Loyal Legion Vignettes

Donald M. D. Thurber
Michigan Commandery
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
10 Rathbone Place
Grosse Pointe, Michigan 48230
(August 1998)

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the United States Census showed Detroit had doubled its population in ten years. It would double it again in the next ten. Its explosive growth as an industrial powerhouse was underway. The raw materials from the north, the iron and copper ores, the grain, the timber, that formerly passed Detroit on their way to lower lakes cities were now increasingly being unloaded at Detroit, to fuel its mills, furnaces, machine shops, forges, and foundries.

Inevitably, it was a city of the young, attracted by the opportunities that were offered in such profusion. And among the undifferentiated mass of young, new arrivals were the four who are the objects of our attention this evening. They were quite undistinguished, blending in with the general population without notice. None was native to Detroit. Three of the four were European-born; one was the first-generation son of immigrant parents -- all in all quite a typical picture of the Detroit of 1860. But these four obscure and unnoticed lads were about to be caught up in an event vastly larger than anything ever dreamed of in their quiet, provincial lives. They would be literally wrenched from their parochial ways and thrust into the defining experience of their lives. Thereafter, no matter how long they lived or what they did, the Civil War would change things for them forever. And within that overwhelming event it would be the destiny of the four to serve together in the 16th Michigan Infantry and to play their parts in the Battle of Gettysburg and in the most decisive action of that battle, the gaining and holding for the Union of the savagely-contested hill known as Little Round Top.

But all that lay ahead of the four as 1860 came to a close. Ahead, also, hidden behind the veil of fate, would be the death of one, the disgrace of another, the unremarkable career in war and peace of still another, and the beginnings of quite a distinguished life for the fourth. And always, to the end of their days, there would be the Civil War, Gettysburg, and Little Round Top, the seminal events of their years on earth.

Two of the four were brothers, Isaac and Henry Welbon, originally Wellbourne in their native Lincolnshire. The other two were destined soon to be brothers-in-law to the Welbons and to each other. Early in the War James Beckett, originally from Devonshire, would marry Annie Welbon and Martin Van Buren Borgman, the first American child of his Dutch parents and given the name of the Dutch-descended President of the United States, would become the husband of Bessie Welbon.

The large Welbon family -- 12 children actually made the trip with their parents -- had arrived in Detroit from England in the spring of 1854, after a harrowing three-month voyage by sailing vessel, becalmed for days at a time in the Atlantic. Bread baked for the trip turned mouldy and fresh water ran dangerously low. When the pale and drawn family faced the American immigration inspectors, their mother pinched the cheeks of 14-year old Isaac and 13-year old Henry, to put a healthy color into them and lessen the possibility the family would be rejected as sickly. Once ashore, the Welbons proceeded by sailing vessel up the Hudson River to Albany, thence along the Erie Canal by mule-drawn barge to Buffalo, and finally by sail again to Detroit. There they were met by the two oldest sons, who had preceded the rest of the family by a year to prepare the way. Their first impression of Detroit was of a sea of mud, so different from the tidy lanes and hedgerows of Lincolnshire. Disaster struck at once. In a few days one of the older sons was killed in an accident on what is now the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. A few weeks later a cholera epidemic took the lives of the father and another of the older sons. The family bravely re-grouped and struggled on, living on Croghan Street, now Monroe, on the near east-side, and worshipping faithfully at St. John's Episcopal Church, at Woodward and Vernor, then High Street. Mrs. Welbon had learned midwifery in England and turned her hand to it again to help support the family. Life in the New World, with its sorrows and uncertainties, could not have seemed much better than the hard existence they had left as small tenant farmers in Lincolnshire, and more bitter experiences lay ahead. But Isaac and Henry grew to young manhood and by 1860 were working as waiters aboard a Great Lakes passenger steamer where their older brother was the steward. Isaac was 24, 5 feet 6 inches in height, and had a light complexion with light hair and blue eyes. Henry, a year younger, was 5 feet 8 inches in height and had a light complexion with brown hair and brown eyes.

We do not know nearly so much about 24-year old James Beckett. He was a miller by trade, stood 5 feet 10 inches high and had a dark complexion with blue eyes and black hair.

