"Pile up our blankets and go in!” The 1st Michigan Engineers & Mechanics at Perryville
On September 10, 1861, Wright L. Coffinberry, a civil engineer; James W. Sligh, a merchant and lieutenant in the Ringold Light Artillery militia organization; Barker Borden, an architect, builder, contractor, and local militia officer; and Perrin V. Fox, a contractor and bridge builder all requested William Innes to wire the U.S. Secretary of War to raise a regiment comprised of engineers and mechanics from Michigan. All the men were from Grand Rapids, The Secretary of War agreed as long as the governor of Michigan signed off to the request. On September 12th, the Governor authorized Innes to raise a regiment of ten companies to be offered and equipped as infantry and provided implements for engineer services. The Governor instructed the new regiment that they would be called the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics.
By October 1861 the regiment was organized in the following manner:
Company A, under Captain John Yates
Company B under by Captain Baker Borden
Company C under Captain Wright L. Cotffinberry
Company D, under Captain Perrin Fox
Company E, under Captain Silas Canfield
Company F, under Captain James Sligh
Company G, under Captain Garrett Hannings
Company H, under Captain Marcus Grant
Company I, under Captain Herman Palmerlee
Company K, under Captain Emory Crittenden
Company L, under Captain George Emmerson
Company M, under Captain Edson Gifford
On October 29, 1861, the regiment was mustered into service. Innes was elected colonel, Kinsman Hunton Marshall elected lieutenant colonel, Enos Hopkins as major, and William H. DeCamp the surgeon.
On December 17, the regiment left Michigan with 1,032 men and marched to Louisville, Kentucky and reported to Union General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio. The regiment was divided into four detachments and assigned to duty with four divisions. Innes had command of Companies B, E, I and reported to General Alexander McCook. The second detachment under the command of Colonel Huntoon, companies D, F, and G, reported to General George Thomas. The third detachment was under Major Hopkins with companies C and H which reported to General William Nelson. The fourth detachment under Captain J. Yates with companies A and K reported to General Ormsby Mitchel.
The regiment spent their time engaged in various works in central Kentucky, around Somerset, Danville, and Lebanon. At the end of February 1862, the battalions concentrated in Louisville and boarded the steamer Lancaster and steamed down the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland River. From there they moved onto to Nashville which became the regiment’s headquarters.
During the month of March, the regiment built railroad bridges at Franklin, Columbia, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and by July the entire regiment was at Huntsville, Alabama. In August, Colonel Innes, along with five companies, marched to Nashville and built bridges on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, which were destroyed by Confederate General John H. Morgan. When Confederate General Braxton Bragg and the Army of the Mississippi marched into Kentucky to start the Heartland Campaign, General Don Carlos Buell, along with the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, left Huntsville, Alabama and concentrated in Louisville.
On October 8, 1862, Major Hopkins, along with Companies A, C, and H, were assigned to Union General Lovell Rousseau’s division. W. H. Kimball wrote that the regiment marched eleven miles on the double quick. While marching, Kimball heard the roar of cannons coming from the fight at Perryville. General Rousseau rode up and told Major Hopkins that his men would soon have a “hand” in the battle before night. They reached the battlefield and formed into line of battle. They were placed in support of an Indiana battery until the afternoon when General Alexander McCook, commander of the First Corps, gave Major Hopkins orders to “pile up our blankets and go in.”[i] John Weissert, also of the 1st Michigan, wrote to his mother that he lost everything in the battle except “what I carried on my body. I always carried the traveling bag with me that I have taken from home, but we had to leave everything behind when we were ordered into the firing line and now it is in the hands of the Rebels.”[ii] According to G. N. Bachelor, of the 1st Michigan, about one hundred of the engineers were watching the battle from a slight eminence, when General McCook rode up and said he wanted the men “to hold that house over there.” He was referring to the Russell House which was located on the extreme right, about thirty yards in advance of Rousseau’s lines. In order for Major Hopkins to reach the Russell House he had to make a decision. He could go around the rear of the Union forces or pass obliquely across an open field between the Confederate and Union lines. Hopkins chose the option of crossing the open field. As they marched towards the Russell House, minie balls zipped passed them. Rousseau rode up to Hopkins's men, saluted, and said, “Hello boys, which way now?” Noticing some of the men “cringe” when a bullet zipped by them he said, “Oh, never mind those little things!” Just then, the Confederates saw the engineers and a shell flew right over Rousseau's head. Rousseau instinctively bent down on his horse, Hopkins’s men began to laugh and shout and the general finished his speech with, “but damned those big ones.” After that any time engineers saw Rousseau during a march or in camp would yell, “General, look out for those big ones.”[iii]
