"Life Went On" in Civil War-Era Kalamazoo

Oct 13, 2014

An exhibit under construction at "Kalamazoo for the Union!"
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

The Civil War changed Kalamazoo. But for many people, daily routines – and favorite entertainments – went on.

Home life during the Civil War is the focus of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s new exhibit, “Kalamazoo for the Union!” which also touches on local soldiers’ experiences. The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through May, the 150-year anniversary of the war’s end.

The museum has also published letters by several local Civil War soldiers on its Web site over the last few years.

KVM Curator of Research Tom Dietz shared some highlights with WMUK. He says many of the people who volunteered to fight ended up training in Kalamazoo, in what’s now the Edison neighborhood.

“That area down there at Stockbridge and Portage down to Alcott and Reed - there was a horse racing track there. Kalamazoo was a center of harness racing. And there was a fairly new track – just opened in 1859, with all of the outbuildings that you would have: stables, and a grandstand and the like. And that particular horse racing track was converted during the course of the war on several occasions into a training grounds.”

Soldiers left Kalamazoo for all sorts of places – Washington, DC; Louisville; Baltimore. They sent many letters home – and didn’t always hear back as quickly as they wanted to.

“You read the soldiers in their writings saying: ‘Please write. I haven’t heard from you for three weeks. Why won’t you write? I’ve written you three letters. Don’t you love me anymore?’” says Dietz.

“They also asked, ‘please send the newspapers,’” he adds.

From there, the focus shifts back to Kalamazoo.

“What we want to do is talk about what was going on while the men were away. Sometimes I think that people think that citizens back in the 1860s or so were more patriotic than they are today and the war was all-consuming in their attention. And we want to say, the war was important, but no, life went on.”

He gives the summer of 1861 as one example.

“Those who have a military knowledge of the war are thinking about the First Battle of Bull Run and Manassas. What’s actually going is – we’ve got newspaper clippings – people are going off to watch the baseball game. They’re getting on the train and going to Dowagiac to watch a game between the Kalamazoo team and the Dowagiac team. Or later in the summer into the early fall, all of the excitement is about the annual horse racing.”

But nearly everyone knew someone who had gone off to fight. One of the displays shows a house in mourning for a soldier who’s been killed – in this case, Captain Clement C. Webb of Kalamazoo.

“He was with the 13th Michigan Infantry. At the battle of Stone’s River in 1862, he is wounded in the shoulder. The sad irony of the situation is that in early February a friend of his visits him in the hospital and sends a letter to his wife saying, ‘oh, you know, he’s recovering nicely from the shoulder wound,’ but before the letter actually gets to her the telegram arrives that he’s dead from the infection.”

One of the most extensive displays re-creates a fair organized by women to raise money for soldiers’ medical needs. The exhibit also features a few military artifacts – such as the rifle of Corporal George Munger of Prairie Ronde.

“In May of 1865, a month or so after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and the war was technically or formally over, he claims – and there’s pretty good reason to believe – that he was the one who actually held the rifle on Jefferson Davis as he was getting out of his tent where he was camping at Irwindale, Georgia and said, ‘Halt. Stop there.’”

Dietz says the war might seem like "ancient history." But his own experience reminds him it’s only a few generations out of living memory. His grandmother was too young to have lived during the Civil War, but old enough to have known Civil War veterans, and when Dietz was a boy she told stories about them.