Byron Root Pierce was born on October 1, 1829, in East Bloomfield, Ontario County, New York, the son of Silas (b. 1801) and Mary (Root, b. 1801?).
Silas was born in New York and Mary in Massachusetts and they were probably married sometime before 1826, possibly in New York. In any case they lived in New York for some years, and by 1850 Byron was living with the family and working for his father in West Bloomfield where his father operated a woolen manufactory.
Byron was educated at Rochester, New York and began his business life in a woolen factory, a trade in which his father was engaged. It is quite likely that Byron served during the Mexican War. In any case, he decided not to pursue his work in the clothes industry but instead turned to dentistry, and in 1856 came to Grand Rapids, following his younger brother Edwin who had earlier moved to Grand Rapids where he was working in the clothing business. Byron soon joined in a practice of dentistry with Dr. K. R. E. Carpenter, “whose Dentistry skill,” wrote the Enquirer on May 24, “has been so well attested by the many specimens of perfect work in his business which he has left in this city, has concluded to close his office in Joliet [Illinois] and confine his labors exclusively to this [city], his future residence. He has refitted his office in Abel’s block; associated with him Dr. Pierce (who sustains a high reputation in Dental Practice;) and the two gentlemen propose to do the best of work, at the most reasonable rates, so that their praises may be in the mouths of all.”
It is possible that the two men separated their practice, but by mid-1859 they were together in practice in Lovett’s Block. Dr. Carpenter, wrote the Enquirer on July 19, “Takes pleasure in informing the citizens of Grand Rapids and vicinity, that his office is opened permanently, in the second story of Lovett’s Block, corner of Pearl an Canal Streets, and that he had secured the services of Dr. B. R. Pierce, Who will be constantly in attendance to perform all Dental Operation in the best possible manner. Entrance on Canal Street.” Their office was located on the northeast corner of Canal and Peal Streets in 1859-60 and Pierce was living on the north side of Washington between Lafayette and Jefferson Streets. By 1860 he was working as a dentist and living with his parents in Grand Rapids, Third ward, and he continued to practice dentistry in Grand Rapids until late 1860.
Soon after moving to Grand Rapids, Byron became actively involved with the Valley City Guard, one of the local militia companies, and many of whose members would enlist in Company A in April of 1861. He probably enlisted in the VCG sometime in 1857, and was elected First Lieutenant on February 12, 1858, replacing Fred Worden. Pierce served as First Lieutenant until the spring of 1859, when, following the resignation of company Captain John Earle, Byron was elected Captain on March 25, 1859. He continually worked to improve the efficiency of the company, and had no sooner taken over command of the VCG than he began tightening discipline. He immediately set about establishing a program for drill and target practice. On Saturday May 9,
The Valley City Guards, numbering 25 guns under the command of Captain Byron R. Pierce*, and accompanied by the German Brass Band [Schikel’s band apparently], were out yesterday afternoon on their fourth target excursion. The company marched to a vacant lot near the old slaughter house, when the target was erected at a distance of 12 rods from the line. Major Champlin, Paymaster Collins and Captain Fay, were selected as judges.
After each member had fired three shots, the judges reported the best string shot to have been made by Color-Sargeant Thomas Greenly, whose average shot measured 7 and 3/16 inches; second best, Geo. Judd. The best single shot, and the only one in the ‘bull's eye’, was made by Samuel Judd.
And on Sunday, May 22, Pierce notified company members that they were “to attend at the Armory of the Company on next Wednesday evening, May 25 at 8 o'clock. Let every member be present, as there is business of importance to come before the Company.” Important business indeed. Another one of Pierce’s changes was that the company was to meet twice a month, every other Sunday, at their Armory, a space which the regimental officers apparently also used for their occasional meetings. Pierce also notified the VCG that they should plan on being called out for parade at 8:00 a.m. on July 4, probably to participate in the local festivities. The members were instructed to wear their white pants and white belts.”
On Saturday August 27, Captain Pierce instructed the VCG members “to attend at the Armory of the Company, on Monday August 29, at 1 o'clock p.m. for target practice,” and, according to the Enquirer of August 30, “The Valley City Guards were out yesterday afternoon, testing their new rifle muskets. They marched to a large field near the old slaughter house; where the target was erected 25 rods from the line. 25 men drew sight on the ‘bull's eye’, each being allowed three shots. 47 holes were made in the target. The best single shot was made by Fred. G. Dean; the best string shot by Alex[ander] McKenzie, being 24 and 1/4 inches. After trying at 25 rods, the guns were tested at a distance of 90 rods. At this distance Heman Moore made the best ‘string shot’, Charles Cary the best single.”
Byron also worked to raise the public awareness (and thus their interest in) the VCG through other means besides parades and target shoots. Perhaps recalling the success of the Detroit Light Guards in their 1858 excursion to Milwaukee, Pierce arranged for the VCG to be invited to the upcoming Wisconsin State Fair. On September 16, the Enquirer carried the following story from the Milwaukee News. “We are pleased to learn that the wide awake and gentlemanly Valley City Guard, a handsome military company of Grand Rapids, will visit Milwaukee during the State Fair, and will be the guests of the Milwaukee City corps, Captain Kimball. Our visiting friends will find some of the best boys in the State in the Citizen Corps, who will see that their guests understand all the military compliments and gentlemanly acts of courtesy, for which Milwaukeans are proverbial, and will see that nothing is left undone to make their visit pleasant.”
On Friday, September 23, the Enquirer reported that “We understand that the Valley City Guards will have an excursion to Milwaukee, leaving this city on Monday afternoon next [September 26], and return Wednesday evening [September 28]. The Guards will be accompanied by the City Band, under the leadership of a gentleman lately of Detroit. Tickets will be issued at greatly reduced rates, and any citizens wishing to go, can avail themselves of this opportunity, to see the ‘city of bricks’, and visit the State Fair, which will be held in Milwaukee.”
The VCG, reported the Milwaukee National, “will arrive in town via the D. & M. R. R. Line of Steamers on Tuesday, at 7 o'clock a.m., where they will be received by the citizens corps, Captain Geo. K. Kimball, whose guests they are to be, and march to quarters at the Armory, thence to the Newhall House to Breakfast at eight o'clock, a full dress street parade will come off at 10 o'clock a.m., when there no doubt will be some good walking -- we are informed there is to be a general turn out on Wednesday by the whole Regiment, accompanied by the visitors, when a fine display may be expected.”
The invitation was extended in large part to have the VCG participate in the Wisconsin State Fair, then underway. To allow Michiganders easy access to the other side of the lake, “The Detroit and Milwaukee Railway have determined to charge only half price between this city and Milwaukee -- $3.45 -- during the continuance of the Wisconsin State Fair. As the Kent County Agricultural Fair occurs in this city at the same time, we do not suppose that many of the people of this city or County will visit the ‘City of bricks’ during the present week. It is believed, however, that the Valley City Guards, Captain Pierce, will embrace the opportunity thus offered, to proceed to Milwaukee.”
“Captain Kimbal,” wrote the paper, “took pride in showing his visitors to the citizens yesterday [Wednesday], by passing through the principal streets, escorted by the citizens' corps, and well he may be proud of them, and well may they be proud of the citizen soldiery, for a better behaved, better appearing, or better looking company has not in a long time paraded out [sic] streets.”
That same afternoon, “the first regiment of Wisconsin State Militia had a grand parade . . . accompanied by the Valley city Guards of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who were here as the guests of the Citizens' Corps, and who returned home last evening. They were a fine body of men, and we hope enjoyed themselves to their satisfaction. It was a bad time during a State Fair, for them to receive the attention they deserved, but we trust they will come again some time when there is nothing extra going on, and we have no doubt they would then be better pleased with the city than they could have been in the midst of a State Fair crowd. Nearly all the companies turned out, together with the staff and the dragoons, besides some band, and the display was a brilliant one. They marched to the Fair grounds and back, and, were dismissed after a review in front of the Newhall.”
Soon after the VCG returned to Grand Rapids, on the morning of Thursday, September 29, “At a meeting of the Valley City Guards, held at their Armory . . . the following resolutions were unanimously adopted.