Martin Borgman, the fourth member of our group, somewhat better educated than the others, had grown up on the Ohio farm of his father. He received some college training and went to work as an apprentice printer on a daily paper in Cincinnati. His father decided to sell the farm and move to booming Detroit, where he established himself in the construction business. Eventually, young Borgman joined him and worked as a carpenter, a skill he had learned on the farm, living with an older brother, who was a music teacher in a private academy. Martin was a 6-footer, of fair complexion, with blue eyes and wavy blond hair. He was fluent in Dutch and German, as well as in English, and wrote a good hand.

Into the quiet, regular lives of our four young Detroiters, the events of late 1860 and early 1861 came as a clap of thunder. Suddenly, the very ground, which they assumed would always be there, was trembling. Very probably the four men had not thought deeply about the issues. Slavery was utterly foreign to them. They knew no slaves or anyone who owned them. True, there were a few freed blacks in Detroit and the Second Baptist Church was where most worshipped. Occasionally, the press contained an account of an escape via the Underground Railroad, of which Detroit was a prominent station and Canada the terminus. But the experience of the four with slavery was practically non-existent. It was decidedly not a fighting issue. Secession was another matter. They could understand how it threatened the Union -- the Federal power on which so much depended -- the delivery of mail; the building of roads, harbors, canals, and railroads; the defense of the safety and liberties of the nation; the hard-won legacy of earlier generations -- all those services and precious memories and many more were unthinkable without the Federal Union. Let others debate the fine points of secession -- our four relatively unsophisticated young men would call it rebellion, rebellion and insurrection by several Southern slave states against the legitimate National government. And so it would always be for them -- an act of rebellion to be suppressed, by force if necessary. The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! -- the song had it just right.

All four were old enough to vote in 1860 and they probably voted for Lincoln as the strongest pro-Union candidate. His declared willingness to use force to maintain and defend the Union must have impressed the four young citizens. If by chance they were Democrats, however, and supporters of Stephen Douglas in 1860, their more moderate views must have been severely shaken when Michigan's leading Democrat, the venerable statesman Lewis Cass, resigned as Secretary of State in President Buchanan's Cabinet, in December of 1860, in protest against the President's opposition to the reinforcing of Fort Sumter. Cass's act served notice on Michigan Democrats that the policy of accommodating and appeasing the South should end. Even casual observers of public affairs, such as our four, must have gotten the message.

But the picture following Lincoln's election was very confused. There were men in the Democratic Party, almost as prestigious as Cass, who spoke with a different voice. One of them was Robert McClelland, a former Congressman, a former two-term Governor, and a former Secretary of the Interior under President Pierce. His watchword was reconciliation, first, last, and always. He held that there was much pro-Union sentiment among moderate Southern leaders and they could prevent secession if Northern agitation and provocation would cease. McClelland wrote ceaselessly to his network of friends in the South, urging restraint. He feared Lincoln's boldness almost as much as did the South. He was wary of force and soon weary of it when it began to be used in the spring of 1861. He advocated that the Confederacy only be contained and restrained, not bludgeoned into submission. He seized every likely moment to propose peace negotiations and to condemn Lincoln's trampling of civil liberties during the War. Totally unsympathetic to slavery and to secession, he clung to the hope the Union could be restored if the South were led to see the error of its ways and brought to its senses about the impracticality of leaving the Union. Unlike the more radical Copperheads in the Democratic Party, McClelland did not advocate recognizing Southern independence, only making it possible for the South to rejoin the Union through negotiation, not fighting. Many Northern Democrats held like views and at least one of our four apparently came to a similar conclusion -- and weariness -- in 1864.

Lincoln's call to arms in April 1861, followed by the prompt and enthusiastic response of Michigan's Governor, Austin Blair, clarified things for our band of four, as it did for thousands of others. Buoyed by the popular exhilaration, James Beckett was the first of the four to enlist. In April 1861, he joined as a Sergeant the 1st Michigan Lancers, an elite unit in which many Canadians volunteered, but saw no service and the Regiment was eventually disbanded because horses could not be obtained. He was allowed to transfer to the 16th Michigan Infantry, in October 1861, and began to serve with the Army of the Potomac in General McClellan's campaigns. A period of hospitalization for general disability was followed by his discharge on a surgeon's certificate on September 11, 1862. Apparently, recovery was rapid, for on September 29 he re-enlisted in the same Regiment. There is more than a hint here that he may have been playing the re-enlistment bonus game, a widespread fraud throughout the Army. Two interesting circumstances surrounded his re-enlistment: he swore he had never previously been discharged for a disability and his re-enlistment was handled by his soon-to-be-brother-in-law, 2nd Lt. Martin V. Borgman, already serving with the 16th Michigan. A copy of Borgman's commission from Governor Blair is in my possession. As a matter of fact, Lt. Borgman had been promised a promotion to 1st Lt. as soon as he filled his quota of enlistees. Beckett collected his bonus and Borgman collected his promotion in November. The old Army game? I guess so.

