The Michigan Wolverines

The Michigan Cavalry Brigade was created on December 12, 1862. It consisted of the 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry Regiments. In early 1863 the 1st Michigan Cavalry and Battery M, 2nd United States Artillery were added in a major reorganization by General Alfred Pleasonton, the Army of the Potomac's Cavalry Corps commander. As leadership in the Union Army changed frequently, so did assignments of units and officers. More commonly known as the Wolverines or Custer's Brigade, the brigade consisted of volunteers in the Union Army in the latter half of the US Civil War. The Michigan Brigade fought in every major campaign of the Union Army of the Potomac from the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 to the Confederate States of America surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

The Michigan Brigade first saw combat at the Battle of Hanover in southern Pennsylvania on June 30, 1863. In late June of that year, command of the Brigade was handed over to Brigadier General George Custer. The Wolverines saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war and were instrumental in the Union Victory. On July 2 at the Battle of Hunterstown, General Custer was pinned under his slain horse in the middle of the road. Trooper Norville Churchill rescued the fallen General. At Gettysburg the regiment distinguished itself for bravery and gallantry at every encounter.

Custer inspired his men charging mounted into the melee, yelling "Come on, you Wolverines!" which became their rallying cry. The brigade engaged in a series of fights with J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate Cavalry nicknamed "The Invincibles". They met defeat at the hands of the Wolverines and their flamboyant leader Custer. In February 1864, the Michigan Brigade took part in a 5,000-man cavalry raid on the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. The raid was to free POW‘s, sever supply lines, and panic the Confederate public along with the government officials. The troopers traveled light and were expected to live off the land. The raid did sever all the rail lines between Richmond and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but failed to enter Richmond or free the prisoners. The raid must still be viewed as a success however. The severed rail lines would haunt CSA General Robert E. Lee until the end of the war.

On May 28 in heavily wooded terrain, Custer dismounted the brigade and deployed in a skirmish line as if they were infantrymen, during the Battle of Haw's Shop. Custer staying mounted as he led them forward, waving his hat. The Confederate infantry mistook a nearby Union infantry move as a retreat and charged after them. They ran into Custer's men, who captured eighty Confederates. Forty-one Michigan cavalrymen fell in the attack, during their enthusiastic charge.

On June 11 and 12 at Trevilian Station, the Wolverines were heavily engaged. General Custer maneuvered to the rear of two Confederate divisions and seized the train depot and a large cache of supplies. Eventually enemy troop movements had the Michigan Brigade surrounded. Custer nearly had his Last Stand here but was able to fight his way out of the encirclement with heavy losses. The Wolverines survived to engage in numerous other small engagements through the end of the year. On September 26, 1964 Custer was promoted to divisional command and Colonel James H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan assumed command of the Brigade. The cavalry unit fought fiercely and bravely under their new leader as well, it seemed the Wolverines were always in the pitch of the battle.

In 1864 the Wolverines were active in the pursuit of Confederate General Lee's retreating army after the fall of Richmond. They were included in the troops that eventually blocked Lee's planned escape route, leading to the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. After General Lee’s surrender, the Brigade moved into North Carolina for a short period, then moved on to Washington D.C. where they participated in the Grand Review on May 23.

After the review, the Michigan Brigade was deployed to the western frontier at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. From there they traveled farther west to fight in the Plains Indian Wars, seeing service throughout the Dakotas and Montana. Many of the Troopers term of enlistment had expired, yet were kept in the service until March 10, 1866. After many protests by the men that were being held illegally in Federal service, they were finally mustered out and allowed to return home to Michigan. Some men elected to stay and enlist in the famed US 7th Cavalry, lead by their former leader, General George Armstrong Custer. A few members of the former Michigan Brigade perished at the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 along with General Custer.

The Wolverines survive today as The Michigan Cavalry Brigade Association, a non-profit organization of volunteers dedicated to historical education, preservation and remembrance of the Civil War mounted trooper.

 

Losses sustained by the Wolverines in the US Civil War:

1862-1865 Total Enrollment 6120

Killed in Action 265

Died of Wounds 120

Died of Disease 880

Total Casualty Rate 20.7%

 

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