Resolved, That our united and heartfelt thanks are hereby tendered to the Milwaukee Citizens' Corps, Captain Kimball, for their honorable and soldierly reception, their unbounded hospitality and untiring efforts to render their guests happy and comfortable during their visit.
Resolved, That our thanks are also tendered to Colonel King and staff, for calling out the Regiment for our particular benefit and entertainment.
Resolved, also, that, to the Milwaukee Light Guard, Captain Starkweather, our sincere thanks be tendered, for their kind attention to our Officers and Members during our visit, and for their soldierly escort on our departure.
Resolved, That, to Commissaries Bingham and Elliot, our thanks be tendered, for their generous hospitality and personal attentions.
Resolved, That the impressions made at the parting scene can never be eradicated from the minds of the Valley City guards, while we are able to draw a sword or shoulder a musket.
Resolved, That our warmest expressions of gratitude be extended to Supt. Muir, of the D. & M. R. W., for his generous liberality in our behalf; and to Captains McBride, of the Detroit, and Cross, of the Milwaukee, their officers and men, for their efforts to render our excursion a pleasant one.
To one and all who in any way contributed to our pleasure and comfort, we would say that nothing would afford us greater pleasure than to reciprocate, should an opportunity offer.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be published in our daily papers. In behalf of the Corps, Edw'd. S. Earle*, W. L. Coffinberry, Jas. D. Lyon.”
By the end of 1859 the VCG was reported in the first class of militia companies in the state, and eighth in order of merit of all companies in Michigan.
But disaster struck the Guards in late Fall when thieves broke into their armory in November and stole all their arms. Things went from bad to worse for the VCG during the winter of 1859-1860. Having struggled to replace the stolen weapons, sometime in mid-winter a fire struck their armory destroying all of their equipment and supplies. The seriousness of the loss, coming so soon after the theft in November of 1859, resulted in the rumor that the VCG would have to disband. It was said being incapable of replacing all of the lost equipment and arms, there was considerable doubt as to whether the company would remain together. At 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, February 8, the VCG met at Mills and Clancy's Hall, Captain Pierce informing the VCG that “Every member is expected to be present, as there is business of importance to come before the Company.”
Important business indeed; the topic to be discussed was whether the company would disband or remain together.
a large number of members being present, it was unanimously resolved, that the Company keep its present organization; and, that the necessary steps be immediately taken to procure arms and accoutrements to take the place of those lost in the late fire. A committee was chosen to solicit pecuniary aid from the citizens, to enable the Company to replace their fixtures, and procure articles of various kinds, indispensable in such an organization; also, to induce those persons of the right stamp, who take an interest in such matters, to join the Company. There are but twelve first class companies in the State; in this class the Valley City Guard are well up, and it is to be hoped they will receive such aid to continue on, a credit to the military force of the State, and an honor to the Valley City.
A letter was read at this meeting from Adjutant General Curtenius, in which the writer expressed much sympathy for the Company, and pledged himself to use his best efforts for the procuring of new arms and equipments at the earliest possible moment.
Another meeting was held at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, February 29, at Mills & Clancy’s Hall, at which time Pierce informed the community that “All that feel interested for the welfare of the Valley City Guard, are requested to be present.” The results of this meeting gave hope to those members of the VCG who wished to remain together. The Enquirer wrote on March 2,
“With pleasure we learn that the future prospects of this excellent company are of the most flattering character. Considerable accessions have been made to the corps of late, both active and honorary members. Adjutant General Curtenius, in a latter to Captain Pierce*, says that he has made requisition upon the General Government for 40 first class rifle muskets, which will be delivered in this city, about the middle of next month. This Company sustained a loss, by the late fire, of about $750, which seems enough to crash any such organization, in a place of this size, and during such times; but the gallant Guards never say die, they are not composed of that class of men who whine or find fault with the fortunes of war or fire, but toe the mark, stand firm, unyielding and invincible. Our citizen soldiery is a glorious institution, the Guards a prominent feature in the Army, and we say success to the gallant Guards.
The crisis passed, and by mid-March the VCG seemed to have rallied enough support to remain together, and on Monday March 19, they held an election for non-commissioned officers. “The meeting,” wrote the Enquirer, “was quite enthusiastic, and a general desire was manifested to keep up the old organization. The new arms for the Company have arrived, and a regular drill will be had on Wednesday evening, the 21st inst. Mills & Clancy's Hall has been engaged as an Armory.. And on March 27, the VCG attempted to reestablish their old routine of drill and exercise. The Enquirer reported that “Members of the Valley City Guard will please bear in mind the drill this evening. It is necessary that all who can attend should be on hand as possible.”
By the fall of 1860 the VCG had returned to its normal routine. On Sunday, September 23, Captain Pierce notified the members of the VCG that they should plan “to attend at the armory of the company, in Abel's Block, on Monday evening, Sept. 24 at 7 1/2 o'clock p.m. All are requested to be present.” Among other items discuss in the order of business was the plan for escorting ex-Governor Bingham to the fairgrounds for the upcoming County fair. On September 28, Captain Pierce informed company members that they were required “to attend at the armory of the company, in Abel’s block, at 1 o’clock, this afternoon, for parade”; they were to wear blue pants. The VCG, along with the Grand Rapids rifles and Barnhart’s Band “will escort ex-Gov. Bingham from the National Hotel to the Fair Grounds this afternoon. Barnhart's Cornet Band will lead the procession, and favor those who may attend with their usual sweet music. The programme for today is unusually attractive. Let there be a large attendance at the Fair today.”
Byron continued to serve as Captain throughout most of 1860. However, sometime in the fall of 1860, Pierce decided to move to Joliet, Illinois and open a dental practice there. On November 20, 1860, his resignation from command of the VCG was formally accepted, and Lieutenant Samuel Judd was placed in temporary command of the company.
That same day Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Stevens, temporarily in command of the Fifty-first Regiment Colonel’s McConnell’s temporary suspension, ordered “an Election to be held in the ‘Valley City Guards’, to fill the office of Captain, in said Company, which has become vacant by the resignation of Captain Byron R. Pierce, which has this day been accepted, and to fill such other vacancies as may exist in the Commissioned officers of said Company, said Election will be held at the Armory of said Company, at the City of Grand Rapids, on Monday evening, Nov. 26th, 1860, at 3 o'clock, p.m. Captain B. Borden Commanding the ‘Grand Rapids Artillery’ will preside at, and conduct said Election, and make return thereof to Brigadier General William A. Richmond, Commanding 6th Brigade, M.V.M. On receiving this order Sam'l A. Judd, now Lieutenant Commanding of said Company, will promulgate the same to his Command without delay.”
Indeed, two days later, on Thursday, November 22, Acting Captain Samuel Judd notified the members of the VCG that “this Company will meet at their Armory, on Monday evening, Nov. 26th, at 7 o'clock p.m. for the purpose of Electing a captain, and fill such other vacancies as may exist among the Commissioned Officers of this Company. Every member is expected to be present.”
In fact, the election did not take place until Monday, December 3, when Samuel Judd was elected to replace Byron as Captain of the VCG. According to one source,
Everything passed off pleasantly. The members of the Valley City Guard are taking a great interest in military affairs. The Valley City Guard are an honor to the city, and have ever received the praised due them by military men at home and abroad.
To Byron R. Pierce, their late Commandant, much praise is due for having brought them to the proficiency in drill and soldierly bearing. On tented the field, at home and abroad, Captain Pierce* has ever been distinguished for his gentlemanly conduct to all. We regret that he is to remove so soon from our city.” On December 5, Captain Judd issued his “Special Order” in which he requested that “This Company will meet at the Armory in Abel's Block, on Wednesday evening, Dec. 5th, at 7 1/2 o'clock precisely. Every member is expected, as business of importance will be transacted.
