Thank God for Michigan! Stories from the Civil War

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Shortly after Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, President Lincoln called for volunteer troops to help preserve the Union. On June 13, the first local soldiers left to join the battle. When the First Michigan Volunteer Infantry arrived in large numbers, Lincoln was heard to exclaim “Thank God for Michigan!” 23 % of Michigan’s male population served in the Union Army.

Thank God for Michigan! Stories from the Civil War, opened at the Grand Rapids public museum on  June 13 last year in recognition of that date, and has remained open due to popular demand. It showcases more than 100 artifacts – uniforms, weapons, photographs, letters and more, and tells the personal stories of Michigan’s involvement in the Civil War. On display are uniforms, weapons, photographs, letters, medical and musical instruments, and a 150-year-old piece of hardtack, which was the food staple for Civil War troops.

A soldier’s life was full of hardships, including rarely having enough or good food.  Many Civil War soldiers subsisted largely on dried meat and hardtack, a type of cracker that was baked several times so that it would not spoil.

At the start of the Civil War, troops were supplied with hardtack left from the Mexican War.

The biscuit’s transportability was more impressive than its taste or texture.  Traditionally, soldiers would soften their rations by soaking them in pork grease, soup stock, coffee or honey water to make them easier to chew and to add flavor.  Soaking the hardtack also forced bugs living inside the food to float to the top of the liquid so they could be skimmed off.

The back of the Union buckle is filled in whereas the Confederate one is not, because in the Confederacy they could not afford to use the extra metal.
These two belt buckles show just how intertwined the United States and the Confederate States were.
Their officers had all attended the same military academies, and many of them had served together during previous wars.  The two armies made their belt buckles in the exact same way because before 1861, they were the same army.
This drum was purchased in 1862 by a 13 year old boy in New York who wanted to join the Union Army.
It was not unheard of boys that young to join the army, especially as drummers.
Pictured below is a standard muzzle-loading Bridesburg Model 1861 Rifle marked with a discreet “IN”.  After the war demonstrated the superiority of breech-loading weapons, many existing rifles, including this one, were converted to breech-loaders.
The system for converting guns was called the Needham system.
A large number of these conversions were performed by a secret Irish Society in America called the Fennian Brotherhood, marked with “IN” for Irish Nationalism, and used in two failed attempts to invade Canada in 1866 and 1869.  The Fennians planned to take over Canada and then exchange it with Great Britain for Ireland’s independence.
This kit contains the tools needed to amputate a limb that was badly wounded or infected.

Children who visit will have a number of opportunities to interact with the exhibit and get a hands-on education about the Civil War. They can:
– step into a soldier’s tent, strap on a field pack and feel the “weight of war”
– guess “smells of the battlefield” from coffee to gun powder, to salt pork
– tap along to the cadences of the battlefield at the music/drumming station
– explore looks in Civil War facial hair

“While the Civil War battles took place in other states, the people of Michigan were deeply involved,” says Dale A. Robertson, Museum President and CEO.  “The Grand Rapids Public Museum, then known as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, was established seven years before the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter.  Grand Rapids historians recognized the importance of chronicling local war efforts by amassing and donating a vast array of pieces with great historical relevance.”

The exhibit is free with general Museum admission. For information, call 616-929-1700 or go to