Thursday, May 17, 2018

Abraham Lincoln and His Generals

 By Frank Boles

Through the generosity of former CMU Trustee John Kulhavi, the Clarke Historical Library has been given nine framed collages featuring the autographs of Abraham Lincoln, as well as many of the generals who led the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.


Among the most interesting is the panel including the signature of Abraham Lincoln, and which tells the story of Edward G. Beckwith.

Born in 1818, Beckwith graduated from West Point in 1842 and was a career Army officer.

He was promoted First Lieutenant June 18, 1846, and took an active part in the Mexican–American War. However, Beckwith is most often remembered as the man responsible for the Pacific Railroad Survey, which he commanded from 1853 to 1857. The First Transcontinental Railroad followed his recommended route.

During the Civil War Beckwith served in the Commissary Department. The Office of the Commissary was responsible for purchasing and issuing food for the Army. During the Civil War, the Office was also responsible for feeding escaped slaves, prisoners of war, political prisoners, and for caring and compensating Union families in areas invaded by the Confederacy.

Included in the panel are the documents signed by both Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton promoting Beckwith to major, as well as a second document issued shortly after the war’s end, making him a brevet brigadier-general. Brevet promotions gave a commissioned officer a higher ranking title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct but without conferring the authority or pay of an officer who held the title by regular promotion.

As John E. Smith wrote in, Our County and It's People: A Descriptive and Biographical Record of Madison County, New York, published in 1890, “After the close of the war he [Beckwith] was brought to Washington to settle the claims held against the Commissary Department throughout the country. His record of fidelity and ability in the accomplishment of this arduous task is too well known to need comment.”

In addition to the signatures of Lincoln and Stanton promoting Beckwith, there are several other important signatures, including U.S. Grant, Brinton McClellan, William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker, Henry Slocum, and John Adams Dix. Each man had a career worth remembering, and many clashed with each other over how best to pursue the war.

In 1861 no one would have expected that at the end of the war Ulysses S. Grant would be the nation’s most acclaimed general. Grant began his military career as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at in 1839. He was forced to retire from the service in 1854, accused of chronic drunkenness. In April 1861, Grant was working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store.

When the war began he was denied an assignment in the regular Army, but soon was in command of an Illinois Volunteer Infantry regiment. Promoted because he had both an ability to win and the willingness to candidly acknowledge when he failed, Grant saw his principle objective as destroying the Confederate armies. Grant doggedly engaged the Confederates, inflicting unsustainable casualties on their army. At war’s end, Grant’s forces captured the Confederate capital of Richmond and forced the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The book-end to Grant’s autograph is that of Major General Brinton McClellan, who became commander–in-chief of the Union Army in November 1861. The “Young Napoleon” was very popular with the men who served under him, but as a commander proved consistently timid and was sometimes outmaneuvered by his Confederate opponent. After several defeats Lincoln relieved him of command of both the Union Army and the Army of the Potomac. Although temporarily reappointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, in November 1862 McClellan was relieved of all command responsibilities and sent to Trenton, New Jersey to await orders. Those orders were never issued. In 1864 McClellan ran against Lincoln for president as a Democrat, running on an anti-war platform calling for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.

William Tecumseh Sherman was another West Point educated soldier. He was less serious than many of his peers in the Academy. Fellow cadet William Rosecrans would later remember Sherman as "one of the brightest and most popular fellows, who was always prepared for a lark of any kind." Those in charge of the Academy found his larks less amusing than did his classmates. Sherman himself noted that “My average demerits, per annum, were about one hundred and fifty,”

Sherman resigned from the military in 1853 to pursue a business career. When war broke out he was summoned to Washington, and recommissioned a colonel. Although successful, the strain of command caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. He himself would write that in the waning months of 1861 the concerns of command “broke me down” and he contemplated suicide. A newspaper described him as “crazy.” By December 1861, however, he was again in active service, although in rear-echelon positions.