In honor of the departure of Captain Pierce, the VCG held a complimentary supper on Tuesday, December 11, 1860, and according the local papers, “Tickets for the supper tonight, will be sold to honorary members only, at $1 each. Persons wishing tickets can procure them of Captain Judd*, C. B. Hindsill, or H. F. Williams, and at the National Hotel. All honorary members who expect to participate, must leave their names at the Hotel, or give them to the committee, by 3 o'clock this afternoon.” Many years later, this night was recalled by a writer for the Grand Rapid Democrat, who described the evening in great detail. The dinner was held “in the National hotel,” wrote the Democrat,
which stood on the site now occupied by the Morton house. A program retained by him is as follows: Committee on Arrangements -- Lieutenant C. D. Lyon, Private H. F. Williams, Private J. Cavanaugh; committee on invitations -- Lieutenant Shriver, Private C. B. Hindsill, Private H. F. Williams; committee on toasts -- Lieutenant Lyon, Privates H. A. Buck, H. F. Williams and C. B. Hindsill; committee on wines -- Sergeant Dennis, Corporal Bogardus and Private Ferris.
The bill of fare read: Soups - Oyster, Macaroni and Rice;
Fresh fish - Baked trout, Boiled white fish, Boiled trout, Baked white fish; Salt fish - White fish, Mackerel, Salmon trout;
Side dishes - Oyster pie, Fricaseed chicken, Cold tongue, Chicken pie, Boiled ham, Calf's head, a la cuisine; Roasts - Turkey stuffed with oysters, Chicken, Duck, Goose, Pork, Venison with cranberry sauce;
Game - Prairie chicken, Canvas-back duck, Partridge, Pheasant, Woodcock;
Relishes - Chicken salad, celery, Olives en vinaigre, Pickled onions, Pickled tomatoes, Pickled beans, Pickled peaches, Pickled plums;
Pastry - Cream cakes, Pumpkin pie, Mince pie, Apple pie, Cranberry pie, Custard pie, Oyster patties, Plum pudding, Tarts, cranberry and apple;
Vegetables - Sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, beets, Turnips, Onions, Cabbage, Squash, Cauliflower; Jellies - Calf's head, Pig's foot, Crab apple, Wine;
Confectionary - Kisses, Sugar almonds, Gum drops, Mottoes, Coconut drops, Lozenges, Prince Imperial,
Champagnes - De Vergenay, Heidsick, Green Seal, Cabinet, Mumm's, private, Widow Cliquot;
Desserts - Almonds, Filberts, Walnuts, Brazil-nuts, Raisins, Blanc mange, Ice cream, Meringues, President cake, Floating island, Charlotte russe;
Wines - Port, Madiera, Sherry, Malaga, Claret, Longworth's sparkling Catawba, Longworth's still Catawba;
Ales and Porter - Duncan's of Detroit, Morton's cream of Grand Rapids, Christ's XXX of Grand Rapids, Kusterer's IXL of Grand Rapids, Bass porter of London, Parkin's porter of London, Allsop's pale ale of London.
Waiters are provided with wine cards and pencils.
The toasts were: ‘The Union’, Judge Advocate Gray; ‘The Press’, A. B. Turner; Captain Byron R. Pierce*, Captain Samuel A. Judd*; ‘The Ladies’, Henry F. Williams, V.C.G; ‘Citizen soldiery’, Colonel A. T. McReynolds; ‘The United States Army and Navy’, Major S. G. Champlin*; ‘Our National Flag’, Captain John W. Pierce; ‘The Sovereign of Michigan’, B. N. Sexton; ‘The Grand Rapids rifles’, Captain Kusterer; ‘The Grand Rapids Artillery’, Captain Borden*; ‘The Regimental Staff,” Colonel Daniel McConnell*; ‘Our Honorary Members’, the Hon. T. B. Church; ‘Reminiscences of Camp Kent and ‘Old Guard”’, Captain B. R. Pierce.
This was one of the most interesting events of the city before the war and will be distinctly remembered by all those, now living, who participated in it.
As the United States began to dissolve during the winter of 1860-61, Pierce decided to return to Grand Rapids from Illinois in order to enlist with his former comrades of the Valley City Guard. However, as the officer positions in Company A were already taken by the former officers of the Valley City Guard (Samuel Judd being the new Captain), by the end of April Byron, who stood 5’8” with blue eyes, brown hair and a light complexion, was given the command of Company K.
(On April 30, the Enquirer reported that Pierce was Captain of “A New military company has just been organized in this city making five for Grand Rapids. It already has 38 men enlisted as privates, with new recruits constantly coming in. Byron R. Pierce is the Captain; Alfred B. Turner, 1st Lieutenant; Carlton Neal 2nd Lieutenant.” Turner would soon be replaced by Almon Borden as First Lieutenant and Carlton Neal would be replaced by Robert Collins, thus demoting Neal to the rank of First Sergeant. Before the Regiment left Grand Rapids, however, Collins would be appointed Regimental Quartermaster, and Neal would return to his original position of Second Lieutenant of Company K.
The Third Michigan left Grand Rapids on June 13, 1861, and arrived in Washington, DC on June 16. The Regiment immediately marched to Chain Bridge along the Potomac River just above Georgetown where they encamped. The Regiment would remain at Chain Bridge until the middle of July.
On June 27, several officers of the Third Michigan were given presentation swords by their men, and among the recipients was Byron Pierce. One observer wrote that “as Captain B. R. Pierce of Company K, was forming his company for dress parade, Sergeant [Wallace] Dickinson stepped forward, and in behalf of the company, presented to the Captain an elegant dress sword. It was a very agreeable surprise, as it was an expression of the high spirit which the company entertain for their gallant commander. The sword and belt cost 30 dollars.” The presentation was “accompanied by near speeches, and responded to in appropriate and feeling terms.” Pierce, it was noted, was “taken completely by surprise. . . .
In one of his regular letters to the Lansing State Republican, Frank Siverd of Company G described “An incident quite amusing to all save those directly interested” one of whom was Byron Pierce, and which occurred in the first week of July.
Lieutenant Dorr, of the U. S. Coast Survey, with a party, is engaged in making a Topographical Survey of the valley of the Potomac for military purposes. In order to measure some distances that were inaccessible it was necessary to locate signals. One of these was on an eminence overlooking our Camp, and in close proximity. Notwithstanding the signal was posted at midday and in view of our entire Regiment, a suggestion was made that it was a secession flag -- the suggestion soon assumed the proportions of a rumor and the rumor was soon changed to a well-authenticated fact. A portion of company K (Grand Rapids) under command of Captain Pierce, made a sally. Not a single man of that noble band shrunk from the perilous duty before them. -- Though it was their first sight of a secession standard -- the first time there was any probability of their meeting an enemy; they received the order ‘forward march’, as though it were an invitation to a feast of good things (the great desideratum in Camp life). On they moved across the ravine -- now they ascend the acclivity, watched by a thousand anxious eyes. They reach the position of the bunting. Halting his men at some distance, he proceeded alone and unattended, as did his exemplar Ellsworth, to haul down the rebel flag staff and all, and amid the cheers of his compatriots, carried it into camp and presented it to the Colonel to be by him laid up in the archives of the Regiment as one of the trophies that are to hand down to future generations the triumphs of the Michigan 3d, in the war of the Rebellion. The flag was composed of two pieces of cambrie, one white, the other black. The next day one of Dorr's assistants came along in no very pleasant mood I assure you. He stated that after placing those signals, they climbed some six miles over rocks and hills in order to make their observations, but when they got to the position were nonplussed at not finding their signals. He requested the officer of the day to protect his flags from the assaults of over-anxious seekers after secession bunting.