According to General McCook, the right of General Rousseau’s line was compelled to fall back to prevent the division from being encircled by the Confederates. The Confederates placed a battery in an open field about eight hundred yards from the Russell House, near the Bottom’s barn. The fire from the Confederate battery was so heavy near the Russell House that the line could not be held. Captain Cyrus Loomis’ 1st Michigan Light Artillery had exhausted its long-range ammunition and fell back to a commanding ridge about 150 yards in the rear of the Russell House and on the right of the Perryville Road. Loomis was supported by the three companies commanded by Hopkins. The battery fired and repulsed the first Confederate attack. Rousseau wrote that Major Hopkins remained on the field and late in the evening formed a line of battle on a line with a portion of the 17th Brigade, formerly under Colonel William Lytle, on the left of the road. He stated that Major Hopkins's force was too small to oppose the advancing Confederates. He wrote that the 1st Michigan Engineers took shelter behind the Russell House but were forced to retire along with the rest of the 17th Brigade.[iv]
During the battle, Major Hopkins lost fourteen wounded, and three captured or missing. John Weissert, of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, wrote about the aftermath of the battle. He walked the battlefield looking for Willey Goodyear. He wrote to his wife that he “heard that he had been wounded and had been carried from the field. . . .I did not give up till I found him. But it was a lot of trouble in all the confusion….Piles of rifles and dead horses were lying around. Then we saw a dead body with a bullet through his chest. We looked at the dead man with tears in our eyes and a prayer on our lips. Then we walked on and saw four bodies, among them, a doctor, as I could see by his insignia. A shell had torn off his face. Here, too, I had to stop, feel sorry for him, and pray for the dead. Then we went up a little hill, and what a sight we saw in a hollow on the other side! The dead lay for three acres practically side by side. I saw eleven in one pile, then nine, then fifteen to twenty-one. I got tired of counting. At the other end of the battlefield, we came to a beautiful house to which the rebels had taken their wounded. Amputated feet and hands lay in the courtyard, but there had not been any time to bury them….and how the house itself looked. The carpets were bloodsoaked….I never in my life had expected to see a sight like this.” He wrote to his wife that the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics would have not fought in the battle “if the battle hadn’t almost been lost.” He wrote to his wife that he did not “go into war in order to commit murder.”
Even the surgeon of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, Doctor W. H. Camp, was called into service. According to the report of Dr. A. N. Read, Inspector of the U.S. Sanitary Commission on October 23, 1862, Dr. Camp was the surgeon in charge at Harrodsburg. He was taking care of 456 Confederate sick and wounded in the hospital in town and fifty more in private homes. He had sixteen surgeons, sixteen ward masters, sixty-four nurses, and twenty-four servants, all Confederate. For the care of the Union troops, he had sixty-seven in the hospital and private homes. He had one surgeon and eight assistants, including stewards, cooks, and nurses.
In his after-action report on the Battle of Perryville, Buell wrote that the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics “not only rendered invaluable service in its appropriate duties during the past year but at Chaplin Hills and on other occasions it has, in whole or in part, gallantly engaged the enemy. I especially commend Colonel Innes, Lieutenant Colonel Hunton, and Major Hopkins for their efficient services of fine regiment.”
After the battle of Perryville, the regiment concentrated at Nashville, Tennessee. During the months of November and December, the regiment built bridges over Mill Creek and other streams on the line of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, preparing for the advance on Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
[i] Kimball, W. H. & Hoffman, M (2013). Among the Enemy: A Michigan Soldier’s Civil War Journal. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Project MUSE. [ii] Herman Rothfuss, A German Michigander in the Civil War, Bentley Historical Society, University of Michigan, 1963. [iii] McCabe, Volume II, No. 3, 1879, 19. [iv] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, No. 4, Report of Maj. Gen. Alexander McD McCook, U. S. Army, commanding First Army Corps, 1041.