Michigan’s Spartans Go to War: The Class of 1861

ECW welcomes back guest author Adam Burke

College Hall, MAC campus in 1856. From James W. Beal  (1915) History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.

In 1855 the state of Michigan established the State Agricultural College in Lansing, MI. Today the institution is known as Michigan State University and boasts a beautiful and well landscaped 5,000 acre campus, home to almost 50,000 students who readily adopt the identity of their beloved sports teams—the Spartans. In 1861, however, campus consisted of three buildings, one of which was a barn built on a 200 acre field along the banks of the Red Cedar River. Hundreds of recently cut stumps speckled the clearing. The first students, known as “The Aggies,” cleared many of the trees themselves as part of a grueling daily work regimen. Classes formally began in 1857, and by November of 1861 the college was ready to graduate its first class.[1]

To prepare for graduation, an administrator prepared seven diplomas. However, the pioneering graduates did not receive their well-earned diplomas. Commencement was canceled.  In fact, the young men did not even have time to complete final examinations. These men wrote home to inform their families of a dramatic mid-semester change of plans. It is a good thing they did. Had their families made the arduous trip to Lansing to celebrate, they would not have found their sons on campus. The entire class of 1861 already marched off to war.

If 1861 had gone as planned, the senior class would have been busy finishing an intense curriculum that included mandatory farm labor, botany, geometry, algebra, physics, chemistry, and civil engineering.[2] However, campus life in 1861 was anything but normal. The college’s seniors—Albert Allen, Adams Bayley, Larned Beebe, Henry D. Benham, Gilbert A. Dickey, Charles Hollister, and Albert Prentiss—likely felt tension in the air for some time. The country was preparing for war following the 1860 election and the first wave of secession by Southern states. By the time of the attack on Fort Sumter, the college’s young men, including the seniors, were already spending much of their time drilling in a student militia dubbed the “Plough-Boy Guards” under the direction of the much beloved Professor George Thurber. The young men donned black pants, grey shirts, and black caps to participate in competitive musketry drills and other exercises.[3] In July, the city of Lansing invited Thurber’s Plough-Boy Guards to participate in the Lansing Independence Day parade.

Booming cannons opened festivities on the morning of Independence Day. Thurber’s Plough-Boy Guards marched in front of the state Capitol building in Lansing as part of a long procession that included a brass band, the fire department, and city officials. As many as six thousand spectators attended the proceedings. According to The Lansing State Republican, The Plough-Boy Guards “made a very fine appearance” and “behaved like true soldiers.”[4] After the morning parade The Plough-Boy Guards returned to campus for an additional celebration attended by at least five thousand residents. The event included music, prayer, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Gilbert A. Dickey of the senior class gave a “very creditable” [5] speech about patriotism. In his speech, the topic of patriotism was “well treated and the duties which patriotism enjoins set in a clear light.”[6] After more music and a poem reading, the students illuminated campus with hundreds of red, white, and blue Chinese lanterns. The lanterns produced “a most unique and striking effect”[7] and the spectators enjoyed a display of fireworks.

As patriotic fervor heightened on campus throughout 1861, the Union Army bolstered its fighting capacity. This effort would soon affect the senior class in Lansing.  In September, General John C. Frémont, commander of the Department of the West, began to shape a special signal corps unit. This special unit required men knowledgeable in fields such as physics, chemistry, and surveying—skills the men of the class of 1861 knew well. General Frémont commissioned and tasked Professor E. P. Howland, a Michigan native, to recruit a group of skilled engineers. The newly commissioned Captain departed St. Louis, Missouri for his home in Battle Creek, Michigan, fifty miles southwest of Lansing, to recruit fifty men with the necessary skills to fill his desired special signal corps. He dubbed his unit as Howland’s Independent Company, Michigan Engineers , or Howland’s Engineers.

On September 13, 1861, Captain Howland published a circular in the Battle Creek Journal soliciting applications. It announced that a Board of Officers comprised of the fledgling unit’s small group of Officers were responsible for reviewing applications and selecting recruits. Applicants were required to “give satisfactory reference as to character and other requirements.”[8] The Battle Creek Journal did not elaborate further on the nature of the “other requirements.” However, it is likely that the class of 1861, comprised of men already accustomed to a strict regimen of hard labor and scientific studies, presented themselves as attractive recruits to this prospective engineering unit. As it turned out, something about the resumes of the class of 1861 must have stood out from the rest. All seven men of this class were selected for Howland’s Engineers.[9] Their selection is impressive because only fifty men of over 150 applicants made the cut.[10] Unfortunately for unclear reasons, Adams Bayley did not make the trip to Missouri. However, the remaining six men of the senior class were joined by junior George Haigh, who was originally a member of college’s inaugural class but was held back due to an institutional reorganization.[11] The men of the amateur student militia were off to war with a real Army unit.

Michigan Agricultural College Class of 1861. Image Credit Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections. Top, left to right: Larned.V. Beebe; Gilbert A. Dickey; Adams. Bayley. Bottom, left to right: Henry Benham; Albert Prentiss; Albert. Allen; Charles.E. Hollister. From Michigan State University Magazine, March, 1961.