Notwithstanding his gaffe with the Coast Survey, Pierce soon demonstrated that he was a competent and efficient officer. His observations regarding the Regiment’s actions at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia on July 18 and in the retreat from Bull Run on July 21 were reprinted in the Enquirer on Wednesday, August 7. “We left Camp Blair on Tuesday,” on July 16, he wrote in a letter home, and
traveled 2 miles and went into camp at Vienna, reaching there at 10 o'clock PM, very much fatigued, when we threw ourselves on the ground with our oil-cloths under us and blankets over us. We did not take our tents with us, and therefore we had the high canopy of heaven for our tents. I think I never enjoyed a sounder and sweeter sleep that I did that night. We were up at sunrise and off for the seat of war, and that day traveled about 10 miles, stopping on the other side of Fairfax Court House, where we found, several batteries that had been deserted that morning by the enemy. This night there were about 15,000 troops all in the camp. We were alarmed in the night by our pickets being driven in. The next morning we took up the line of march in the direction of the enemy, our Brigade taking the lead with a portion of Sherman's Battery in advance. About 12 o'clock we heard the booming of cannon which warned us that we were in close proximity to the enemy and they had made preparations to receive us. Our skirmishers had ran upon a masked battery, and, as it proved, their forces far outnumbered ours. We could not see them as they were in the woods. We therefore made preparations to drive them from their hiding place. Our skirmishers were in the woods when we arrived in sight, and such vollies of musketry I never heard before. We at once went to their relief, and made preparations to charge upon the woods. we were in an open field, and he stood for a length of time under a direct fire from their guns. As we were about ready to charge the 12th Regiment of NY, instead of charging broke and ran; upon this we ordered to retreat, which we did in good order. Too much cannot be said in praise of our Regiment, for to a man they stood up in the ranks all the time with bullets whistling all around them. We marched back about 2 miles that night and went into camp; the next morning we started again for Bull Run, this day we kept quiet in hopes of drawing out the enemy. Nothing of importance occurred today with the exception of exchanging shots with the pickets. At night we lay upon our arms in the line of battle, and were called out several times in the night by the fire of musketry, but no fighting yet. The next day was but a repetition of the last.
The next was Sunday, the day of the great battle, which happened about 3 miles above us. We were kept in this position in order to engage the enemy and keep them from out-flanking the main army. We opened our batteries in the morning, but most got no reply. Getting tired of this, Captain Judd's company [A] were sent to reconnoiter the woods. When [they] got within a short distance of them, they opened up on us such a furious fire that we were obliged to fall back into a ravine. This convinced us that they were not dead yet. At 5 o'clock we were ordered to fall back on Centreville, where upon our arrival everything was in confusion; the main army had been defeated and were retreating in broken order, some stopped at Centreville, while others rushed on to Washington. At 10 o'clock we had orders to retire back to Fairfax, and our Brigade was to cover the retreat, which we did, and our Regiment was the last, and company K, of course, the very last. So you see we the honor, if you would think it so, of covering the retreat of the Grand Army, although we do not get the credit of it through the press, we made a forced march 86 miles without stopping for food or rest, and arrived at Arlington in a drenching rain at 10 o'clock AM; and such a tired lot of soldiers I never saw before. We made out to get shelter for the night, and the next morning had our tents brought over from Camp Blair. Now we are here on a beautiful location, where I trust we may remain until the men get recruited, although we are expecting to be called out every moment.
In October of 1861 Colonel McConnell resigned from command of the Third Michigan, and was replaced by Major Stephen Champlin. Byron was promoted to Major on October 28, 1861, commissioned the same day, replacing Major Champlin and according to Siverd the choice of Pierce was a good one.
Pierce was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on September 24, 1862, commissioned July 25, and mustered on January 15, 1863, replacing Lieutenant Colonel Ambrose Stevens who had resigned. By late November Pierce had returned home on furlough. On November 25, 1862 the Advertiser and Tribune noted that Pierce “has returned to his home at Grand Rapids, on a brief furlough. He left the State with his gallant boys as a Captain, and has been promoted to the Lieutenant Colonecy for his skill, faithfulness and energy.” Pierce was soon promoted to Colonel and commissioned on January 1, 1863, and was replaced as Lieutenant Colonel by his brother Edwin who was also promoted at the same time.
On January 4, 1863, he wrote to Brigadier General Stephen Champlin, the former commanding officer of the Third Michigan.
I was right glad to hear from you and more so to hear that your health was improving. Why is it that letters directed to you at Washington come to the Regiment. I have sent back quite a number and added to the Care of Dr. Bliss so you will find them there.
General don’t accept of your of your appointment any sooner than your health will permit on my account. And be sure and draw your pay as colonel up to the time you accept as General. I mustered you on the rolls as absent sick with leave and I shall carry you along until you notify me than you have your commission as General. Does your appointment start before this session of Congress or have you got to wait to be confirmed? I cannot tell what we are to do here, there are all kinds of rumors in regard to our moving. The last one is that Hooker’s Grand Division is going into the defences of Washington and [Generals] Sumner and Franklin are going to embark here for Fortress Monroe or somewhere else, but of course there are camp stories and you know what they are. We are drilling every day. I as usual am on a court martial. I wish they would let me do my own courting. It would be much pleasanter [sic]. Last week Stoneman reviewed our division, [and] tomorrow Burnside reviews our corps, and the next day our Brigade is to drum a man out of camp for skulking at Fredericksburg. He is from the New York 1st and so it goes after the same old fashion. If reviews mean anything we are having enough of them.
General Berry think[s] you should write him. His health is poor. Calkins tells me that he has heard from the money which [Colonel E.] Backus gave him when we first came down, that they have thrown out part of his account and that he has more money to pay in. Am I to pay him the balance on that horse, or were there other obligations which you assumed that I am to pay. I think I paid him seventy-five dollars and Peter forty-two 30/100 dollars. I think I was to pay him about forty more. Please write me all about it. you will probably get a letter from him in a few days in regard to it.
Something must be done in regard to Capt. Ed. [Pierce] General Berry in speaking of the fight dies not mention Major [Moses] Houghton’s name. He only speaks of relying on Capt. Pierce and Captain [Israel] Smith. The officers here all speak of him with contempt but what they will do about it is more than I can tell. You have probably seen Captain Pierce ere this and learned all the news.”
Something had already been done. On March 5 the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune reported on the justified promotion of both Pierce brothers, and in commenting on the recent promotions in the Third Michigan the Eagle reported on April 9, 1863, that the Pierce brothers, “both able and efficient officers in the glorious 3rd Infantry from its organization to the present time, have just been promoted; [Byron] to Colonel and [Edwin] to Lieutenant Colonel of the Regiment.
Byron was wounded slightly in the left hand and right arm on May 3, 1863, at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and was mentioned by the Division commander General Birney in his report for having distinguished himself for gallantry during the battle. He was wounded severely in the left leg on July 2 at Gettysburg where the Regiment was engaged in the Peach Orchard and soon afterwards he returned to Michigan on furlough. Pierce had left Grand Rapids on Saturday, August 22, to rejoin his command.
On August 31, 1863, Pierce was in command of a detachment comprising the Third and Fifth Michigan infantry regiments and a battery from the Second Connecticut Artillery, which was sent to Troy, New York as a deterrent against any possible violence during the upcoming draft in that area.
According to the Troy Daily Press “Col. Pierce has established his headquarters at Capt. Frank Cooley’s office. He is ably seconded by his Adjutant, D. C. Crawford, Esq.” And the Troy Daily Times of September 1 reported that “Ten or twelve horses, belonging to the officers of the regiment, reached here by Vanderbilt this morning. Among them is ‘Charger’, owned by Col. Pierce, who shared with him the dangers of the Peninsular and Potomac campaigns. Together with his rider, ‘Charger’ received honorable scars at Gettysburg, but they have not damped his spirit. He does not allow the approach of any other man than his groom, besides his gallant owner. ‘Charger’ is an institution.”
By mid-September the detachment commanded by Pierce, and which included the Third Michigan, was heading back to Virginia where it would eventually go into winter quarters near Brandy Station. Shortly after the regiment returned to Virginia, Pierce added a note of thanks to the official general order promulgated by General Canby commanding the Department of the East.
“The Colonel commanding detachment desires to add to this the expression of his thanks to the State troops, the Police force, and to the local authorities of Troy, with whom he has been incidentally associated, for the kindness and courtesy shown to the officers and men of his command, and for the spirit of cooperation exhibited in everything that had for its object the advancement of our common wishes and labors; and by the request, and in the name of all the officers f the third and Fifth Michigan infantry, we thank the generous people of Troy for their kindness, their generosity and their hospitality to us all. Our fourteen days’ sojourn among the Trojans on the Hudson is an oases [sic] in our rough two years’ army life. Those fourteen happy days will soften and lead us to forget many of the hardships of the Peninsula campaign, and during the long marches, fatigues and exposures which are yet before us, we will date everything back to our visit to Troy, that and then will be the bright guiding star. We would not fail to make especial mention of the ladies of Troy, who, like the ladies in the chivalric days of old, welcome home the troubadours from the great conflict of human rights against human wrongs.”