On March 1, 1862 Sherman reported to U.S. Grant, under whom he had long hoped to serve. The Battle of Shiloh changed his career. As Sherman wrote to Grant, "Before the battle of Shiloh, I was cast down by a mere newspaper assertion of 'crazy', but that single battle gave me new life, and I'm now in high feather." Shiloh also led to one of the war’s most quoted exchanges. The first day of the battle had gone very badly for Grant and the Union army, with only Sherman’s fighting retreat saving the Union from a complete defeat. At day’s end, finding Grant smoking a cigar under a tree, Sherman said simply: "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" After a puff of his cigar, Grant replied calmly: "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."

And they did.

With Grant’s confidence and friendship, Sherman went on to become one of the most successful of Union generals. When Grant assumed overall command of Union troops, Sherman took Grant’s old command of the Western theatre. In a prophetic letter to Grant he wrote, "if you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic I think ol' Uncle Abe will give us twenty days leave to see the young folks."

Both men did exactly that, and won the war.

Joseph Hooker, like Grant and Sherman graduated from West Point but resigned his commission in 1853 to pursue private interests. Considered a highly competent officer, when the war broke out he was quickly commissioned as a brigadier general. Hooker’s career during the war had both significant successes and major failures. He would be chosen by Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac but lose that command after being defeated in May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville, losing to a Confederate force half the size of the one that he commanded. He was re-assigned to serve under Sherman, with whom he was constantly at odds. Eventually, when Sherman passed him over for promotion, Hooker asked to be relieved of duty. In September 1864 he was given a rear echelon assignment.

The West Point-educated Henry Slocum was severely wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). He recovered in time to lead Union troops in 1862’s Peninsula Campaign and earn a promotion to major general that July. During the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was temporarily the senior Union officer present, Slocum was criticized for his hesitation to order troops into action on the first day of fighting. More recent scholarship, however, suggests such criticism was misplaced.

Regardless of the justness of the criticism, after Gettysburg Slocum was reassigned to the war’s western theater, under the command of Joseph Hooker. Slocum deeply distrusted Hooker’s judgment and resigned his commission rather than serve under him. To keep Slocum in the Army, Abraham Lincoln personally arranged a peculiar command structure that, although Slocum would be in the general area commanded by Hooker, Slocum and his troops would act independently rather than serve under Hooker’s orders. Slocum later served successfully under General William T. Sherman, in the Atlanta campaign and his famous “March to the Sea”.

J.A. Dix was Secretary of the Treasury who order revenue agents in New Orleans: "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." Although considered too old for a field command, Dix was appointed a major-general of volunteers at the outbreak of the war. In this capacity, he was notable for ordering the arrest of several pro-Southern Maryland legislators, thus preventing the legislature from meeting and the state from seceding.

The signatures recall many stories of those who served during the Civil War. They will be on display in the library’s reading room through the summer.

CMU and Michigan Special Olympics

By Frank Boles

In 1973 CMU first hosted the Michigan Special Olympics Summer State Games. The games were begun in Michigan in 1968. The first year the game came to CMU, 1,500 athletes participated in the event. Since 1973, CMU has annually hosted the Summer State Games. This year, the games will be held May 31 through June 2. An estimated 2,600 athletes will come to campus and begin the games on the 31st with a parade and opening ceremony beginning at 6:15 p.m. in Kelly Shorts Stadium.


The program’s primary goal is to support the athletes. As one simply put it, “We get to have a good experience. I enjoy that the most.” The program benefits not only the participants, but also the participants’ families. “I’ve always focused not on what Preston can’t do,” said the mother of one athlete, “but what he can do. I can’t imagine life for him or for our entire family with the Special Olympics.”

