gt_civil_warHistory can be a dusty subject for a lot of people. Just consider the American Civil War. While names like Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania might come to mind, we don’t necessarily feel a real connection with them or with the larger conflict.

In school, we may have learned about the siege of Vicksburg, the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea. But these events took place 150 years ago, and those places are far away from our Great Lakes. We are separated by time and geography.

Or are we?

All it takes is a single, clear, personal voice to transcend both space and time. Omena, Michigan-based author John C. Mitchell was fortunate to find two: In his 2011 book Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era, Mitchell brings to life the prolific writings of Reverend George Smith of Northport and Grand Traverse Herald editor Morgan Bates. And through the eyes of these two men, the Civil War era is thrown into sharp relief.

In these 300-plus pages, readers will experience daily life through the eyes of the New Englanders settling the American frontier in the mid-19th century, Michigan soldiers serving in the Union Army, loved ones left behind in booming Grand Traverse country, and even the Native Americans who were standing at such a tragic crossroads in their history. The Civil War will never seem more real, or more personal, than it does through Mitchell’s northern Michigan lens.

Mitchell said his entire life and career have led to the Civil War Sesquicentennial and this special book. Born and raised in Detroit, the young Mitchell had a passion for history — and for the Civil War in particular.

“I began this project 50 years ago when I penned a little book on the Civil War, my first major work as an author,” he wrote in the book’s introduction. “I must have been inspired by Civil War Centennial events of the time to take on the most sacred years of American history at the age of nine. Even then I sensed that something important happened during the Civil War that shaped the United States, something deeper than the wild charges and booming cannons and waving flags that fueled my boyhood imagination.”

Before he could explore his passion further, however, he had some more living to do. He pursued his love of the written word at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was a literature major and worked as a reporter and editor for The Michigan Daily. Then destiny took him northward.

“I came up and shook cherries in Grand Traverse country when I was 16, a sophomore in high school,” Mitchell remembered. “Even as a teen, I wasn’t particularly enamored with the city, and I had a lot of fun up here in my youth!”

Forty years ago, Mitchell decided to make his permanent home on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. And he kept writing; in the last 25 years, he and illustrator Tom Woodruff created a series of children’s history books.

“Really, I’d been an historian my entire life,” he explained. “In 1987, when my son was in first grade, I couldn’t find anything that adequately told the history of Michigan, so I started my first book.”

That was Michigan, published in 1987. Then came Great Lakes and Great Ships (1991), Indians of the Great Lakes (1994) and Prehistoric Great Lakes (2001).

Mitchell was interested in writing a novel next, but fate had different plans. In 2002-06, while he served as the director of the Leelanau Historical Society and Museum, he was mesmerized by the view from his office window.

“We had 400 feet of frontage on the Leland River, and there would be a constant parade of boats that had been here for a long time,” he said. “So I decided to start a boat show.”

That boat show is now part of the Leland Heritage Festival, and it’s a huge draw for visitors. While he was involved with it, Mitchell prepared a short history of each boat; together, they became the foundation for his next book.

“I did want to write a novel, but I realized that with history, you’d never be able to make that stuff up,” he said, laughing. “In fact, the best novels follow history as closely as possible. For my Leelanau book, I took the mini-histories I’d already prepared, and then I dug deeper.”

Wood Boats of Leelanau: A Photographic Journal was published in 2007, and it won the Historical Society of Michigan’s annual State History Award. At the award presentation, the historical society noted, “(The book) captures the reader with the compelling history of Leelanau’s wood boats. This wonderful, 178-page book is richly illustrated, beautifully designed, and indexed. It is a valuable reference tool disguised as a coffeetable display.”

In an interesting twist, Mitchell decided not to be an armchair boater as he was writing the book. He took a two-month course to earn his 25-ton U.S. Coast Guard master’s license.

“When I was growing up, we lived across the street from Hammond Lake in the Detroit suburbs,” he said. “It was a no-powerboat lake, so I sailed Sunfish and I swam a lot. I finally became a powerboater a dozen years ago, when I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler. When I got into the Wood Boats of Leelanau project, I wanted a deeper layer of perception. So now I’m a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain!”

Mitchell said he’s grateful for the experience of writing that first book, because he wouldn’t have been prepared for Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era without it. With this new project, he was embarking on an unprecedented journey.

“I got access to the diaries of Reverend George Smith,” he explained. “He kept those diaries from 1838 until his death in 1881; it’s the best record of life on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan at that time, and I was the first guy to have access to them.

“They read like a screenplay,” he recalled. “I’d already been working on the book, and I was looking for a central thread. This was it.”

It was the definitive moment for the project, a “joy and holy sh*t, moment,” Mitchell said with a chuckle. “I knew the importance of these diaries right away. The Civil War is the holy grail of American history, and to have such a fresh perspective from a primary source — I knew I had the potential for a big hit, and it was mine to blow. I just put my head on my hands, and for the next three years, I was toast.”