In the wake of the terrible losses of the Wilderness campaign of early May, 1864, the Eagle wrote that “A dispatch from Col. B. R. Pierce, of the ‘Old 3rd’, to his father in this city, informs him that he is yet safe and unharmed, but that the Regiment has been considerably cut up again. The command was in Gen. Hancock's corps and as usual has been among the foremost in the recent battles under General Unconditional Surrender Grant.” However, he did not remain safe and was wounded in the left leg on May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania, Virginia, and Pierce was assigned as temporary Brigade commander during the subsequent actions on or about May 24, 1864.
Indeed, Byron was promoted to Brigadier General on June 3, and on June 4 was assigned to command of the First Brigade in General Gibbon’s Second Division, Hancock’s Second Corps.
According to a story told many years after the war, Pierce’s promotion from Colonel to Brigadier General was “typical of his entire career in service. It was at the Battle of the Wilderness” when then Colonel Pierce “led a fierce charge and captured a bridge held by the enemy. The charge was witnessed by Gen. U. S. Grant, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and Gen. Birney, who from an eminence watched the battle. Shortly after the success of Col. Pierce's charge and while the battle still raged, an Adjutant attached to Gen. Grant's staff approached Col. Pierce and told him he had been promoted to the rank of brig. gen. ‘Can you give me the oath of office here? I'd like to die a brig. gen.’, Col. Pierce said. Stepping behind a great tree which stood there, he took the oath as bullets whizzed about their heads, and then dashed back into battle.”
Pierce was appointed to command the First Brigade, which included the Fifth Michigan infantry, in June of 1864, and on June 18, his Brigade was part of an all-out assault on the confederate works at Petersburg, Virginia. According to Pierce’s dispatch to General Gibbon, “I have commenced a vigorous assault. My lines are now going forward. I find the enemy very strong in our front. Assault unsuccessful.”
He was wounded during that assault, but only slightly in the right shoulder on June 18, 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia, and on June 21, the Eagle reported that “A private dispatch just received in this city, from General B. R. Pierce, states that his recent wound was in his shoulder and that it was not so severe as to prevent him continuing upon his horse, and in the field. Everybody hereabouts will rejoice that our general, one of the bravest and best officers thus far, though always in the front, escaped serious injury and that he is still able to lend his valuable service to the glorious work in which he is engaged.”
Two days later the Eagle wrote that “When Col. B. R. Pierce received his commission as Brig. Gen., which promotion he had won in fields of bloody battle, he was mounted and about to lead his command in a charge on the enemy [on June 18]. Taking the paper he stuffed it into his pocket and dashed off to the front, and in some 15 minutes thereafter, returned wounded in the shoulder. His wound was no sooner dressed, than he was ready mounted and again on duty. Glorious General Pierce; he is the kind of officer for the times, such as 3rd boys make, and the sort the Valley City may well be proud of.” By June 30 Pierce was commanding the Second Brigade in Birney’s Third Division, Hancock’s Second Corps.
By late July Pierce was unable to return to duty with the Regiment in the field, either as a result of his wounds failing to heal properly or he may have been ill from some other cause. In any case, according to his official report on operations of July 26-30 he had to relinquish command of the Brigade to Colonel D. Chapin of the First Maine infantry. Pierce was soon afterward sent home on leave to recuperate, and arrived home on the morning of July 22. A little over a week later the Eagle observed, “Colonel B. R. Pierce, the Third, is also out, with a cane and his wound is healing finely. His Regiment may expect him to lead them once more in the next great battle, if Lee avoids an engagement until autumn.”
The paper made up for its incorrect rank assignment to Pierce when it wrote on August 5 that “Gen. B. R. Pierce is now at his home in this city having just arrived from the front, at Petersburg. The gen. is in feeble health and comes home on a 20 day furlough for a few days rest. The gen. has, by his bravery and mil. skill, won imperishable honors on many a hard fought battle-field, and he will be welcomed by a host of admiring friends and lovers of this country.”
Byron returned to command of his Brigade and served in that capacity until the end of the war. On April 6, 1865, he was promoted to brevet Major General of United States Volunteers for his service at Sayler’s Creek, Virginia. According to one postwar report, Pierce
was in command of one of the divisions which was following Lee's army just before surrender. At 6 o'clock on the evening of April 5, his command suddenly came up with a confederate division which was convoying the headquarters train of lee's army. So important was this train that it was escorted by the best division in the Confederate army.
Charges and countercharges were made, muskets rattled, sabres flashed, and overturned wagons, frantic mules and horses, the Blue and Grey mingled in the strife. The result was a victory for Gen. Pierce's troops and the rich supply train fell to the federal forces. The members of Gen. Pierce's staff divided the spoils, and to him fell a rich silk sash, the personal property of Gen. Robert E. Lee. This sash, which was of heavy yellow silk, the ends trimmed with cream-colored tassels, was long cherished by the general, but later given to the Kent Scientific Museum, where it is today [it is in fact still in the museum collections].
It was for this victory, which helped to seal the doom of the confederacy and hasten lee's surrender 4 days later, that Gen. Pierce received the rank of brevet major general from President Andrew Johnson. This commission, signed by President J., and his commission as brig. gen., which bore the signatures of Abraham Lincoln and of Edwin Stanton, were the general's most cherished possessions.
In describing the Sayler’s creek engagement, Dan Crotty of Company F, wrote some years after the war that Pierce
is as cool under fire as on parade and nothing daunted he leads his men in the midst of the battle and all are proud of our gallant general. The enemy now has fallen back and taken up a position near a brick house where they fight very wickedly as they are trying to get a large wagon train away from our reach. The rebels are posted at every window and keep up a vigorous fire on us. On the crest of a hill beyond they have a very wicked battery which they use right lively. Now we are exposed too much for nothing, and would much rather charge on them than stand their fire. So the order is given to forward and inside of two minutes the brick house is ours. The Johnnies who fired at us are pulled out of the windows and taken prisoners. The enemy's battery still holds its position and pours in shell thick and fast, but we have good shelter now and wait for the rest of our lines to come up, which they do in a few minutes. All is ready now to go for the train and the order ‘forward’ is given once more; the rebel battery makes a hasty retreat, leaving about 250 wagons in our hands.”
After the war Pierce returned home unexpectedly on the evening of July 27, 1865, and his arrival quickly became a cause for celebration.
Though the general's coming was wholly unknown to our citizens, save a very few, and to that few only half an hour or such a matter previous to the arrival of the cars from the East, quite a number of those informed of it repaired to the depot to receive and welcome him -- one of the many brave men -- who went from this city to the support of the ‘old flag’, and who has never turned his back upon the foe, however terrible the shock of battle or fearful the storm of iron hail. The general has won the stars ornamenting his shoulders, and he can wear them in the proud consciousness that they have a meaning and are emblematic of glorious work done in behalf of freedom and the Union. The general was welcomed at the depot by hearty cheers and warm greetings, and accompanied by a few gentlemen in a private carriage to his home. As the conveyance passed the Rathbun house its distinguished occupant was greeted by cheers from the few there who knew of his arrival. Our citizens will, doubtless, ere many days give the general a public demonstration, such as his merit and position deserves.
At about 8:30 p.m. on Friday evening, August 4, “A numerous audience of our best citizens -- ladies and gentlemen” of Grand Rapids gave the general a substantial “public demonstration” in the form of a reception held at Luce’s Hall.
On entering the hall, at about 8:30 o'clock, attended by Hon. S. L. Withey and other dignitaries, and his family and immediate friends, the general was received with enthusiastic and long-continued applause, which burst forth again and again at each mention of his name or his services during the entire proceedings.
An introductory speech was made by Hon. S. L. Withey, after which the reception address was delivered by Hon. T. B. Church, in an eloquent and graceful manner, which elicited repeated demonstrations of applause. Mr. Church happily alluded to the early relations of the distinguished guest with his fellow townsmen, to his early military efforts in time of peace, to his enlistment in the services of his country at the first call to arms, to his subsequent faithful services on so many bloody and well-fought fields, to his wonderful preservation in life and health amid death and carnage, in whose front he was ever to be found, to the pride and satisfaction with which his city and State had watched his steadily culminating military reputation, to the universal satisfaction felt at the honor so nobly won by him for himself and for us in his repeated promotions, and to the general joy for his safe return, bringing with him so many laurels fairly won and worthily worn.
