Monday, April 13, 2015

The “Brown” Books

The state-sponsored “Brown” series of regimental histories provide a good overall background to each Michigan regiment’s role in the American Civil War; unfortunately the volume devoted to the Third Michigan Infantry suffers from several important shortcomings.

(While the Brown Books do indeed have a brown cover and back, the name derives from George Brown who, as adjutant general for the state of Michigan, oversaw the publication of the regimental history series.)

For example, when the Brown history of the Third Michigan Infantry is compared to the more exhaustive “Regimental Descriptive Rolls” (RDR), the individual biographical sketches in the former are often found incomplete and occasionally inaccurate. Strangely enough, much information was dropped and new errors introduced, when the RDRs were turned into the Brown books. The result was only a cursory review of each soldier’s service; and even then some soldiers were omitted. In fact, there are least 44 members of the regiment whose service record is not given in Volume 3 of the Brown regimental history series. Omitted soldiers include some of well-respected citizens of Grand Rapids both before and after the war, and some who rendered notable service during the war itself.

From this distance it is unclear why so many men were omitted. Take for example the service records of Corporal Don Lovell and Peter Weber of the Third Michigan, men who eventually became Majors in other Michigan regiments. Lovell is not listed at all in the Third Regimental history and Weber, who was killed in action while a member of another regiment, is simply listed “No further record.”

Similarly, seven members of the Third Michigan who are not in the regiment’s history are found in Volume 5 (5th Michigan Infantry) of the Brown books.

Still other members of the Third Regiment are not found anywhere in the series. Daniel Littlefield, a well-known Grand Rapids boy who enlisted as a Sergeant in the Third and who would become a commissioned officer, transferred to the Seventh Michigan Cavalry and died of disease in 1864, is left out of the sketches altogether. Also omitted (though is mentioned in the brief introductory history of Volume 3) was Edwin S. Pierce, a Grand Rapids merchant who began the war as Captain of Company E and ended his military service as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Third Michigan, serving alongside his brother Colonel Byron Pierce. Edwin would return to Grand Rapids where he became one of the city’s leading clothiers.

These were some of the most promising and well-known young men in Grand Rapids in 1861, yet it appears that by the time the Brown books were written their service in the Third Michigan had been virtually forgotten.

It appears that the Brown books relied primarily on information readily available in Michigan while little or no effort was made to mine the wealth of information available in Washington, DC. The federal records have their gaps too, however: unaccountably some twenty members of the Third Michigan Infantry have no service record at the National Archives.

Even Michigan sources were often underutilized. Allen Shattuck (a former member of Company G) was the Third Regiment’s unofficial historian. During the regimental association reunion banquet of 1896 it was reported that Shattuck had maintained a diary (which has yet to be uncovered by the author), and which apparently served as the basis for the numerous anecdotal speeches Shattuck would give during many of the reunion meetings. In 1904 it was reported that Shattuck had been authorized to proof the copy of the regiment’s Brown history volume then being prepared in Lansing by the state authorities.

However, when the regimental history was published the following year, Shattuck reported back to the association during its annual reunion held in Grand Rapids that he was unable to correct the history of the regiment undertaken by the Adjutant General's office. Whether it was because of time constraints, lack of cooperation from Lansing, or problems unique to Shattuck was not stated.

Another shortcoming of the Brown books is the absence of cross-references to other units in which the soldier served. This omission is especially glaring with the Third Michigan since so many of its members went on to serve in other units. By contrast, the RDRs heavily cross-referenced many state and military reference materials when compiling its sketches of each soldier in the 1880s.

For example, of the 432 men in the Third Michigan who were discharged for disability, 145 reentered the military; of the 40 officers who resigned on account of disability, 18 reentered the army; and of the 130 men mustered out with the regiment on June 10, 1864, 13 reentered the military. Only a tiny fraction of these reentries were reported in the Brown series. In some cases, the compilers of the Brown books must have been unaware of a soldier’s subsequent service. The RDRs were meticulous in noting the cross-referenced service for each man.