- “My Brave Mechanics”: The First Michigan Engineers and Their Civil War
James McPherson began Ordeal by Fire by declaring that "The Civil War is the central event of the American historical consciousness." I am reminded of this statement's validity every time I walk into my local Borders Book Store and see a Civil War section that is nearly as large as the rest of the American history section combined. Many of these books offer little that is new, oftentimes covering what is already well-ploughed terrain. Such is not the case with Mark Hoffman's "My Brave Mechanics," in which he traces the history of the First Michigan Engineers. It is a unique and interesting story, and it is one that is well told.
Hoffman, following a pattern typical of unit histories, addresses the regiment's formation, its military training, and its deployment and subsequent activities. But this story has its unique aspects. The 1st Michigan's soldiers had been promised increased pay due to the specialized nature of their skills, but for [End Page 576] several months were paid at a lower rate. It was a situation that haunted the regiment and was the cause of morale and disciplinary problems until late 1862. On December 1 the regiment, in accordance with a recently enacted law, finally was mustered into the service as engineers, retroactive to August 1, and thereby became eligible for a higher pay rate. Hoffman's rendering of the regiment's pay problems tells an important story that helps the reader understand the regiment's internal dynamics, while also giving the reader some interesting insights, albeit from the bottom looking up, regarding the multitude of complex issues with which the president, Congress, and the War Department had to deal in mobilizing for and conducting the Civil War.
Hoffman excels at placing the regiment's activities into the larger context of the western campaigns in which it participated. He alternates between describing the larger strategic, operational, and logistical situations as the campaigns developed, and telescoping down to look at the regiment's activities and at those of the individual companies in support of those operations. In the process it is hard not to come away truly awed by the regiment's accomplishments—from the construction of bridges, to the laying of track, to the conduct of security operations, to participation in battle—the regiment did it all. Most enlightening, perhaps, is Hoffman's portrayal of the regiment's evolving attitude toward southern civilians. It is a progression that, in microcosm, supports Mark Grimsley's argument in Hard Hand of War. Many in the regiment initially desired to leave alone and be left alone by civilians but, as the war wore on, the regiment encountered increasing levels of anger, hostility, and outright resistance. This, in turn, cause the Michiganders' attitude to change. "When I have seen the hardships our army has to endure and the cruelties inflicted on the soldiers by these miserable traitors in the South, wolves in sheep's clothing," an officer in the 1st Michigan wrote home in the summer of 1862, "I have made up my mind that our government has got to take off its kid's [sic] gloves if it ever intends to squash this rebellion" (pp. 90-91).
The book has some minor problems. It employs the passive voice far too often. It could use more maps and maps that are far more detailed than those it has. Its index is both incomplete and inaccurate. These quibbles notwithstanding, "My Brave Mechanics" is an important contribution to the ever-growing library of Civil War unit histories.
Ann Arbor, Michigan