At the close of the reception address, the general was presented to the audience; and, after the tumultuous applause had subsided, gracefully excused himself from speechmaking, declaring that his training had been fighting, not talking, and he found this the most embarrassing position he had yet been placed in. He thanked his fellow citizens most heartily for their approval of his [war record], and he would endeavor to merit a continuance of their kind regard in the future.
An opportunity was then afforded the people to shake hands with their honored guest, which was eagerly seized by the audience; after which those who remained participated in the ball which followed, and which sped the happy hours until after midnight, when the pleased assembly reluctantly dispersed.
Sylvester's full brass brand and orchestra was present, and furnished its choicest music for the occasion.
The whole affair was well managed, and was the most appropriate and enjoyable occasion of the kind ever participated in by our citizens, and one, no doubt, that will long be remembered with pride and pleasure by its worthy recipient, who takes his place among us as a citizen again, with the eagles of victory upon his shoulder and the civic wreath tendered him by a grateful people, among whose defenders and protectors in the lists of battle he has proved conspicuously brave and eminently skillful.
Pierce remained in Grand Rapids from 1865 to 1866 and was living at 168 South Division Street, but soon moved to the Mobile, Alabama area where he took up the role of planter in Wilcox County in early 1867. He also served as United States Postmaster of Mobile, and on March 14, the Eagle reprinted an interesting story which was originally published in the Mobile Times, regarding Pierce’s appointment:
“General Byron R. Pierce has been a Federal officer of distinction, and although he has done all in his power to put down what we considered, and still consider, a just and righteous cause, his sole aim was the full restoration of the Union which the past had given such bright promises of becoming a blessing to future generations. If the end which he and many others had in view is today ignored, the fault is not with them, but with the fanatical fury which is now obscuring the bright sun of our national existence.
“General Pierce, at the close of the war, determined to share the fate of the Southern people, and settled in the midst of us, after having resigned the insignia of his official rank, and went to work as a planter in Wilcox County, in this state, where his modest, conciliating and courteous manners soon endeared him to his neighbors, who ceased to look on him as a former antagonist, and accepted him as one of the honest artisans of a reconstructed country and reviving prosperity.
“His acceptance of his present office has been forced on him at the instant solicitations of his new friends, and we greet him as one of those whose fate, linked with us, will soon open the eyes of the sober, thinking population of the North and West to the real conditions of affairs.
“It is a just subject of pride for the people of Alabama that no truly honorable son of hers could be found able to take the required oath, and it is no cause of regret that, from amongst her former adversaries, one could be found who, with a record unstained by apostacy, was yet so completely free of the dangerous tendencies and disorganizing propensities of Radicalism.
“We never will object to a generous enemy, while we thoroughly despise a false friend.”
That the General possesses, in an eminent degree, that sutriter in modo which greatly tends to make a man popular among all classes of people, is evident from the tenor of this article. While we rejoice at his good fortune -- fairly earned in the work of putting down the late rebellion of his new found friends we must say that we can hardly recognize in it that great eye-opener clearly seen by the rebel editor. The spirit of his own editorials is the most reliable indication of the real condition of affairs in the South. That condition and spirit will,however, rapidly improve under the operation of an honest executive of the recent act of Congress.
Pierce lived in Alabama for several years, but in late November of 1870 he returned to Grand Rapids on a visit. “We are pleased to see on our streets,” wrote the Democrat on November 2, “the gallant General Byron R. Pierce, formerly of this city, but now of Alabama, who is here on a short visit to relations and friends. The general was one of the most brilliant soldiers the late war produced, and the people of this city will always learn of his prosperity with pleasure.”
Pierce eventually returned to Grand Rapids where he was living by 1874 when he went into the clothing business with his brothers, Edwin and Silas, working as bookkeeper. (Edwin, too, had served in the Third Michigan.) This lasted only a short time, although he continued to reside in Grand Rapids and was living in the city in 1878 when he went up north to Grand Traverse County on a shooting holiday with another former member of the Old Third, Brigadier General Israel. C. Smith.
In 1880 Byron was serving as commander of the local battalion of militia, the “Garfield and Arthur Guards,” when on October 19 he issued the following general order, in the form of a request made to acting Mayor John Perry. “I have the honor to report,” Pierce wrote, “that at the turnout of the battalion which I have the honor to command, malicious persons threw stones into the procession and seriously injured several members of the battalion. If continued it might result fatally to some. In order to avoid this result, I respectfully ask the protection of the police force, and that 50 extra men be sworn in as policemen to act in citizens' clothes on those occasions, who will serve without cost to the city, but for the interest of good order.” Perry, “After consulting with Chief [of Police] Moran, Mr. Perry decided to grant the protection requested, and 50 extra men, in citizens' clothes, will try and keep the little boys from stoning the procession tonight.”
By 1880 Byron working as a clothing merchant and boarding at the Pantlind Hotel in Grand Rapids. Also boarding at the hotel nearby was Rhode Island native Abbie Jarvis.
Byron married Abbie Evans Jarvis (1838-1917), on October 12, 1881, at St. Mark’s; the reception was probably at the Morton House in Grand Rapids. (The Eagle claimed the wedding occurred in “the parlors of the Morton House, by the Rev. Spruille Burford.”) She had been married previously, to Homer Jarvis of Grand Rapids, and was for many years secretary of St. Mark’s hospital, which later became Butterworth hospital. She was not only "one of the best known of the old residents" but "was especially interested in military affairs, her fine mind, remarkable memory and personal interest in the subject having made her a local authority on matters pertaining to the part taken by Grand Rapids in the great conflict.”
From 1880 to 1882 Pierce served as Grand Army of the Republic Commander for Department of Michigan, and one of his responsibilities as department commander was to officially install the various Grand Army of the Republic posts as they were organized and chartered. For example, on September 6, 1881, Pierce traveled to Big Rapids in Mecosta County to install the French post which had just recently been organized in that city, and on September 9 he mustered in the GAR Champlin Post on the west side in Grand Rapids.
In early 1884 Pierce became chairman of the local Republican committee, and he was actively involved in the movement to create a Soldier’s Home in the state of Michigan generally and to be located in Grand Rapids particularly. In 1885 he was appointed a member of the Board of Trustees for the newly planned Soldiers’ Home and he was instrumental in locating the home in Grand Rapids.
On the evening of August 5, 1885, Pierce replied to several inquiries by e reporter for the Weekly Democrat regarding the location of the new home. Pierce said that the board of trustees had so far “done nothing towards deciding on the location of the home. We arrived at Detroit last evening, after having visited three sites at Owosso, three at Saginaw, some at Port Huron, but there are none there nearer than four miles from the city, and several places along the St. Clair River. The spots are beautiful, but they want $20,000 or $30,000 for the sites. The board has adjourned to August 17. This week Gov. Alger has gone to New York to attend Gen. Grant’s funeral, accompanied by members of the board -- Capt. Remick and Col. Wells. Next week Judge Brown has an important case which he is obliged to try, and for these reasons the adjournment was made to the time set.”
Three weeks later the paper reported that the decision had at last been made, and that “Grand Rapids is indebted to General B. R. Pierce for his valiant and successful struggle to have the soldiers' home located here. The other members were apparently as anxious to have the home located in their various localities as he was to have it located here, and had he wavered a site would probably have been selected elsewhere. The superior advantages of Grand Rapids and the propriety of placing the home in the western instead of the eastern part of the state, finally carried the day.” In 1886 he was elected one of the directors of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.
The following year Pierce was appointed to be first Commandant of the new Michigan Soldiers’ Home, a position he held until 1891. Pierce took a “hands-on” approach to his responsibility as Commandant, as reported by the Eagle in May of 1888. “Commandant Pierce,” wrote the paper on May 19, “was in the city this forenoon and on his return he took back to the Soldiers’ Home nearly $1,200 in cash for the regular ‘pay roll’. He said in answer to an inquiry for news, ‘that they had just finished putting in the water pipes for the grounds and that they would now commence active work in beautifying the lawns and grounds. There is very little sickness among the “vets,” except of a chronic nature. There has been no fever or erysipolas to speak of. We shall observe Memorial Day’.”
