A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me."
- Robert E. Lee
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
- Abraham Lincoln
"Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."
- Last words of Thomas “Stonewall" Jackson
The period of history from 1861-1865 that marks the division of our country during the United States Civil War carries deep ramifications throughout the fabric of our society. Apart from the defining battles, loss of life, and abolition of slavery that marked this conflict, it was a period that ushered in significant economic and societal changes throughout the landscape and fabric of America, which are still felt to this day.
It is within this backdrop that The Saginaw Castle Museum is chronicling the contributions made by men from the Saginaw Valley that fought in this great conflict, along with the ramifications of that war upon our region in a fascinating new exhibition entitled Home From the War: Saginaw’s Civil War Veterans, which will run through April 29th.
With a focus upon this defining moment in our nation’s history that also commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the end of the Civil War, highlighted in the exhibit is the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization that was composed of veterans who served in the Civil War for Northern forces.
According to Castle Museum Deputy Director Tom Trombley, “This exhibit is really about the vets that returned back to Saginaw after the Civil war and the people who moved and came to this Saginaw area that were veterans of that war. It’s easy to forget how Saginaw’s population more than doubled during this time; plus this period also coincides with the profound change in national settlement patterns, and also coincides with the beginning of Saginaw’s great lumbering boon.”
While assembling this impressive exhibition, Trombley says a key goal was to capture the local side of national events and the fact that the Castle Museum possesses a strong collection of items relating to the commemoration of the Civil War from local veteran organizations was important when it came to structuring the exhibit.
“The first national veterans organization formed in the United States was the Grand Army of the Republic, which reached its peak membership in 1890,” he explains. “Michigan had three or four encampments and the largest yearly encampment was held in Saginaw, which attracted over 16,000 veterans to Saginaw.”
Consequently, the exhibit begins with a set of ribbons given out at this encampment. “The company that made these ribbons was from New Jersey,” explains Tom, “and they also happened to invent the celluloid pin button. If you look at one from the Women’s Relief Corp you’ll see a sawmill pictured on the backside, which is ironic insofar as the end of Saginaw’s lumbering era was already happening and the Grand Army of the Republic was shrinking in numbers, as soldiers started passing away.”
In addition to depicting images of many monuments from the Civil War period erected around the community, Trombley notes how all exist today except for one that was originally located between Hoyt Library and The Castle Museum. Erected by Governor Bliss from Saginaw and the loyal citizens of Hemlock in memory of GAR members, this fountain was moved to Bliss Park in 1937 only to get blown over in a storm several years later. “Today all that remains is a pedestal,” explains Trombley, “the granite base was blown over in 1941 and the statue was lost. But we did open one of two time capsules last year at the 100-year mark of its sealing. Apart from finding old newspapers, we found many items that relate to the growth of the community; and one thing we found after we opened the lid was the copy of a 1914 article along with several photos recovered of officers of the regiment from the Saginaw area.”
One of the shining pieces in this exhibit is a History of the Regiment on loan from Hoyt Library that consisted of 20 or 30 volumes. “It was published early in the 20th Century,” explains Tom, “and each of these regiments is from Michigan. It is the only memorial book that has survived. Unfortunately, when we opened the time capsule everything was wet so we had to have the items freeze dried; but the newspapers were remarkably intact. The books can be opened but want to crumble.”
Other notable items featured in this exhibit include the marching drum used by a family from Chesaning, along with an incredible collection of carved wooden figurines carved by John Revard along with a chest that belonged to Captain Dexter Keeler. “ He worked on the Paramount Railroad and also worked on the Bancroft Hotel and his granddaughter gave it to us,” notes Trombley. “When the announcement of the Civil War was made at a public meeting, thousands met at Genesee Avenue and the very first troops left for the war from the front of The Bancroft Hotel, which we are fortunate to have a photo of. As for Revard’s carved statutes, he was a grocer and carpenter when he moved to Saginaw in the 1880s and worked on these for 25-years with his jack-knife. They are remarkably detailed.”
Other noteworthy items included in the collection include a beautiful carved wooden cabinet made by Henry Feige, a German immigrant who’s family started a furniture factory before the civil war, along with a photo of Governor Bliss wearing his GAR metal.
“When people returned from the Civil war a major change had taken place in this world,” reflects Trombley. “Much of the farmland in the East was worn out, so there was a lot of expansion during that period that migrated to the Saginaw area. It was a case of Manifest Destiny and the notion that Saginaw was a place you could come to build a new life with a great deal of opportunity.”
When asked what he feels is the biggest misconception people harbor about this period, Trombley points to the notion that the area was so unsettled that it wasn’t a major contributor to that Great War. “I was surprised to learn the number of people that were first generation immigrants to this country that fought in the Civil War. Some fought because of bounty and conscription, but Henry Feige and Charles Peter were fairly recent family immigrants that had not only just established themselves in a new country, but also really had to go on and re-establish themselves after they came back from the war.”
“It’s amazing really to think that out of 2039 troops, one out of six soldiers that went into the Civil War did not come back.”
Home From the War: Saginaw’s Civil War Veterans is on exhibit at The Saginaw Castle Museum through April 29th. The Museum is located at 500 Federal Ave. in downtown Saginaw and hours are Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 4:30 pm and Sundays from 1:00 – 4:30 PM. For more info go to www.castlemuseum.org