DETROIT – You might not think Michigan would be a place where people would be endlessly fascinated by the Civil War. But they were, and are – then, and now. That’s true, even though there wasn’t a single skirmish fought within hundreds of miles from what was then a small, largely agricultural state. Slavery had been outlawed in Michigan since statehood, so you might think the state didn’t have much to lose one way or another.
But you’d be wrong.
Michigan was a gung-ho participant in America’s bloodiest war, hot to defend the union and sending so many troops early on that President Abraham Lincoln exclaimed “Thank God for Michigan,” when they began to arrive.
That enthusiasm may have lessened a bit as the war went on, year after year, taking the lives of 14,753 men—the equivalent, in terms of the state’s population—to almost 200,000 today. But Michigan stayed loyal and, today, there are still hordes of people who care passionately about the Civil War. Reenactors from at least three states and Canada trooped in to Detroit’s ancient Fort Wayne last weekend to dress up as soldiers and reenact battles.
Hundreds of civilians came to see them. Some Michigan civil war buffs have lamented, however, that the state never produced a larger-than-life Civil War personality they could rally around.
To some extent, that’s true. Michigan didn’t produce any equivalent of Ulysses Grant or Robert E. Lee, a Stonewall Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman or even a famous political leader. Oh, there was that daring young officer from Monroe named George Armstrong Custer. But his later blunder at the Little Big Horn has largely overshadowed his Civil War experience.
But now Jack Dempsey, a man who is pretty much the popular voice of history in Michigan, may have provided a general who, from across the centuries, seems a uniquely Michigan type. His new book: Michigan’s Civil War Citizen-General, Alpheus S. Williams (The History Press, 2019) tells the story of a hard-working general from Detroit who was the key to the union victory at Antietam, and fought, in the field along with his men, throughout the war, without ever getting a higher command or enough credit.
“He was clearly highly competent, more so than many of higher rank,” said author Dempsey, a former president of the Michigan Historical Commission, and the author of another acclaimed book, “Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice.”
Dempsey, an attorney who today is the executive director of a foundation called Heritage Michigan, kept running across admiring references to General Williams in other works. “Perhaps the most unheralded, but successful general in the entire federal armies,” an Atlanta historian wrote. “Superior to Custer in every way, except the ability to publicize himself and secure promotion,” another scholar, Albert Castel, wrote of him.
Intrigued, Dempsey found that not only was this all true, but the man whose men admiringly called him “Old Pap” was an excellent writer whose letters about the war are literary masterpieces.
Not only that, the more the historian looked, the more he discovered that Old Pap’s military record was far more stunning than anyone knew or gave him credit for. Not only was he a key force at Antietam, the victory that allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, but he was important at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, and numerous other battles.
Nevertheless, Williams never rose above the rank of Brigadier General, though he and others knew he richly deserved promotion. Why? Well, besides not being a promoter, he had three strikes against him, Dempsey observed. “He was a Democrat, he hadn’t gone to West Point, and he didn’t have an important patron.”
What that meant, for example, is that when generals like Sherman wrote their accounts of battles “Old Pap” was in, they downplayed his achievements and played up their favorites. Nevertheless, Williams never seriously threatened to quit, as many other high-ranking officers with bruised feelings did. He just concealed his disappointments and soldiered on, doing his job and complaining little in private and never in public.
There was something, indeed, a little blue-collar about Alpheus Williams, though he had a law degree from Yale and came from a once-prosperous family. He moved to Detroit in his 20s, after his parents, brother and grandparents all died when he was young. Lonely, he finally managed to marry a pretty young widow, who gave him five children before she died just as he returned from the war with Mexico. For the most part, his was a star-crossed life.
Three of his children soon died as well. Both before and after the Civil War, General Williams ran for many offices, losing most. When the war ended, he lost a race for governor by a landslide. He kept plugging away, and finally won two terms in Congress. He tried for a third, but was ousted in 1878 when he lost votes to a third party candidate. Nevertheless, he was still at his desk more than a month after the election, trying to do everything he could for veterans in his remaining days. That’s when the fatal stroke hit him.
Until now, all there’s been to commemorate him is a gravestone and a statue of what seems to be an exhausted general on horseback on Belle Isle, Detroit’s island park. Recently, another historian predicted that someday, this unsung hero would get his due. For those who care about Michigan history and the Civil War, this excellent little biography should help do just that.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.