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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Twenty-Sixth Michigan, Used Up Before They Knew It in 1864

by Gordon Thorsby

Painting by Thure de Thulstrup


The 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry mustered-in on December 12, 1862, with 903 men. Its assembly was somewhat unusual. The Twenty-Fifth Michigan already sent into the field failed to properly gather all of its recruits from the intended counties so the remaining men were sent to Jackson and formed two companies that helped fill the quota of the 26th Michigan. The Twenty-sixth was first commanded first by Col. Judson Farrar and its volunteers were primarily from Southern Michigan with a few additions from the Traverse City area. Soldiers included:


Benjamin Batchelor (below) from Hartland who enlisted in Co E. At 22 as a 1st Lieutenant.

Sewell Parker came over from the 4th Michigan infantry at the formation of the regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in Co. A.

Augustus Godfrey, 19, was from Vergennes and went into Co. I as Private.

Franklin Johnson, 21, was commissioned Captain of Co. D.


It was after the regiment took the field between May and the end of July1864 that the regiment fought some of the most severe and deadliest engagements of the entire war. Every man who served would forever remember that short span of time.


Franklin Johnson, Captain


Soon after their arrival in Washington the 26th proceeded to southeastern Virginia, for the Suffolk Campaign where it performed guard duty and dug trenches. In late June, the 26th was not engaged so it was one of the first regiments sent to New York to quell the Draft

Riots. Other regiments arrived after Gettysburg with the 26th one of only three non-New York regiments. Its soldiers began to think the war would be easy but their “dream “was soon shattered when they were ordered to Alexandria and joined the First Brigade, First Division of the I I Corps.

The 26th Michigan was under the leadership ladder of President Abraham Lincoln, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock, Maj. Gen. Francis Barlow, Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles, and finally Col. Farrar. Put those commanders together and the men had little chance to avoid anything but the worst fighting.


It was here that Eugene Webber of Brant traveled to nearby Williamston and joined in Co. H with the regiment in February 1864 at sixteen (turned 17 one month later.)


On the 11th of May the two armies clashed at Spotsylvania. The Twenty-sixth made a reconnaissance across the Po River and confirmed the rebels were well entrenched losing three killed and fifteen wounded in the encounter. It was on the 12th that the 26th played a major role in the attack on the “Muleshoe” and some of the most barbaric fighting in U.S. history. The II Corps launched its attack in-depth in the pre-dawn darkness, in a torrential rain and one mile from the breastworks. Benjamin Bachelor recalled, “The orders were to move forward quietly as possibly until close to the works when with fixed bayonets,” then increase to “a double quick and yell.” Muskets were not capped to prevent soldiers from stopping and firing until they reached the Confederate. Gen. Nelson Miles described the advance from his point of view:


You could hear the sputtering sound, like the fall of hail, the thud of their bullets fell on the heads or shoulders of the men in our ranks. As those in front fell, the ranks in rear stepped, or jumped, over their bodies…


Officers of the 26th considered it the first to reach the “Muleshoe” and to plant the colors on the breastworks. Regimental organization disintegrated in the dark with thousands of men in blue or gray clawing away at one another. The mud was so bad that soldiers had difficulty standing. Another officer recalled that, “the dead were piled in heaps…It is a wonder how anyone could have lived through those long hours of murderous conflict in which trees were cut down and the breastworks themselves torn up by musket balls.” Fighting raged until men stopped simply to regain strength and begin fighting again. Confederate forces eventually wore down repeated Union efforts and withdrew from the killing ground. For any man who

was there Northern or Southern, nobody was a winner, and nobody was a loser. Victory was having survived it. The regiment’s losses were 41 men killed, 98 wounded, and 14 missing. Most believed the 14 were actually buried in the mud in the “Muleshoe.”


What of the men mentioned in herein?

Webber survived the assault.

Bachelor was wounded inside the “Muleshoe” but survived. He sought escape and received it with a commission as 1st Lieutenant in the 28th USCT Infantry.

Parker who came over from the 4th survived it all.

Augustus Godfrey (right) was killed in the fighting.

Johnson was shot in the left ankle and received an amputation.

Two of the five remained in the ranks.


Two weeks later on the 30th, the two armies met again near Cold Harbor. The brigade was ordered to perform a reconnaissance across the Totopotomy Creek to see if the rebels were in strength. The 26th waded across in waist deep swamp water and under heavy musket fire with nowhere to hide in the fruitless advance. It was amazing that the men survived but they did, and they discovered that the Confederates there were in strength.


Webber was believed wounded at Totopotomy Creek, stabilized and sent to Detroit arriving on Oct 14,1864 where he recovered by June,1865 and sent home to Brant.

Parker (below) decided in mid-July to take a promotion back in the 4th Michigan and Parker missed Totopotomy and not the 26th.

None were left.


It was at Deep Bottom on July 27 that the regiment achieved its greatest victory. The brigade was ordered to eliminate a gun emplacement harassing Federal shipping on the James River. Graham’s Confederate Rockbridge Artillery of four 20-lb. Parrott guns were supported by Henagan’s 800 men of consolidated regiments from South Carolina. The 26th was positioned opposite the guns with the 183d Pennsylvania. The brigade's charge across the open field was certain slaughter and it surprised the Confederates that Federals would even try. The advance was quick and when within 50 yards, the rebel cannoneers panicked leaving the guns. The battery was taken.



In the Appomattox Campaign in April 1865, the 26th suffered sixty casualties of the 260 men still in the ranks. The regiment suffered a loss of 118 killed in fighting and 159 of disease but the numbers lost to disability discharge was unusually high for regiments.


The 26th Michigan Infantry’s fighting was nothing short of impressive and when the war was its most savage. For the veterans they had their reunions like all other regiments but their memories in the pouring rain and darkness of May 12th,1864 was not something the men wanted to recall.


Sources:

"26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry," published 15 November 2019 by John Bradley https://ss.sites.mtu.edu/mhugl/2019/11/15/26th-michigan-volunteer-infantry/.


The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and Road to Yellow Tavern, by Rhea, Gordon C., Louisiana State University Press, 1997, PP 236-237.


Cold Harbor, by Rhea Gordon C., Louisiana State University Press, 2002, Pp 294-295.


The Siege of Petersburg and The Battles of the Weldon Railroad, by Horn John, by Savas Beatie, pp 662-64.


A Campaign of Giants, by Greene, A. Wilson, University of North Carolina Press, 2018, PP 402-404.


26th Michigan: “Through Those Long Hours of Murderous Conflict,” posted on February 2, 2019, by Nathan Varnold, Emerging Civil War.


#civilwar #history #military #michigancivilwar



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