By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Debuting its Michigan in the Civil War exhibit, the Oxford Public Library hosted a special guest last Friday afternoon.
It is the year of our Lord 1896, and R.E. Stone, a veteran of the Civil War, recalled, near as he could remember, some of his experience. He spent the show-and-tell hour describing his clothing and personal equipment for a hybrid audience. Several library patrons attended in-person, while the rest tuned in virtually.
“This is a fireside chat like none other we’ve had here at the library,” said Library Director and CEO Bryan Cloutier, “in part because we are facing this pandemic that just doesn’t seem to want to go away.”
The library has conducted many virtual events over the past year, but this was the first in-person/virtual hybrid. Although audience members were transported back to the 19th century, there were no major technical difficulties, and virtual attendees were able to ask questions.
R.E. Stone is a typical Union soldier with the 7th Michigan Infantry, played by Robert Stone of Ann Arbor. “Like many other men, I served and suffered for four years during the war,” Stone began his presentation in character. “At the end of it I was confident that the Confederate flag would never besmirch the halls of the United States Capitol.” (This was just two days after the events that took place at the Capitol last week, January 6, 2021.)
Stone said that history books are written by generals and politicians, covering vast campaigns. But he wanted to share with folks the everyday experience of soldiers like him, whether Yankee or Rebel.
Stone dispelled common myths about the uniform and equipment, starting with headwear. Each Union soldier was issued a blue cap called a kepi, which imitated the French military style. “It was totally useless in the field,” he said. “There was no protection for your ears or neck from rain or from the sun, and the symbolic brim provided very little protection from the elements.”
As the war went on, they found a way to “lose” their kepis and replaced them with slouch hats with wide brims.
When they were issued, there was no difference between left and right shoes. “It was only by wearing them and marching around in them for hundreds of miles that they adapted their shape to your foot.”
Soldiers carried everything they needed for basic life in the field. “There were no wagons to take up our tents, our bedrolls, our rifles, anything like that. It was on us, marching from place to place. So, as time went on, the soldier learned to dispense with as much weight as he could.”
Unpacking his haversack, Stone described some of the items he carried: a small bible, a plate, coffee, a sewing kit and a combination utensil tool with a knife, a fork and a spoon (a luxury item).
He walked the audience through how to load and fire his .57 caliber Enfield rifle-musket. And he dispelled disabused romantic notions of what the detachable bayonet was used for.
“No doubt, you have seen color lithographs or drawings showing determined soldiers making bayonet charges against their enemy. I’m sure that happened. In wartime, anything can happen. But we didn’t do that. The use to which we put bayonets was far more pedestrian.”
They would use them to dig holes, peg out their tents, grind their coffee, and most commonly – as a candlestick. “The government issued us these things and when they told us what we should use them for, we all kind of laughed,” Stone said, because with the bayonets fixed it made it very difficult to load the weapon. “It just was not worth the trouble it caused. But at least, being inventive Americans like we were, we found ways to make use of this foot or so of steel.”
Robert Stone has a master’s in history from the University of Michigan. He spent his career in publishing, finishing his career at Oxford University Press. A longtime member of the Ann Arbor Civil War Roundtable, Robert has been re-enacting for over 25 years.
He got into the hobby when he was experiencing a lot of stress from poor work-life balance. “I didn’t really have anything outside (work) except being a parent and a husband, as important as they are.”
That’s when he joined the 7th Michigan Infantry, a reenacting group based in Mason. According to Robert, the 7th Michigan Infantry was “a regiment that was raised at the beginning of the war, served all four years of the war and were in some of the largest battles in the East. At Gettysburg, they were the only Michigan regiment to help turn back Pickett’s Charge on the last day of the battle.”
He misses going to in-person events with the group. “It’s not every part of it I miss, but yeah being with my friends and sharing the hobby. I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years, so I tell people I’ve grown old in the hobby.”
This was Robert’s first in-person event since last March, though he plans to continue his speaker series “Near as I Remember” virtually. “Hopefully with the vaccine now being available, this summer will be different.”
Michigan in the Civil War exhibit
The Michigan in the Civil War exhibit on display in the center of the library is on loan from the Detroit Historical Society and Museum and runs through Feb. 28. There is no registration required to visit the exhibit.
It features 10 free-standing kiosks, each examining a different theme in Michigan’s role in the war. Over 60 artifacts and photos give visitors insight into the ordinary and extraordinary lives that helped shape the history of the United States.
The different themes are:
Michigan in the Civil War, Women in the Civil War, The Iron Brigade: MI 24th Infantry, Unsung Heroes: Engineers and Mechanics, The Civil War in the News, A Soldier’s Life, United States Colored Troops, The Music Makers, Post War: the Grand Army of the Republic and Monuments to the Civil War.
In partnership with the Northeast Oakland Historical Society and Museum in downtown Oxford, the library added an additional theme to the exhibit: Oxford’s Contribution to the War. This piece includes local artifacts on loan from the museum and private collectors.
Cloutier noted that although there was no opening reception and gala this year, “We feel the exhibit stands on its own merit and is sure to not disappoint library visitors.”
Some have asked why the Confederacy is not among the topics on display. Cloutier pointed out that as a northern state, Michigan was part of the Union.
In the library’s winter newsletter, Cloutier quoted Abraham Lincoln from an 1838 speech in Springfield, Illinois: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Speaking to the timeliness of the theme, Cloutier wrote, “Without getting too entangled in the political landscape we are currently in – it’s almost uncannily coincidental that this concept would ring as true and as important today as our Republic is faced with such turmoil and divide nearly 182 years later. Strength, honor, integrity and grit will get us through yet another hill in the road – like those challenges that came before us, this too shall pass and my hope is that it will make us better because of it.”
Robert Stone’s visit was the first in a series of fireside chats running on Fridays at 2 p.m. Whether attending virtually or in-person, registration is required. Folks can register online, at the Adult Reference Desk or by calling 248-628-3034.
January 15 – “Chaplains of the Civil War” presented by Worley Smith.
January 22 – “Civil War Soldiers buried in Oxford” by Jim Lehtola.
January 29 – Lois Keel as “Liberetta Lerich Green” the Civil War from the home front.
February 5 – “Hold my Horse” a short film about Major General Isreal Richardson.
February 12 – “Northeast Oakland Historical Museum Civil War artifacts” by Bryan Cloutier.
February 19 – “Women in the Civil War” by Worley Smith.
February 26 – 5th Michigan Regimental Band Performance