Looking Back: The Civil War adventures of Birmingham’s John Bigelow

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 12, 2018


BIRMINGHAM — In 1861, John Bigelow tried to enlist in the Union Army. Bigelow was initially rejected because of a hand injury he had sustained while working in a mill as a teen. But he persisted and got an officer to swear him in for limited clerical duty.

He added his name to the list of men called to active duty with Company G, First Michigan Cavalry, and was made a bugler. Over the next three years, he was injured five times, and captured and held by Confederate troops for 10 days.

The Birmingham Museum has a unique insight into Bigelow’s life in the Union Army, thanks to his 1864 diary in its collection. It’s a small pocket-sized book with short entries written in pencil.

One such entry, from Wednesday, May 4: “Broke camp and started with the Army of the Potomac. Camped near stony Mountain. At dusk too dusty to live. Cannot see 20 feet.”

Further on, he mentions letters to and from friends and family and how much he misses Michigan. Bigelow frequently refers to someone abbreviated as “B.”

In other entries, Bigelow yearns not only for his family, but for a young woman back home. He wrote in August, “As I gase[sic] upon Belle’s photograph, it seems to say be firm and kind to all men. Kind heaven protect her.” Poignantly, he made a note in the back of the diary that should he not make it, he wanted half of his property and money to go to his parents and the other half to go to his “Belle,” Isabel Whitehead.

On Sept. 19, Bigelow was shot in his left arm, his final injury. An entry in a different hand than his recorded that the arm would have to be amputated. Soon he was discharged from the army and returned home, where he married his beloved Isabel and started several businesses in Birmingham. He died in 1925, only six months after Isabel.
— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at the Birmingham Museum