17th Michigan

Eastern's First Student Soldiers were Civil War Fighters

By Steven J. Ramold, EMU professor of History and expert in U.S. military history

Editor's Note: A condensed version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2024 Eastern Magazine

The officers of the 17th Michigan Infantry Regiment who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

The adage that ‘desperate times require desperate measures,’ seldom seemed more apt than in September 1863, when, in a small field in Maryland, the 17th Michigan Infantry regiment went into its first battle only a few days after it raw recruits entered the Civil War. Among those in the thick of the fight were more than thirty current and former students of the Michigan State Normal School, now known as Eastern Michigan University. Thrown into battle at a desperate time in the nation’s history, the 17th and its Normal School soldiers rose to the occasion and played a key role in stopping the first Confederate invasion of Union soil.

What became the 17th Michigan took some time to create. Volunteers from all over Michigan began arriving at Fort Wayne near Detroit, some as early as May 1862, but there were not enough to fill a standard regiment of 1000 men. As the state enrolling officers awaited sufficient recruits to form a regiment, the recruits present at Fort Wayne began learning the skills necessary to be a soldier, an early lesson that proved useful later. While the body of recruits increased, the unit gained a commanding officer, Colonel William H. Withington. As a captain in the 1st Michigan, he had been wounded and captured at the Battle First Bull Run the previous year but was exchanged in January 1862. Consequently, unlike most regiments entering battle for the first time, the 17th had at least a small measure of veteran leadership and training, and Withington used this time in Detroit to prepare his new regiment as much as possible.  

Map - Battle of South Mountain

Withington commanded a regiment that represented every region of Michigan, but its ten companies reflected the localities from which they came.  Company D, formed in Kalamazoo, was a good example of a unit with a specific local identity. Another was Company E, which came to be known as the ‘Normal School Company’ because a third of its members comprised students from the State Normal School, with the remainder residing in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and nearby townships. To maintain their college identity, the

Normal School Company nominated Professor John M. Sill to captain the regiment. Sill, along with two other students, comprised the very first graduating class from the Normal School in 1854. He subsequently headed the Department of English, and, later, served as the college president from 1886 to 1893. As he had no military experience, Sill wisely declined the offer, but raised money to purchase a sword for Gabriel Campbell, an 1861 Normal School graduate, who accepted the commission as captain. The other two company officers, Lieutenant Thomas Matthews and Second Lieutenant James Morgan, were also Normal School graduates.  Another Normal School advocate for the regiment was a student named Austin George. Unable to enlist himself because he lost an arm in a childhood accident, served as the unit’s postmaster and clerk until he returned to school in 1863. Later a Professor of Literature at the Normal College, and Superintendent of Ypsilanti Public Schools, George remained an advocate of the institution for his entire life.

Sufficient recruits finally arrived at Fort Wayne in mid-August, and the War Department accepted the 17th Michigan for service on Aug. 22, 1862. After only a brief period to train the latest recruits, the regiment left Detroit on Aug. 27.  Three days later, the regiment arrived in D.C. on August 30, too late to participate in the nearby Second Battle of Bull Run. Guarding bridges across the Potomac River, the Michiganders could hear the rumble of cannon in the distance. Although it missed that battle, the 17th did not have to wait long to see combat. Taking advantage of a weakened Army of the Potomac, Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee planned to march his Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, bypassing Washington, D.C. in hopes of enveloping the city and encouraging Maryland to secede from the Union. As Lee moved into Maryland, the 17th received its place in the Army of the Potomac. The War Department added the new regiment as reinforcements to Brig. Gen. Orlando Wilcox’s First Division of the Ninth Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno. Along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, the 17th Michigan received orders to pursue and engage the Confederates.

17th Michigan Uniform

Thanks to supply and logistics problems, the 17th Michigan presented a unique sight as they marched toward battle. Instead of the standard Springfield rifle, most of the 17th carried the Austrian-manufactured Lorenz rifle, purchased by the government when production of the Springfield could not meet the demand. The 17th did not receive their Springfields for several more months and entered combat with an unreliable weapon. The government also had problems clothing the new regiment.  The standard uniform of the Union Army was a blue wool uniform featuring a short jacket and a kepi, a cap-like hat. Unable to provide the 17th with this uniform, the quartermasters issued the only thing available, which was the dress uniform of the prewar Regular Army, and the regiment went into battle dressed in long frock coats with high collars buttoned up to their chins and wearing white gloves. Topping the uniform was a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with an ostrich feather.

As Lee marched north from Virginia toward the Potomac River, Union commander Maj. Gen. George McClellan was only generally aware of Lee’s movements. Lee opted to move up the Shenandoah Valley, so the Blue Ridge Mountains screened is march from Union observation. The only way to determine Lee’s movements and objectives were for Union troops to move through gaps in the Blue Ridge, but these are all fortified by Lee’s men. The need for information on the part of the Union triggered the Battle of South Mountain.

