Deadline Now: Donald Buerk and Jack Dempsey
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Deadline Now: Donald Buerk and Jack Dempsey

Friday, April 29, 2011

Don Buerk, professor of history at Defiance College, and Jack Dempsey, author of the new book Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice, discuss the Civil War, Michigan's and Ohio's roles in the conflict and much more. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, when shots were first fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Here are Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this edition of Deadline Now:

When the Civil War began, Michigan had less than one-tenth the population it does today. Nevertheless, fifteen thousand soldiers from the state died or went missing in the war.
That’s more than two percent of Michigan’s 1860 population, the equivalent of  two hundred thousand lives today. The state hasn’t lost that many soldiers in any conflict since, including World War II.

The war produced famous heroes like George Armstrong Custer, who would later sully his reputation and come to a bad end at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and also forgotten ones like Elon Farnsworth, a boy general of twenty-five, who lost his life needlessly  because of a superior officer’s stupidity at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The war did in fact set brother against brother, not so much in Michigan, where there was little sympathy for the south. But it also brought men together who had been enemies, or at least opponents. Abraham Lincoln and Lewis Cass had little use for each other in 1848, when Lincoln was a brash young congressman and Cass, then Michigan’s most famous politician, was the Democratic nominee for president. Matter of fact, Lincoln made fun of Cass, who was more than a little stout, calling him a name that has lasted the ages. Lincoln called him “the great Michigander.“ 

Yet during the Civil War, Cass, by then an old man, did his best to rally support and raise troops for the union cause. Michiganders were neither all saints nor all patriots during the long and bloody conflict. There was a race riot of sorts in Detroit in 1863. The next year, the Detroit area, sick of the war, voted against Lincoln, though he managed to carry the state.

The Michigan that emerged from the war’s end was, like the country itself, a changed and rapidly changing place. But though other wars have come and gone and are now largely forgotten, the Civil War and its legacy remain fascinating.

A few weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, a baby was born on a Dearborn farm who would change Michigan further still. His name was Henry Ford. He thought, by the way, that history was bunk. But when it comes to the Civil War, William Faulkner was closer to the truth when he said, “The past isn’t dead and buried. It isn’t even past.” 

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