The 18th Michigan Regiment in the Civil War
Hillsdale County’s special connection to the Civil War is the 18th Michigan Regiment. In 1862, after it was clear that the Civil War wouldn’t be as brief as both sides had expected, President Lincoln asked for additional troops. Michigan Governor Austin Blair requested that Henry Waldron organize a regiment. In a shorttwo months of letter writing, rallies and person appeals, Waldron enlisted 1,000 men from Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties: patriots, idealists and farm boys eager to leave the backbreaking and boring life at home and who envisioned a military career of glory. Lewis Emery offered space on his farm as a place for their encampment and was accepted. The current Emery Park on State Road was a marsh at the time, and the camp was situated up the hill that is east of it. With fresh springs, the areas was perfect for healthful bathing, drinking water and cooking. The regiment was mustered into service on Aug. 26, 1862, and began to train.
Charles Camp Doolittle enlisted in the Union Army shortly after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1861. He was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant in the 4th Michigan Regiment and was promoted to colonel when he became the commander of the 18th. The regiment left Michigan for Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 18, 1862, with proud and tearful family members waving them off.
Col. Doolittle took his regiment first to Kentucky, where they were successful in keeping the Confederates from plundering cities and villages. Next was Nashville, Tennessee, where they did ‘private duty” from November 1863 to June 1864. This official duty was developed early in the war by Gen. George McClellan. It was kind of like being the military police. Among their duties were the “prevention of straggling,” the “supervision of hotels, saloons and places of resort and amusement” and the “suppression of gambling houses or other establishments prejudicial to good order and discipline.” During the summer and fall of 1864, they did garrison duty at Decatur, Alabama, occasionally pursuing Confederates in that area. Col. Doolittle led a heroic defense of Decatur when Confederate generals Hood and Thomas met up in Nashville and then advanced on Decatur. On the first day of a three-day battle, Col. Doolittle’s troops managed to hold off the Confederates with only a small force. Reinforcements began to arrive on the second day, and by the third day Col. Doolittle had 5,000 troops under his command and held his post despite great odds.
The 18th built strong fortifications at Stevenson, Alabama and again did garrison duty in Huntsville, Alabama until June 20, 1865, when the regiment was ordered to Nashville to muster out. It arrived in Jackson, Michigan on July 2 and was paid off and disbanded on July 4.
The 18th wasn’t involved in any of the major battles of the Civil War, but that didn’t keep the boys safe. Many more died of disease than of battle wounds. Some were taken prisoner. The conditions in prisoner-of-war camps in both the North and South were not good. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and water, little food and the lack of medical care were givens. At the beginning of the war, an ongoing prisoner exchange had been one of the agreements between the Confederacy and the Union. In this arrangement prisoners were exchanged, enlisted man for enlisted man and officer for officer. The paroled prisoners were simply released on their honor not to take up arms against the other side until they reached their own regiment. In retrospect, this is a refreshingly gentlemanly expectations. How well it worked is difficult to know. What is known is that the ongoing prisoner exchange was a bust. The men in prison camps were stuck there and simply had to cope with the conditions that existed.
By the end of the Civil War the Southern states were a patchwork, some occupied by Union forces and some occupied by confederate forces. In February 1865 the Confederate commandant of the Casaba, Alabama prison camp approached the Union commander at Vicksburg, Mississippi with a desperate request for food and medicine for the Union prisoners in his charge. This evolved into a plan for a prisoner exchange. The Union prisoners at Casaba would be exchanged for Confederate prisoners held in Mobile, Alabama. The Union prisoners held at Andersonville, Georgia were eventually included in the deal. Vicksburg, Mississippi was in Union hands but was seen as a neutral site since it had no prison camp. It also had the advantage of being close to the Mississippi River, a major transportation artery. Vickburg was named the parole camp. All prisoners would travel to Vicksburg, there to be exchanged, enlisted man for enlisted man and officer for officer. About 130 men from the 18th were included in this arrangement.
The war made transportation on the Mississippi River dangerous. Steamboat captains were in financial distress due to the lack of passengers and goods. For an unscrupulous steamboat captain named J. Cass Mason the parole camp at Vicksburg was an opportunity to recoup his financial losses. Fearful that other steamboat captains would arrive to transport the men, Captain Mason made a deal with the quartermaster: Only the Sultana would take the final load of parolees. Captain Mason’s desperation resulted in a fatal mistake. When the Sultana reached Vicksburg over 2,200 parolees joined the 100 civilian passengers and 85 crew members on the Sultana—which had a total capacity of 376.
On April 27, 1865, near Memphis, Tennessee, one of the overworked boilers on the Sultana exploded, followed by the explosion of two more. Scalds from the boiling water, burns from the resulting fire and drowning were widespread. The official death count was 1,800, but it was undoubtedly much more. After surviving the harsh conditions of war and the deprivations of a prisoner-of-war camp, over half of the men from the 18th Michigan perished in the Sultana disaster.
One of the soldiers who perished was Jonathan Robins, a second cousin four times removed of Ken Benge, whose family has lived in Allen for many generations. Three letters Jonathan wrote to his beloved sisters Hannah and Sophia have survived through the year to give us a solder’s view of the Civil War. Two are from Nashville, where the 18th was doing provost duty. The third was written 10 days before the destruction of the Sultana. In the last, Jonathan writes without self-pity. His cursive is beautiful, but the lack of capitals at the beginning of sentences and the absence of end punctuation, not to mention the inventive spelling, make it a challenge to read. He says, “there will be many tears shed for those that have fallen in defending the old flag but we know that they fell in a good cause all I have Suffered is for the old flag and I would Suffer a grate deal more before I would see that old flag go down … if we do not live to meet on Earth let us try and live so that we shall meet in heaven.”