Borgman had also joined the Lancers at the same time as Beckett. If the two had not known each other before, they certainly met in the Lancers. Perhaps one introduced the other to a Welbon sister. They both ended up in the 16th Michigan and they were soon married, Bessie and Martin on September 13 and Annie and James on November 12, 1862. Bessie and Martin were married in the living room of her mother's house on Croghan Street, with the Rector of St. John's Church officiating. It was a military ceremony and the groom and his fellow officers were resplendent in their dress uniforms, their dress swords worn proudly at their sides. It was a memorable and exciting occasion for the 17-year old bride. Seventy-five years later she would recall how carried away she was by her husband's handsome appearance, among other things by his long blond hair that fell in loose waves about his head. Annie and James were married in the parsonage of the Congress Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Both men returned to their Regiment in a few days, Borgman rejoining just before Antietam, from which he remained unheard from for several weeks. His new bride feared him dead. Death was soon to strike one of the four but not in the carnage of Antietam, where the 16th Michigan was held in reserve.

Meanwhile, the Welbon brothers, at the urging, no doubt, of their new brother-in-law, Lt. Borgman, enlisted in the 16th on September 29, 1862. They re-enlisted a little over a year later, Isaac as a Corporal and Henry as a Sergeant. All four men were then in the same Regiment, three of them in the same Company, but their fates would be very different in the largeness of the events about to overtake them.

The 16th Michigan had already seen much fighting by the time our four joined it. With its motto, Stand by the Union, on its flag, it belonged to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, during the entire War. The names of the battles on the Regimental flag suggest the heavy involvement of the 16th in one bloody engagement after another: Yorktown, Hanover Courthouse, Gaines' Mills, Malvern Hill, the Peninsula Campaign, and after all of the four were in, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Middleburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor (where Grant lost 12,000 men in half-an-hour), Hatcher's Run, the Siege of Petersburg, Five Forks, Appomattox Courthouse. Indeed, the 16th Michigan was one of the best fighting machines in the Union Army. It normally had a high percentage of re-enlisted, battle-hardened veterans who had a steadying influence on new recruits. It was considered an outstandingly tough and reliable unit and was constantly ordered into forward positions. The result was it suffered the most casualties of any Michigan Regiment and the eighth largest casualty count in the entire Union Army.

It was at Gettysburg, and particularly at Little Round Top, that so much was demanded of the 16th and of our little group of four, actually three because Isaac Welbon was by then serving as a cook for the teamsters attached to the headquarters of the 1st Division and did not participate directly in the fighting. The fate of the others brings to mind Lincoln's words in his famous letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby, in which he spoke of her sons' having laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Gettysburg, early July 1863; Lee's audacious move to focus the waning resources of the Confederacy in an attempt to amputate an important piece of Union territory in the Keystone State, Pennsylvania, possibly leading to the capture of the State capitol, Harrisburg. What a bargaining chip that would be in any peace negotiations, leading to the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States. If Gettysburg turned out well, a massive movement to the east might well result in the capture of Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, even Washington itself. The prizes of success on the battlefield were dazzling and, even more, success would insure, it was felt, the recognition of the Confederacy by the cautious and hesitant governments of Britain and France -- another great prize devoutly wished for. Another consideration was that decisive victory at Gettysburg would help to overcome the depressing effect of the imminent fall of Vicksburg, long under siege by Grant, resulting in the separation of the eastern and western parts of the Confederacy and the effective closing of the Mississippi River to Confederate shipping. The Army of the Potomac marched north and west to counter Lee's threat. Let us hear what an eyewitness, Major Rufus Jacklin, an officer in the 16th Michigan, not one of our four, had to say 40 years later. This account was delivered at a meeting in Detroit of the Michigan Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, to which Martin Borgman belonged after the war.

