By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – William Horton Kimball’s Civil War experience lacked the eloquent congressional debate or the grand-scale carnage of the award-winning movie “Lincoln.”
Rather, Kimball’s Civil War — carefully recorded in a handwritten journal — reflected the on-the-ground vantage point of a Michigan soldier who confronted Confederate guerillas and hostile Southern sympathizers.
A new book, “Among the Enemy: A Michigan Soldier’s Civil War Journal” (Wayne State University Press, $24.95) tells the story in Kimball’s own words of three years in uniform far from the family farm in Spring Arbor Township, west of Jackson. The journal was found in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.
The conflict was 5 months old when the 18-year-old enlisted in the First Michigan Engineers and Mechanics in September 1861. The book’s editor, Mark Hoffman, has researched the regiment for more than 20 years.
“As military engineers, Kimball and his comrades were often assigned to work in the rear areas of the army,” Hoffman writes. “This isolation from the rest of the army left them open to hit-and-run raids by Confederate cavalry, semi-regular partisans and civilian guerillas.
Kimball frankly recorded events that illustrated such hostility. For example, one journal entry from Tennessee described how a captain ordered “an old secesh” – secessionist – named Johnson to feed Union troops. Johnson refused, so the captain ordered Johnson’s slaves to “get us the best the house offered.
“We had a splendid breakfast, the slaves telling us where we would find the hams and I never saw a nicer in my life,” Kimball wrote.
But the incident was about more than full stomachs: “We were going to make the old man take the oath of allegiance” to the Union “to which he objected when to scare him it was proposed we should hang him, and procuring a rope it was placed about his neck, but he didn’t scare worth a cent.”
Another entry told how “some rebs” fired at a group of Black soldiers “and they kept up firing all night. In the morning traces of blood was found.”
But fellow Northern soldiers also weren’t immune from the brutalities of the war, as illustrated by an incident involving Sam Fletcher of Company A. For hitting a guard, Fletcher was “punished for 16 days in succession by being tied by the thumbs and standing on the head of a barrel.
“Today the doctor had him taken off the barrel, saying he had been sunstruck and would not have lived five minutes longer on the barrel,” Kimball’s journal said. “It was said he swore vengeance on the officer ordering so severe a punishment.”
Kimball mustered out of the army in the fall of 1864, returned to the family farm and married a schoolteacher. The couple moved to Mason County and worked as a carpenter and timber inspector in the Ludington area.
He also entered politics, becoming sheriff and later Ludington city treasurer. He died in 1920.
Hoffman said Kimble’s journal “helps fill in one of the largest remaining holes in the modern Civil War narrative – the relationship between occupiers and occupied.
“From his story, we better understand the complex tensions that existed among the people who called themselves Americans, celebrated the same Independence Day and founding heroes, yet were mobilizing all of their resources to kill each other,” Hoffman wrote.