1st Michigan? Nope. Far from it. The Michigan regiment that suffered more deaths during the war was the unexpectedly and lesser-known 6th Michigan Infantry.
The regiment organized in Kalamazoo in mid-August,1861 ten days after the first major battle of the war, First Bull Run. Many of the recruits were from towns nearby like, Battle Creek, Jackson, Paw Paw, Niles, other places in southwest Michigan, and of course Kalamazoo. Officially 996 men mustered, and they moved out to Baltimore at the end of the month. It arrived at Baltimore in the midst of strong secessionist sentiment in the town, but all remained quiet.
The rest of 1861 involved a small incursion down the Virginia shore where the 6th displayed a special distinction for a regiment. Author Eric Faust, who wrote a recent regimental history described it as consistent “serial insubordination with an “extraordinary propensity to destroy private dwellings." Looting, burning and freeing slaves (at the time, the actions violated the Lincoln Administration policy) was a standard practice for the unit. Apparently, its field grade officers made little effort to discourage it and all its officers fought with brigade level commanders. More interestingly, the behavior did not infect its fighting abilities that would become evident in 1862 and beyond.
In February 1862, the 6th was sent to the Gulf where it became part of the Union’s campaign to seize of the lower Mississippi under Gen. Benjamin Butler. With New Orleans invested, the regiment was detailed on a series of expeditions to tear up military property, railroads that moved enemy troops and supplies, and suppress Louisiana guerilla activity. It attacked a guerilla group at Grand Gulf and sacked the town as a result of its support for the resistance. It participated on other expeditions practicing its craft of looting that the regiment excelled at.
In the summer of 1862, Sixth Michigan officers including its Colonel Curtenius refused to expel slaves from being in camp and Gen. Williams arrested all field rank officers. The regiment command devolved to a captain for the Battle of Baton Rouge. In addition, over half of the regiment was hospitalized from diseases of the climate that were claiming soldiers each day.
On August 5, 1862, Confederate forces under Gen John C. Breckridge attacked Baton Rouge. Private George Welton of Co F. wrote, “Many of [our sick] took their places in line of battle from the convalescent wards of the different hospitals of the city.” The disease-reduced regiment was broken up for various duties on the field. Three companies totaling about 130 men under Captain John Corden were placed in line near Magnolia Cemetery. While the fight increased these three companies were in peril of being cut off by the Fourth and Thirtieth Louisiana regiments. As retold by one soldier:
“There was little air there was stirring bringing the smoke of the firing all to our front, we were consequently unable to see 10 rods in our front. But we could hear and knew that we should soon have a hand in the affair. As we lay on the ground, we could see under the fog to the height of about a man’s knees and I could plainly see the legs of the Johnnies long before we could distinguish their forms through the dense obscurity. Captain Charles E. Clark [Co. D], commanding the detachment, ordered us to lie close and preserve silence until ordered to commence firing and I distinctly remember how terribly anxious I was to begin business.”
The three companies with support from artillery held off and then counterattacked in a bold
bayonet charge, capturing the colors of the 9th Louisiana Battalion. Baton Rouge was the worst battle in terms of losses suffered by the regiment in any engagement of the war.
In the second half of 1862, the 6th lost a large number of soldiers to death from disease and discharges. As of December 6, the regiment, that departed Michigan fifteen months prior with 996 men and officers, now reported a mere 191 men present for duty.
In January 1863, the regiment participated in the expedition to destroy the Confederate gunboat “J. A. Cotton” at Bayou Teche. The rebel gunboat, while recently outnumbered, managed to damage four Union gunboats in a standing gunfight. A raid was put in motion to end the existence of the "Cotton." The Sixth Michigan was part of the infantry involved in the raid. The Confederate authorities fearing capture, burned the gunboat to the water's edge.
In May,1863, Nathaniel Banks besieged Port Hudson while Grant besieged Vicksburg. The Sixth Migan participated in two badly planned and executed assaults. In the first assault on May 27, the 6th charged across open fields and swamps, thickets and abatis to reach the
the parapets beyond. When they did manage to reach the fortifications, not enough men were left to be able to withstand counterattacks, so they retreated leaving their dead and wounded on the parapets. In the second assault, their losses were low because of the regiment's well-known reputation of not heeding orders. Captain Corden refused to proceed knowing that the regiment would be slaughtered.
When Vicksburg fell on July 4th, Port Hudson was the only obstruction on the Mississippi left. The defenders realized the hopelessness of fighting and surrendered on the 9th. The Sixth Michigan had only160 men and officers answering roll call. The regiment received commendation for bravery, but the soldiers would have preferred sober and more intelligent commanders.
Banks converted the regiment into the 6th Michigan Heavy Artillery on July 28th and the active regiment became a garrison regiment for the rest of the war. It earned yet another unique feature as a Michigan unit, the only Heavy Artillery regiment from Michigan. In March,1864, its term of enlistment over, the regiment of miscreants reorganized with a surprising 247 men re-enlisting. Groups of soldiers were detached to various garrisons and posts throughout the gulf, mostly around Mobile Bay. The regiment was mustered out on Sept. 5, 1865.
In the course of the war, the Sixth Michigan suffered 80 were killed or mortally wounded, 13 died in Confederate prisons and 504 men died of southern and heat related diseases, for a total of 595 fatalities and the most for regiments around the Great Lakes.
Friend Rundell was 29 years old when he enlisted at Brady, west of Chesaning, on January 4, 1864, Co. I as a Private. Like many other veterans, Rundell lived long after the war, 55 years when he died in 1920. He was buried in his annual place of visitation on Decoration Day at Wildwood Cemetery, Chesaning MI. After the War Rundell lived near today’s Brady Rd.
Ashley West was 18 years old from St. Charles, MI when he enlisted on January 12,1864 as private and put in Co. K. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery in St. Charles.
Both of them served at Spanish Fort in the last siege of the war, the Siege at Mobile Bay.
History of the 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, by Belknap, William, Bentley Library, University of Michigan, 1908.
The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster by Eric R. Faust McFarland, 2020.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, The Union Army, vol. 5.
Historical Data Systems, Inc., P.O. Box 35, Duxbury, MA 02331.
"The Battle of Baton Rouge," Harper's Weekly, September 6, 1862.