As the Union Army marched into Maryland in pursuit of Lee, it neared two gaps in the Blue Ridge. South Mountain was the dominant local peak, with gaps on either side, Fox’s Gap to the south and Turner’s Gap to the north. McClellan ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s First Corps to assault Turner’s Gap while Reno’s Ninth Corps was to open Fox’s Gap. On Sept. 14, only twenty-two days after organizing and seventeen days after leaving Detroit, the 17th Michigan found itself under fire.

As the Ninth Corps entered Fox’s Gap, the narrow pass channeled the Union troops into a slender column, allowing relatively few Confederate soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill to hold the pass. The 17th Michigan found itself on the right flank of its brigade, positioned in a cornfield unable to maneuver because of the confined terrain and the fire of a Georgia artillery battery covering the Confederate positions.  A battery of Massachusetts guns tried to dislodge the Georgians but were outnumbered and had to abandon its efforts in the face of superior enemy firepower.  As the hours wore into the mid-afternoon, the Michigan troops and the rest of their brigade remained under cover while taking scattered casualties from the artillery fire in their front.  Capt. Campbell oddly noted that the Confederate bullets whizzing over their heads sounded like “a hailstorm on the roof.”

Contemporary illustration of the Battle of South Mountain Fox's Gap

Finally, around 4:30 p.m., Gen. Wilcox arrived on the scene, accompanied by a battery fromthe Fourth U.S. Artillery. Wilcox positioned his artillery to enfilade the Confederate line and ordered the brigade forward. While two veteran regiments from Pennsylvanian and New York to their left hesitated, the 17th, recalling the drills that Colonel Withington subjected them to when in Detroit, formed into line and advanced with bayonets fixed. Withington, sword in hand, led the Michiganders into a hail of gunfire from the Georgia artillery and a regiment of South Carolina troops dug in behind a stone wall marking a farmer’s property line. Several men went down, dead and wounded, including the regiment’s 15-year-old drummer boy.  As stretcher-bearers carried the boy to the rear for medical care, he urged other Union troops to join the attack, claiming “the 17th’s doing bully!” He was not exaggerating. Rapidly crossing the open ground between the two lines, the 17th drew up to the stone wall, and, under Withingtons’ direction, fired a volley from their Austrian rifles into the South Carolinians at short range.  Observing the attack, Gen. Wilcox noted the 17th “opened a fire on the enemy with terrible effect, piling the road and field with his dead and wounded.” Stunned by the fusillade, the surviving Confederates fell back, leaving nearly two hundred wounded men to be taken prisoner. Captain Frederick W. Smith, commanding Company F, observed the enemy “broke in dismay” at the ferocity of the Michiganders’ charge. Capt. Campbell tried to reorganize his company before continuing but found the troop’s “one impulse was to press forward and win.” As they advanced, the 17th drove off some North Carolina troops attempting to reinforce Fox’s Gap before the battle ended around 6 p.m. For their daring charge, the novice 17th Michigan earned the nickname “the Stonewall Regiment,” but the accolade came at a cost of twenty-seven men dead and 114 wounded. Among the dead were five men from Company E, of which Private Alexander McKinnon was the only former Normal School student. Of the six Company E men wounded, five were Normal School students, but all six survived not only their wounds but the war as well. After their baptism by fire, the 17th did not have to wait long to see combat again. Only three days later, the 17th went participated in the Battle of Antietam, losing an additional eighteen dead and eighty-seven wounded, in a Union victory that compelled Lee to withdraw back into Virginia. For a new regiment, the 17th had performed well in its first battles, and deserved all the admiration it received. An officer in the veteran 16th Michigan praised their efforts, writing “It speaks well for a new regiment like the 17th to fight as well as they did.” In his post-battle report, Gen. Wilcox commended the 17th, informing his superiors the regiment had “set an example to the oldest troops” in the Army of the Potomac.

As the war continued, so did the service of the 17th Michigan. The regiment remained in the Ninth Corps as it participated in the fighting in Virginia the following year until the War Department transferred the Ninth Corps to the Western Theater. The regiment saw combat in Tennessee and Mississippi before again returning to Virginia in 1864 until the end of the war. During that time, eight members of the 17th Michigan received the Medal of Honor for bravery on the battlefield. Three of the recipients served in Company E, but only one of them, Corporal Irwin Shepard, was a Normal School student. When the war ended, the 17th participated in the Grand Review, a massive two-day military parade in Washington, D.C., before returning to Detroit and disbanding on June 7, 1865.