Creating that good experience for the athletes and their families involves many, many volunteers, who also find working at the events a life-changing experience. Deon Butler, who played football for CMU from 2011 to 2014 attended events in his football uniform. “It really turned out to be the best thing in my life.” Athletes waited in line to meet him. “They come up to me and make me feel special,” Butler said. “Anybody who can come put a smile on my face, if I can put one on their face, it’s the best thing in the world.”


In 1975 CMU hosted the International Special Olympics. The first International Special Olympics games had been hosted by the city of Chicago, in 1968. 5,000 people attended the 1975 games in Mt. Pleasant, including 3,200 athletes from around the world.

The opening ceremonies featured the release of 4,000 balloons, and 1,000 “doves of peace,” which were actually homing pigeons which found their way home after their release.

In addition to the games themselves, the athletes and their families were welcomed to a number of entertainment events. An outdoor carnival featuring more than 200 booths was held. Sally Struthers, who was then starring on the most watched television sitcom in America, All in the Family, hosted a musical concert. Publicity for the event listed many other “celebrities”:

“Planning to be at CMU in August are entertainer and song writer Mac Davis, TV personality Dick Sargeant, 1960 decathlon Gold Medal winner Rafer Johnson, athletes Lacey O’Neil and Gary Erwin, ex-pro football great Frank Gifford, TV stars Mark Slade and Theresa (“That’s My Momma") Merrit, former baseball great Carl Erskine, basketball’s Wayne Embry, ex-professional football star Roosevelt Grier, Olympic swimmer Donna DeVarona, clown Ronald MacDonald and Gov. William G. Milliken.”

Why the governor of the state was listed after Ronald McDonald (and who came up with that spelling – perhaps someone who had deprived their children of the quintessential American experience of a happy meal served in play place under the Golden Arches?) are questions best answered by the anonymous writer of the PR release.

Celebrities, however, were merely icing on the cake. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the International Games was a very special thank you every participant received – a hug. Mostly CMU students, the “huggers” volunteered to give every participant who finished an event a big hug, and a few words of encouragement.

Michigan Special Olympics is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics in our state this year. We welcome to the organization’s golden anniversary celebration this year’s athletes, their families and friends, and the many volunteers who make the event possible.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

CMU Commencement Traditions

by Sam Flees and Katie Wilson

Central Michigan University has many celebrations documented in its archives: the J-Hop dance, freshman cap burning, and Gentle Friday ice cream cones from CM Life are just a few of the Central traditions that have been a part of student life of years past. One of the most continuously evolving events at CMU is the graduation experience. Graduating is a time of accomplishment and recognition. During the 1950s and 1960s, honor students were distinguished by ribbon rosettes worn on the lapels of their robes. White ribbons signified Cum Laude, red signified Magna Cum Laude and blue signified Summa Cum Laude. Today, honor students are distinguished by cords and medallions; Summa Cum Laude and Magna Cum Laude graduates receive medallions and Cum Laude graduates receive cords.

Students with their honors ribbon rosettes, 1955.

There have been other ways in which the graduation celebrations have evolved over the years at Central Michigan University. One tradition that came and went was Senior Swingout. Senior Swingout was a tradition for graduating seniors from 1930 through the late 1960s. It marked the first time seniors would don their caps and gowns. The name comes from the act of students swinging open the doors of the Administration Building (now Warriner Hall) and leaving for one last tour of the campus. This gave them an opportunity to reminisce about the good memories, the friendships created, and the hardships faced here in Mt. Pleasant.

In the early days of the Swingout, as students walked through the doors of the Administration Building out to the lawn and embraced their newly completed education, two hundred Japanese lanterns lit up the pathways around campus with orange and gold. As they walked, a double male quartet sang the “Alma Mater” creating a fitting atmosphere to conclude the journey they had at Central. In later years, President Anspach would address the students from the tower of Warriner Hall, wishing them well and offering words of wisdom the evening before commencement exercises.

Congratulations to all of this year’s graduates who will be swinging out of the doors of the John G. Kulhavi Student Events Center and McGuirk Arena this weekend!