Saturday, May 24, 2014

This Memorial Day, Remember the Gallant Third Michigan

While many will be focused this weekend on those who gave their lives in the cause of more recent wars, it should be remembered that 150 years ago, boys from Grand Rapids and surrounding communities were wrapping up their third year of bloody conflict and witnessing their hometown friends lying dead on distant battlefields.

The Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry had left Grand Rapids over 1,000 strong on June 10, 1861. Nearly three years later, they were left with just a few hundred capable of carrying on the fight. The regiment had been engaged at Spottsylvania since the 8th of May. Just prior, the valiant Third had lost about half it’s men in the Battle of the Wilderness. The regimental surgeon had written to his brother the evening before:

“We engaged the enemy here on Thursday night last, and he is still in our front. … Our regiment has lost in killed, wounded and missing, more than half it numbered when the contest opened. … The fighting has been desperate on both sides. … Colonel (Byron) Pierce had his horse shot, but has so far escaped unhurt. He is praised fro his gallantry by every body.” ~ Dr. James Grove

The following Sunday, the regiment despite its recent casualties, together with the Fifth Michigan, moved out towards Spotsylvania, Virginia. By the end of the week, the Third was back in the thick of battle. By Friday morning, Colonel Pierce had reported the regiment having a mere 119 men for duty.

“We have suffered terribly.” Since May 6, we “had been in severe engagements with the enemy [and] lost upwards of two hundred men…. Many a poor fellow whose time was most out was slain. This has been the severest battle of the war.” ~ Charles Clark

The battle of the North Anna River concluded on May 26, 1864 – one-hundred-fifty-years ago this Memorial Day.  The Cold Harbor battlefield loomed ahead. It would be the final call to battle for the proud Third Michigan, Grand Rapids’ own. The Third’s term of service ended on June 10 and other than those veterans who voluntarily reenlisted or those who joined the regiment after it left Grand Rapids, the tattered remnants began their journey home. Seven days later, about sixty of what was once 1,040 enlisted men and officers returned to a welcoming celebration at the old train depot by Leonard Street.


“While we welcome the return, with open arms and joyous hearts, of the comparatively few surviving heroes of this once large and proud regiment, we cannot but feel to sympathize deeply with the bereaved who mourn the loss of brave sons, brothers, and husbands who, fallen on the deadly strife, are not among the returned; but whose names are written on the scroll of honored dead, and whose spirits, we trust, are in the land of the blessed.” ~ Grand Rapids Eagle, June 18, 1864

Third Michigan Regiment Reunion