Two years later, there were some questions raised in the community over Pierce’s treatment of several of the veterans at the Home.
A few weeks ago a letter was received by the Democrat from Thomas Smith, formerly an inmate of the Soldiers' Home. He is a man who was arrested in October for fighting with a comrade named William Newton. The men got drunk and, although the best of friends when sober, fought each other with all the hate of enemies. Smith took a knife and attempted to cut Newton's throat and succeeded in making several severe gashes, but fortunately not in a vital point. Newton retaliated by biting and scratching his opponent. It has been customary for the officials at the home to take care of their own refractory charges, but General Pierce thought it high time that these men should be treated to more severe punishment. He stated that he had endured their conduct as long as possible and as treating them kindly, instead of doing good, encouraged others in wrong doing, he was compelled to make an example of the men in order to maintain anything like discipline. When the men were arraigned before Justice Walsh, Smith pleaded guilty to a charge of assault and battery and was sent to jail for 90 days. A few days afterward Newton changed his mind, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail for 100 days.
In the letter received from Smith he eulogized himself and denounced the managers of the home and Commandant Pierce in particular for favoritism. He stated that he had been turned from the home and although the managers had refused to take him back, they would not provide him with means to reach his friends at Detroit. The letter was shown to the members of the Soldiers' Home board, which was in session then, and they not only upheld General Pierce's action but thought he had been too lenient with the man. “There is no use in talking,” said Judge Brown of Big Rapids, who is a member of the board, “we have got to maintain discipline at the home and preserve order, and we can't do it by allowing everyone to do as he pleases. This man Smith was one of the worst characters we had. He was continually making trouble among the men and would not listen to anything the officers told him. It was time something was done and I think General Pierce did just right.”
General Pierce stated that the man's story about being discharged was true, but he had been furnished transportation to Detroit. Later it was learned that instead of using it he had disposed of it. Afterward he attempted to get a ticket from the poor superintendents, but, learning of his disposal of the other ticket, they refused him.
Yesterday another letter was received from Smith, who relates his “tale of woe,” and ascribes all his troubles to the managers of the home, who have turned him out into the cold “to get drunk,” “frequent saloon society” and become a bad man. “I sympathize with a man in destitute circumstances,” said Colonel Wells, when shown the letter, “but he has only himself to blame. He was provided with a good home, and did not know enough to appreciate it. A man who will deliberately attempt to cut another man's throat must be a bad character, and such this fellow was. We have got to have some means of keeping order, and I think the fellow got his deserts. Furthermore, I understand that General Pierce now has proof that the man was never a soldier at all, but that he gained admission to the home in the first place by means of forged or stolen papers.”
General Pierce admitted that he has such proof, and promises to make things lively for Smith.
Indeed, Pierce provided a most interesting story to this “tale of woe.” On January 23, the Democrat reported that Smith’s “name is Riley and he is wanted at Adrian for stealing a suit of clothes.
A man calling himself Thomas Smith, tall with mustache, somewhat grey, is wanted at Adrian for stealing a suit of clothes from a G.A.R. comrade. B. F. Graves of Adrian, one of the managers of the Soldiers' Home, noticing that the name and description fitted the man who was expelled from the home for attempting to cut the throat of William Newton, told the prosecuting attorney of his suspicions and wrote to General Pierce about it. General Pierce then received the following letter from the prosecuting attorney:
“B. R. Pierce, Dear Sir: -- Mr. Graves has shown me a letter from you in reference to Thomas Smith. I think there is no question but he stole a suit of clothes that belonged to a comrade here by the name of Joseph Nathan. He sold the top coat to a second-hand dealer here and that we have recovered, but the pants and vest are yet missing. We think he hid them some place here and was then frightened away before he could dispose of them. The value of the clothes was not enough so that we could punish him as he ought to be punished, and in view of the light punishment we could inflict and the expense it would be to bring him from there, if he will tell us where the pants and vest are so that I can save the comrade here from loss, I thought I would not send for him, but I do not know that you care to mention this to him. If not, any suggestion you may make will be duly appreciated.
“I am a member of the G.A.R. here and met Smith in company with the comrade he stole the clothes from.’ [signed D. B. Morgan]
General Pierce has also received letters showing that Smith is wanted by the pension authorities for obtaining a pension under false pretenses. They think his real name is Riley.
“When an old soldier in want comes here,” said General Pierce yesterday, “we do not shield him in any way from officers who may want him; neither do we play the part of detectives. We have over 500 men here, and it is a matter of surprise that out of that number we have less than a dozen who cause any trouble. Smith is one of the bad ones. He was continually making trouble. He would steal knives and other trinkets, which he was compelled to restore to the owners. We did not want to prosecute him, but when we heard that the pension officials were after him he was told that he better skip out of this part of the country. He was given a ticket to Detroit, but I don't know whether he sold it or destroyed it.”
After he left the Michigan Soldiers’ Home in 1891, Pierce leased the Warwick Hotel and remained its proprietor until 1909. (Originally built in 1886 by Darwin D. Cody, a cousin of Buffalo Bill Cody, , the Warwick was located on the southwestern corner of Fulton and Division Streets, and was eventually renamed the Cody Hotel. It was torn down in 1958.)
However, Pierce, who had served as Postmaster in Alabama, apparently sought to receive a postmastership in Grand Rapids, and on December 21, 1899, the Democrat wrote that “Congressman Smith has returned from Washington for the holidays. He says he has secured a position for Gen. B. R. Pierce in the post office here. He does not know the name or the position or what the work will be. If the position has no name a name will be found or a new position created to give a name to. Neither does he know what pay will attach to the office. He has accumulated this mass of ignorance about the matter after spending two weeks in Washington and interviewing Postmaster Bishop. Everybody is glad that Gen. Pierce has got a position, even if there are a good many things indefinite about it.” Pierce was appointed to the post office in 1900.
Byron had been actively involved in the Old Third Michigan Infantry Association since it was first organized in 1870, and he served as Toastmaster at virtually every reunion banquet until 1900 when ill health prevent him from attending. Henry Patterson of St. Johns and a former member of the Old Third, offered a resolution at the 1900 meeting. which was unanimously adopted, “It is with profound regret that we fail for the first time since the birth of our Regimental Reunions, to meet out old, tired and trusted commander, General Byron R. Pierce. We miss him in our social gathering, business meeting and more especially at the banquet. It is our sincere desire and earnest prayer that he may speedily be restored to health and be able to meet with us in the future, as in the past. Resolved, that a copy of this resolution be, by the president of this association, delivered to our beloved commander, signed by the president and countersigned by the secretary and spread at large on the records of this association.”
During the annual Old Third reunion in 1907, Pierce said, in part,
“Comrades - In the intervals of time years are measured, and in the completion of another of those cycles, it is again my pleasure to welcome you, the surviving remnant of Michigan's gallant “Old Third.” Well nigh half a century has passed (46 years the 13th of this month) since this Regiment left our city, 1040 strong, full of spirit and patriotism to engage in that memorable conflict. We, and those who recall that exodus of long ago, were forcible reminded a few evenings since when an adjacent street was ablaze with vari-colored lights and tri-colored bunting floated from every building, proudly observant of the extension to our town district of the first railroad to enter this city, that occasion should have been designated for the date of our departure, the first troops to leave the city, also the first this road transported.
“Another generation is now on the scene of action, and we are counted on the down grade, but while the memory performs its function, those days and the experiences that followed with many of us to Appomattox will ever continue green.
“In the renewal of our greetings there follows a tone of sadness, the increasing death roll registers so many who have been with us on similar occasions. They have fought their last battle, their conflict is over, ‘peace to their ashes’.”
Pierce closed by adding “‘Tears for the dead, cheers for the living.’”
Byron was also a member of Grand Army of the Republic Custer post no. 5 in Grand Rapids, and a member of the Mexican War Veterans’ association of the State of Michigan. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution (through his mother’s lineage), was a senior vice commander of the Loyal Legion in the Department of Michigan, was a Master Mason, an Odd Fellow, a Republican, a charter member of the Peninsular Club in Grand Rapids and in religious matters he was a Universalist.