Mitchell also had Morgan Bates in his corner. The ardent abolitionist editor of the Grand Traverse Herald became a priceless secondary character in the developing work.

“Bates had a lifetime habit of following the American frontier,” Mitchell observed. “Just think: Traverse City only had 200 residents in 1858, and Bates launched an eight-page, top-notch newspaper! In contrast, Northport had 750 residents at that time.”

Now Mitchell had two intimate perspectives bouncing off each other. As he said, he had two great writers, often weighing in on the same events at the same time. And thanks to those two writers, and myriad additional sources, the story of Grand Traverse country’s Civil War era throbs with living color.

Readers will feel the bonds fray between North and South as the issue of slavery explodes, and they’ll despair as the nation slides inexorably toward an epic, armed conflict. They’ll witness the development of Michigan’s harbor towns and the disappearing of the frontier after the 1862 Homestead Act. They’ll travel along as volunteers and draftees make their way to the front lines, ail in military hospitals, and die in prisons that have become veritable death camps.

They’ll hear the roar from the SS Sultana, a Mississippi River side-wheel steamer that exploded in April 1865, killing roughly 1,800 passengers (mostly Union soldiers liberated from the Confederate prison camps at Cahawba and Andersonville) in the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. They’ll share the heartbreak as families mourn the fathers, brothers and sons who were lost between 1861 and 1865, including members the all-native Company K in the Michigan Sharp Shooters.

Indeed, this book demonstrates authentic sensitivity to the plight of the Grand Traverse bands of Native Americans, from first contact with the colonizers, to treaties and broken promises, to the decision to fight for a government that had decimated their homelands.

“They didn’t have to fight,” Mitchell said. “But they saw a new birth of freedom for people of color in this country, and they wanted to make sure they were a part of it.”

There are legendary battles and largely forgotten skirmishes. And there are some truly poignant stories, such as that of Sergeant William H. Voice Jr. The dying 20-year-old soldier from Northport had promised to take a beautiful doll home to his 3-year-old sister, Abbie. Hospital attendant and fellow Grand Traverse volunteer Herman Dunklow found a doll’s head’s and shoulders and gave them to Voice, who smiled and fell asleep. He passed away before morning.

After Voice’s funeral in Michigan, local women made a body for the doll and presented it to little Abbie. Many years later, after World War I, a friend asked Abbie to visit a 90-year-old Civil War veteran. That veteran was Herman Dunklow.

When she realized who he was, Abbie retrieved her doll and returned to Dunklow’s home to show him. “Now, for a second time, the Northport doll gave a Civil War hero a measure of peace,” Mitchell wrote.

Overall, this book masterfully tells the tale of a place, and an entire nation, rising to meet its destiny, and it has been extremely well received. In 2011, it won the Historical Society of Michigan State History Award, and it won the Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Nonfiction (Great Lakes, Silver) in 2012.

Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era is so much more than a war history,” The Civil War News commented. “(It’s a) thoroughly researched, well-written history of the impact of the Civil War upon the folks back home… truly unique.”

“My entire career led up to me writing a Civil War book, and this was the depth of book I wanted to write,” Mitchell reflected.

Mitchell already has his sights set on future projects. One involves Jim Thompson, an American businessman who helped revitalize Thailand’s silk trade in the mid-20th century. In 1967, he mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands.

A second project focuses on a small island nation just 90 miles south of Key West.

“I’ve gotten permission from the U.S. government to do my initial research for a book I’m writing about Cuba, which is a very mysterious place for a lot of people,” Mitchell said. “It’s got a rich maritime history; in 1507, it was the Spanish Armada’s home port. And the architecture! Cuba hasn’t had a hot war since then, so you’ve got five square miles of authentic Spanish colonial structures. Compare that to just five blocks in New Orleans.”

Mitchell, who taught history and writing programs in schools as a National Endowment for the Arts scholar, also remains busy as a guest speaker and writer-in-residence throughout the Great Lakes. In addition, he pens a regular Civil War column for the Leelanau Enterprise. Between the book and his column, he said, he’s spent more time in the 19th century in the last few years than he has in the 21st.

He’s definitely come a long way from that 20-page book he wrote in 1961.

“This work, which attempts to give you a picture of the Civil War era in Grand Traverse from the eyes of those who lived it, completes my circle of exploration in the year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial,” Mitchell wrote in his introduction. “It is a sad yet beautiful story, and I hope I have told it well.”

Of this sad yet beautiful story, perhaps an unidentified Lakeshore Tiger in the 26th Michigan Infantry said it best: “We will never be so ungrateful as to forget the memory of those patriots, heroes and martyrs whose virtues we will try to imitate and hope for a happy reunion in heaven, yes. Farewell to the Hero in silence to sleep…

“(Peace) will once again smile on our land; and we will still be the great good and strong nation of the world, then we will come forth from the fire of trial and have proved to the world that American people can and will govern themselves and that our country is indeed the land of the free and the home of the brave.”