Major Jacklin's report continues with an account of the first day's fighting, for which the 5th Corps did not arrive in time to participate.

The third day at Gettysburg brought a crescendo of fighting, in which the 16th Michigan, or what was left of it, participated by attaching itself to other units that had not suffered so grievously. But there was no third day for our little group of four. Henry Welbon and Martin Borgman lay hospitalized with wounds and the new young bridegroom, James Beckett, lay dead on Little Round Top, a bullet in his head. I have stood by his grave in the Gettysburg Cemetery, where the headstones stand row upon row over the undulating landscape, and I thought of A. E. Housman's words about a cemetery: In the nation that is not, nothing stands that stood before. There revenges are forgot and the hater hates no more. Lovers lying two and two ask not whom they sleep beside and the bridegroom all night through never turns him to the bride.

Major Jacklin continues:

I might insert here that Lincoln was bitterly disappointed that more was not made of the Gettysburg victory and drafted a stern letter to General Meade, which in the end he did not send, feeling it would be churlish of him to criticize a man who had accomplished so much. He kept Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac until the War ended.

The 16th Michigan was gradually brought up to strength again and much heavier fighting was in store, but not much more for Henry Welbon and Martin Borgman. The latter, after he recovered from his wound, became Regimental Adjutant, assigned to less demanding duties than previously. Henry Welbon, depressed by his sister's loss of her husband and by all the trials and hardships that surrounded him, soldiered on for a while, nursing his wound. Continued service had become a burden to the two men, but they were to choose far different ways of dealing with it.

Despite the obvious draining of strength from the Confederacy, seen, among other things, in the desertion rate and the escape of tens of thousands of slaves whenever the Union lines were close enough, the battles of the spring of 1864 were by no means altogether favorable to the Union. Grant had bogged down in the trenches at Petersburg and Sherman had stalled in front of Atlanta. The South still had one realistic hope of winning the war -- to hold off long enough to force a discouraged North to abandon the War effort. With Grant and Sherman stopped, that hope might be realized. An election was coming up in the fall of the year in the North, and the South hoped it would provide a referendum on the continuation of the War and that the result would be favorable to a negotiated peace, with independence for the Southern States. The huge numbers of men and material lost by the Union forces temporarily robbed Grant of offensive capability. It was widely believed in the North, and devoutly hoped for in the South, that General McClellan, Little Mac, would be the Democratic nominee and that he would defeat Lincoln. More and more, the Northern Democrats, especially the Copperhead element, were branding the War a failure. No less a figure than Horace Greeley wrote to Lincoln, pleading with him to open peace negotiations with the Confederacy. Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country, said Greeley, longs for peace -- shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. At the same time a veteran Republican politician, Thurlow Weed, said, The people are wild for peace ... Lincoln's re-election is an impossibility. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote: The Army is tired with its hard and terrible experience. I've pretty much made up my mind the South has achieved its independence.

The North was in a state of depression and the Army of the Potomac felt the effects directly. Soon after his re-enlistment on December 21, 1863, and after receiving his re-enlistment bonus, Henry Welbon had had all he could stand. All his illusions gone, he saw no end to the fighting. He listened to the voice of despondency and made the most foolish decision of his life, one that followed him to the grave, wherever and whenever death overtook him. He deserted. No member of his family and, as far as is known, no friend ever saw him again. Where he lived and died remain a mystery. To be fair, not every act that was labeled desertion proved to be one. Records were often incomplete and inaccurate. A man might turn up in another outfit. He might be hospitalized with a wound. He might be captured and not reported. He might even have met a lonely and unrecorded death from a wound or disease, straggling out of the line of march and collapsing unnoticed along a road. Let us be kind to young Henry and admit that perhaps he did not knowingly and willingly desert his country and his comrades, but the evidence indicates that he cracked and brought disgrace and scorn upon himself for all time.