He received pension no. 219,956, dated October of 1882, drawing $7.50 per month in 1883 for a gunshot wound to the left leg, and at the rate of $72.00 per month by 1924.
On June 13, 1911, Byron was one of the guests of honor at the unveiling of the monument honoring the Regiments which mustered in Grand Rapids on the old fairgrounds in 1861 and 1862. Pierce, speaking for the Old Third infantry Regiment which left Grand Rapids on June 13, 1861, said
“We are met to commemorate an eventful anniversary and share in the fitting observance the patriotic ladies of our city have generously prepared. A century is a long time indeed to anticipate; what of the retrospect? Crowded with memories mingled with pleasure and sadness. As we stand here among the vast assembly, to the survivors of the Third Michigan Infantry we seem to tread upon hallowed ground -- it is indeed a sacred spot.
“Here in our young manhood, many of you had not attained that, with the spirit born of patriotism that roused us to avenge the nation's traitorous blow, we swore allegiance in that flag whose every star retains its lustre and place upon its azure field. On this site we were encamped many weeks drilling and making ready for the orders that should send us to the front.
“50 years ago this morning we responded to that call, each with knapsack and musket, we marched from here amid the waving of banners and plaudits of citizens, to the old D & M station, where the last farewells were spoken, and we left home and loved ones to share the dangers and horrors of war. Think you this day is not replete with memories to this little group of men, the remnant of the 1,040 who then formed this Regiment and went forth to do or die? Are they not a link between the past and the present? Ours was the second Regiment to leave the state and from the first was allied with the Army of the Potomac, sharing in every engagement that army participated in from Bull Run to Appomattox.
“The second Regiment claim theirs was the only one from first to last. The Third Michigan had been so decimated in losses, both killed and wounded, it was consolidated with the 5th, and ever afterward known as such, but,be it remembered, was on the spot at Lee's surrender. In truth, justice, and I am sure you will pardon me if I say pride, I look with reverence upon every veteran before me, for they have been tried and proven true, their valor tested on every battlefield, their loyalty to the cause they represented, as steadfast then as now.
“In fancy again, they seem under my fostering care. Two generations have come upon the scene of action since those stirring times, for them a brief review of this Regiment seemed necessitous. To the Sophie de Marsac Campau chapter of the D. A. R. and the city of Grand Rapids we gratefully acknowledge the gracious compliment for which this memorial stands. These loyal women whose patriotic zeal conceived and completed this tribute are indeed the recipients of our highest appreciation. May this memorial stand as long as time shall endure, telling present and future generations whence came the Regiments and companies that helped make a bright page in Michigan's record in the Civil war.”
In presenting the stone to Superintendent William A. Greeson representing the board of education, he said: “This Regiment is nearing its final muster. The site on which this memorial is placed is a part of property owned by the city of Grand Rapids, under the control of the board of education. That this boulder may be safe-guarded and perpetually retain the place it occupies we transfer our right and claim to the protection and care of this honorable board.”
The Herald described Pierce in old age as “A gentleman of the old school, fine mannered, courteous to a degree unknown to this generation, Gen. Pierce was a welcome figure in the best homes of old Grand Rapids.” The paper noted that during Pierce’s final years he was “Always perfectly groomed when he was able to take of himself,” and he “kept up his habits of neatness to the last. He became very deaf and his speech was slow, but his eyesight was keen and he looked forward to the visits of his old friend, Capt. Charles E. Belknap, who went out every week to visit him.”
Pierce was residing at 47 Jefferson Street in Grand Rapids when he was admitted on November 20, 1920, to the O’Keefe Sanitarium in East Grand Rapids. Dr. O’Keefe, in a sworn statement given in February of 1921 stated that Pierce was confined to his bed at all times and was “totally disabled by reason of old age and requires the constant help, aid and attendance of a nurse,” and that his condition existed at least three months prior to Pierce’s admission to the Sanitarium. In O’Keefe’s opinion Pierce’s condition would not improve, and he died a widower of myocarditis at O’Keefe’s at 1:00 p.m. on July 10, 1924.
Pierce’s funeral was held on Tuesday afternoon, July 14, and one obituary described Pierce as a “loyal soldier and citizen,” and that his was “a life which played its full part in keeping the nation one. The white-haired veteran’s body from 10 to 2 o'clock Tuesday lay in state at Grace Episcopal church. On either side were massed flowers from scores of friends. The flowers had been raised in gardens of the city, carefully picked and borne as family offerings to the bier of a great soldier. Over the casket was a silk flag, the soldier's only decoration except a modest badge which told of Civil war service.” “Massed on each side of the casket were flowers from the various veterans' organizations and from Gen. Pierce's many friends, but the casket bore only the flag for which the veteran had offered himself more than a half century ago. At its head was a wreath from the Soldiers' Home and the customary floral star of the G.A.R.”
“All was peaceful,” wrote the Press, “in the sun-flecked haze of Grace church, but soldiers and wives and daughters of soldiers, who gathered there, saw something more. It was the vision of great battlefields where men went to glory for their nation -- of battlefields where Gen. Pierce himself had been, and led and had come back victorious. Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and other never to be forgotten battlegrounds. During the morning and early afternoon two National Guardsmen in uniform guarded the general's body, the tribute of the new to the old.”
The body “lay in state from 10 to 2; and by noon worn veterans of ‘61 had begun to come for the funeral services which were held at 2 o'clock. Of Gen. Pierce's own Regiment, the Third Michigan Infantry, but four survivors were present. They acted as honorary pall-bearers, together with representatives of the Loyal Legion, Custer and Watson Posts, G.A.R.; Women's Relief Corps; officers of the Michigan Soldiers' Home; Sons of the American Revolution; and Byron R. Pierce and Eva Gray tents of the Daughters of Veterans. The two American Legion posts were represented unofficially. Boy Scouts acted as ushers.”
“At 2 o'clock,” reported one observer, “the church filled rapidly. The pallbearers took their places and in quietness uniformed men and white clad women of various military organizations took their places as honorary pallbearers. The family was represented by a nephew, Henry V. Pierce of Grand Rapids, and a niece, Mrs. Mary O'Connell of New York city. Boy Scouts ushered others to remaining pews.” The paper added that “Rev. G. P. T. Sargent, rector of Grace church, officiated. He drove 125 miles Tuesday from Hillsdale, where he is presiding at the Episcopal conference, to be at the funeral and he must return to the conference Tuesday night.” “With the conclusion of the organ prelude, Greig's ‘Ase's Death’, played by Verne R. Stilwell, and the singing of ‘Oh, What the Joy and Glory Must Be’, led by the Grace church quartet, Rev. Sargent began the Episcopalian burial service.” The Press wrote that
The grand old hymn, “O, What the Joy and the Glory Must Be,” opened the service, the singing led by a quartet. Mrs. Merton M. Lovelace, Miss Eleanor Bramble, E. O. Teng and Gerald Williams. At the organ was Verne R. Stilwell.
Then followed the Episcopal burial service, a lesson from the scripture and the hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Mr. Sargent's funeral sermon was not long, but it carried a wealth of sincerity in tribute to the dead and example to the living. “Loyalty” was his theme. “The great need in the world today,” he said, “is loyalty to God and to our country. Those are great who have been loyal to their God, their nation and one another.”
“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” stirring battle song of Sherman’s men, closed the service.
The funeral procession left from the church and went east on Cherry Street, then north on College Avenue and east on Fulton Street to Fulton Street cemetery, “where last rites were said.”
At the cemetery “a firing squad from the Michigan Soldiers’ home and a Boy Scout bugler took their places. At the conclusion of the prayer by Rev. Sargent, Col. Frank R. Chase, of Smyrna, past commander of the Department of Michigan, G.A.R., deposited at the grave the flag that marks a veteran's grave; flowers were laid on the casket by representatives of Byron R. Pierce tent of the Daughters of Veterans and other women's organizations. The customary salute was then fired by the veterans squad, and the youthful bugler sounded the soldier’s call to rest after labor [‘Taps’].”
Byron was buried in Fulton cemetery: section 11 lot 7.