Northport’s Impact on the Civil War
Northern outpost today, critical hub during wartime
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 3, 2018
Northport's location at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula is a little like that of an island; you don’t pass through on the way to somewhere else. But a century and a half ago, when the primary means of transportation was by water, it was a key port — and one that played an important role in the Civil War.
The town’s and region’s story is included in John Mitchell’s book Grand Traverse, the Civil War Era. The historian, who lives in Omena, elaborated on it in a conversation. “Northport was a three-dock harbor. It was halfway between Chicago and Detroit. It grew to be fairly influential, like a modern-day expressway stop,” said Mitchell.
It was also the largest town in Grand Traverse County, which at that time included what is now Leelanau County. There were really no roads or railroads to speak of, which is what led to Northport’s initial rise. It also meant that those going to fight in the war would do so by shipping out from Northport. “They left for the Civil War by ship. From Northport, about 1,200 men left from what are now 11 counties.”
That even included a number of the local indigenous population. “A contingent of Native Americans (left for) Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. Company K was renowned for the Native American marksmen,” said Mitchell. Their ability with guns extended to include the fact they could reload much faster than average; while reloading once a minute was a good average, many of the fighters from this area could reload four times in one minute.
Michigan was, of course, far removed from the combat theaters of the war, but it supplied a large number of troops and several generals, including George Custer. Over the course of the war, some 90,000 Michigan men (about 23 percent of the male population of the state) served in the Union forces. Nearly 15,000 Michigan troops perished during the war, though over 10,000 were not lost in battle but rather as a result of disease in the crowded, unsanitary camps.
Mitchell said it’s important to remember that when the Civil War was fought, America was about half the size it is now. “The Great Lakes was the western frontier in the 1850s. It was the edge of the wilderness.”
That meant that those who came from this region were regarded as among the best-suited for warfare. Their hardiness, ability to deal with rugged and unfamiliar terrain, and the hours of walking through woods and fields were things they did on a daily basis. Unfortunately for them, these attributes often pushed them to the front lines of the fighting, where they took heavy casualties.
That was especially true during the Wilderness Campaign. It took place in the spring and summer of 1864 and was General Grant’s first campaign against General Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia. Grant's Army of the Potomac, numbering approximately 120,000 men, advanced across the Rapidan River into a place in Virginia known as the Wilderness due to the large number of trees and dense ground cover in the area. In the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5 and 6, the Confederates succeeded in stopping the Union advance, despite having just one-half the number of men that the Union had available for the battle. “The Wilderness Campaign — that was when most from this area [were killed],” said Mitchell.
Some 100 men from the nearly 400 fighters from northern Michigan died in the war. They included Sergeant Henry, who was killed while fighting in front of his son, Lieutenant Garrett. The son perished two weeks later from infection after his arm had to be amputated due to massive shrapnel wounds. Mitchell details many of those deaths in his book, as in this passage: “Four months after leaving Grand Traverse, four of the six Northport men were casualties — one dead, one dying, and two badly wounded.”
With the end of the war came a time of industrialization, and the building of both roads and railroads. For a while, that still benefited Northport, as the Newaygo-Northport Road, which became M-37, was a main thoroughfare. But over time, the emergence of those alternative means of transportation meant that Northport’s era of domination was over. Traverse City’s location at the base of the bay proved to be a great jumping-off point for travelers heading both east and west, and opening up the eastern side of the bay to traffic to the north sent travelers away from Northport.
“Grand Traverse County took off after the Civil War,” said Mitchell. “The trains hit Traverse City before Northport, and shipping lanes became less important.”
Want to read more about Northport and northern Michigan’s role in the Civil War. Mitchell’s book, which was awarded a 2011 State History Award, is available at local bookstores and libraries as well as through online sellers.
Pictured above: Grand Traverse soldiers in the 5th and 26th Michigan Infantry and the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, along with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade and other Michigan regiments, joined in the Grand Review in Washington, May 23 and 24, 1865.