There was perhaps another factor that gnawed at Sergeant Welbon, as it did at many soldiers in the ranks. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued shortly after the Battle of Antietam, changed the character of the War. Lincoln had good reasons for taking the step and, in retrospect, his reasons and timing were right. But they did not seem so too many soldiers and civilians. I have, frankly, been surprised at the depth of feeling expressed in many letters by soldiers over the black emancipation issue. It is quite evident that a great many men in the Army were not prepared for this step, resented it, and were opposed to it. Lincoln gradually won grudging acquiescence, but there was little real enthusiasm for fighting for anything but the goal of preserving the Union. One letter I read from a Connecticut infantryman on the question of black troops read: I think a drove of hogs would do better brought down here for we could eat them and the [blacks] we can't. Another impassioned letter from an infantryman of the 16th Michigan called the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln's biggest mistake and fervently hoped he would withdraw it, since this infantryman was not prepared to fight a war for [black men]. And he went on to detail all the unfavorable characteristics he thought they had as a race. He ended the letter with another heartfelt hope, that Lincoln would correct his mistake in sacking General McClellan. Perhaps such attitudes as these ate away at Henry Welbon's resolve and made the appeal of desertion seem irresistible.

As for Lt. Borgman, his wounded state so much restricted his mobility that by June 1864, he was ready to resign his commission and, on a Surgeon's certificate of disability, he did so and was honorably discharged as a Captain.

Corporal Isaac Welbon continued on to the end, cooking for his teamsters at the 1st Division headquarters. He participated in the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1865, and on the 25th of July, in Jackson, Michigan, was paid off and discharged, having been promoted at the very end to Sergeant.

So ended the great adventure for the little group of four, reduced in the end, to two, Martin Borgman and Isaac Welbon. For the rest of their lives they would take solemn pride in having answered their country's call: Come for your country! For all dear things, come, come to the roll of the rallying drum! With the same pride they would recall Gettysburg and Little Round Top, as the climax of their earthly years: The blended rage of shot and shell, though from the blackened portals torn, has not such havoc bought a name immortal on the rolls of fame?

Perhaps a brief epilogue would be in order. Captain Borgman returned to his wife in Detroit and was promptly asked to organize the new Detroit police force, serving as its first Commissioner until 1873, when he resigned to accept the position of Superintendent of the Detroit House of Correction, where he remained until 1879. Thereafter, he served in the State House of Representatives and as an Alderman of the City of Detroit. He was in private life a hotel owner and proprietor but returned to the Police Commissionership briefly in the 1890's. He was a member of the Fairbanks Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and of the Michigan Commandery of the Loyal Legion, composed of officers in the Union forces. He became a leading citizen, widely known and respected. He died in the summer of 1913, shortly after he had re-visited Gettysburg with thousands of his old companions and erstwhile enemies, 50 years after the great battle that became the outstanding feature of his life.

Sergeant Isaac Welbon, after a brief period as a patrolman in Detroit, no doubt arranged for by his brother-in-law, acquired a farm in Carleton, Michigan, in the northern part of Monroe County, moved there, and spent the rest of his life in quiet obscurity. There was a small G.A.R. post in Carleton, in which he was active. He died a widower, in 1910 and is buried in Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit, close to Captain Borgman.

What of the war widow, little Annie Welbon Beckett? After the devastating blow of her husband's death, she continued to live for a while with her mother on Croghan Street. Late in 1863 or early in 1864 she went to Baraga, Michigan, on the Lake Superior shore, about as remote a town as then existed in this state. She may have gone there as a companion to another woman or perhaps to teach. On September 6, 1864, Annie Beckett, still only 19 years old, married John B. Crebassa, of L'Anse, in Trinity Episcopal Church, Houghton. Both of John Crebassa's parents had French and Indian blood. His father was the agent of the American Fur Company at L'Anse and later purchased the trading post. John Crebassa was probably the first white child brought up in Baraga County. He later turned to lighthouse keeping and served in that capacity for 56 years, until his death in 1908. Annie Welbon Beckett Crebassa lived on in Baraga until 1936. Some of her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren are there to this day. Among other things, they own the town pharmacy and the Baraga County Telephone Company.

How do I know these things? Because Martin Borgman and Bessie Welbon Borgman were my great grandparents. Isaac and Henry Welbon were my great grand uncles, Annie Welbon Beckett Crebassa was my great grand aunt, and James Beckett was my great grand uncle by marriage. Robert McClelland, the old Democrat, was my great great grand uncle by marriage.

Donald M. D. Thurber*

*(Donald M.D. Thurber passed away in November 1998. He was 80 years old)

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