The Civil War and MSU

A site for a new courthouse to be built adjacent to Fredericksburg City Hall in Virginia has revealed a brick structure that was involved in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. The city funded the archaeological dig before the $35 million project begins. The discovery was opportune as this December will mark the battle’s 150-year anniversary, and Fredericksburg has been preparing for its sesquicentennial.

According to The New York Times article, no one expected to find anything below the ground as the city records did not indicate that a building had been on the property before 1886. The findings are significant as they provide clues about soldiers who took cover in the basement during the battle and their activities while inside. The building was burnt down at some point after the battle which in effect preserved the basement’s condition.

An article by News shows the “artifacts indicate the soldiers cooked beef, drank whiskey and Scottish beer, opened ration cans, dipped their pens in glass and stoneware inkwells, and smashed plates. Buttons, dozens of bullets, various uniform parts and dozens of tobacco-pipe bits were found, among hundreds of items. The cellar’s heart-pine floorboards, carbonized by the fire, were left mostly intact.”

The archaeologists found  soldiers’ uniforms which may lead to discovering which unit they were a part of. So far they know it is Company C, and a regiment number including a ‘2’. When they do figure it out, they may be able to investigate in soldiers’ diaries to find eyewitness accounts of the event.

Officials believe this significant finding will be a permanent symbol of the city and of its rich archaeology. The city places a high value on learning more about Fredericksburg’s history and Civil War involvement in order to attract tourists, so fortunately archaeologists will continue to be called upon to discover and preserve sites any time there is construction.

Although no actual Civil War battles were fought in Michigan, this discovery is relevant to our campus and it’s archaeology because the entire first class of students at Michigan Agricultural College left the school to fight in the war. These and other Michigan soldiers proved essential to the Union. When our first troops appeared to serve, President Lincoln is rumored to have said, “Thank God for Michigan!”

MAC Class of 1861, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

The first class of students was meant to graduate in 1861 at the commencement scheduled in November. That commencement would not happen, as the effects of the Civil War felt around the nation hit Michigan Agricultural College. The entire graduating class of seven seniors was excused in September 1861 in order to join the Union Army. They were excited to defend a cause they believed in, as Michigan was strongly anti-slavery.

According to an MSU Alumni article, two of the graduates died in service. Gilbert A. Dickey was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and Henry D. Benham died at Beaufort, South Carolina in 1864. Oscar Clute, an underclassman who also joined the effort, returned to M.A.C. to finish his degree and later became its fifth president.

In October, as part of its own sesquicentennial commemoration, the MSU Archives published A Guide to the Civil War, which catalogues all of the resources in the Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections pertaining to our students and the Civil War. It includes over 120 collections containing papers and records of correspondence, diaries and other documentation. The Archives also has a website highlighting our Civil War Collections.

As more clues are uncovered about the artifacts found in Fredericksburg, there is a chance that some of our students were involved in the battle, and perhaps even in that basement, and we could possibly have one of their diaries in our archives. While this might be a lofty idea, it points to the importance of archaeological resource management, especially as historic sites such as our campus undergo continuing construction.

Author: Sabrina

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