The new recruits had to report no later than September 16 to a tailor by the name of Mr. Henry Brown in Battle Creek to be measured for their uniforms. The kit consisted of a frock coat of blue broadcloth, pants, vest, cap, and calf skin boots. After conducting their measurements, the recruits reported to twenty-two year old Lieutenant William Gage for drill instruction.[12] Gage was from Dowagiac, Michigan, and recently transferred to Howland’s Engineers from the 16th Michigan Infantry.[13] The unit had to be ready for a September 26 departure to the Department of the West headquarters in St. Louis.[14]

Once outfitted, the unit departed Battle Creek on September 25 for Fort Augustine in St. Louis. By October, Howland’s Engineers were busy fortifying the city along the Mississippi River. The seven former agricultural students were present for a visit by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, which spurred rumors that General Frémont might soon be relieved of command. According to a Battle Creek Journal war correspondent who signed his dispatches with the initials “H.R.”, the men were astonished by the industrial capacity of the St. Louis, observing “at least an acre of cannon…with large piles of balls and bombshells” visible at the Arsenal.[15]

On October 19, Howland’s Engineers received orders to depart St. Louis for Tipton, which the war correspondent H.R. called “a dilapidated town” one hundred sixty miles west of St. Louis. The men reached Tipton by way of the Pacific Railroad. The war correspondent noted that the trip was “rather rough,” but beautiful new scenery made up for it in his mind. The crooked but westward track ran along the Missouri river “at the foot of ragged bluffs.” Past Jefferson City the landscape turned into “a rich prairie country.” The men arrived at Tipton and made camp just outside of town. They named the camp in honor of Captain Howland. At camp the men built eight Sibley tents. These tents were eighteen feet in diameter on the ground and ran up to a roof that terminated at a two-foot round hole that served as exhaust for an iron stove in the center of the structure. The tents were designed to house twenty men, but the small unit was able to put nine men to a tent while keeping one for the unit’s equipment.[16]

In Tipton, the men of Howland’s Engineers received their first unnerving assignment. On October 22, an Indiana regiment stationed nearby departed the area, leaving Howland’s fifty engineers in charge of guarding one million dollars of government property housed in Tipton. The men were not used to guard and picket duty, which required long hours of standing throughout the day and night. However, some men thought that there “was just enough danger” from rebels in the surrounding area to make their first guard duty interesting. The men took their duty seriously. In one amusing anecdote, Lieutenant Gage, who had departed earlier to secure essential goods, returned in the evening and caused “a general shouting” when the picket did not recognize him or the given passcode. The Corporal of the Guard eventually sorted out the matter and Lieutenant Gage announced that soon the regiment would receive new Colt Navy revolvers, almost thirty Sharp’s rifles, and a horse for each man.[17]

The welfare of Michigan’s young men must have been a hot topic for discussion in the fall of 1861. A correspondent from The Cass County Republican, a newspaper from Lieutenant Gage’s hometown, arrived in Camp Howland in early November. He reported that the men were enjoying summerlike weather into the fall. At some point, he reported, the men were divided into four telegraphic divisions, responsible for building, maintaining, and operating telegraph lines to support military communications. Captain Howland and Lieutenant Gage commanded two of these divisions.

The strict daily routine endured by the men during their days at school likely helped prepare the class of 1861 for regimental life. The men arose daily at 5:30 a.m. to be ready for 6:00 roll call. The men ate breakfast at 7:00 and then reported to dress parade and drill that took place until 12:00. The graduates might have felt right at home during the daily “scientific lecture” at 1:30 P.M. The men took their dinner at sunset. After dinner the men were able to practice with various experiments until 10:00.[18] During these experiments, the unit proved to be ahead of their time. They practiced signaling via wig-wag flags, a system of signaling that used only one flag instead of the more common semaphore which used two. In one instance, the class of 1861 contributed something entirely new to the engineering unit. During his time in college, Charles Hollister observed chemistry professor Lewis Fisk conduct an experiment in which he passed electric current through separate pieces of charcoal. This process caused the charcoal to emit an intense illumination. Hollister repeated this experiment for Howland’s Engineers as a potential means of night signaling.[19]

Despite the unit’s pioneering efforts, Howland’s irregular unit did not serve for long. General Henry Halleck, Commander of the Department of Missouri, declared Howland’s Engineers existed outside of Federal Army standards and ordered the unit out of service on January 8, 1862. [20]

Michigan Calvary Monument. Monument stands in field east of Gettysburg. Here, Henry Benham fought alongside General Custer. Author photo.

This abrupt disbandment set the men of the class of 1861 on separate paths.  Current university archives lack details regarding what happened to Albert Allen, Adams Bayley, and Larned Beebe after mustering out of Howland’s Engineers. However, Henry Benham enlisted in Company D of the 7th Michigan Cavalry and fought alongside General George Armstrong Custer on the third day at Gettysburg. In 1864, Benham accepted a commission as first lieutenant of the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry (later redesignated as the 102nd U.S. Colored Infantry) a unit composed of African American men led by white Officers. Governor Austin Blair of Michigan authorized the unit in the summer of 1863. In South Carolina the regiment occupied Port Royal and experienced combat during an engagement at Honey Hill. [21] Benham died of disease at Beaufort, SC on July 2, 1864.[22] A soldier dryly noted his passing in his diary between a remark about troop movements and the weather: “In camp doing nothing. Lt. Benham of Company ‘B’ died last night. I attended his funeral as pall bearer this afternoon.”[23] Charles Hollister returned to Michigan and worked as a farmer; he died in 1900.[24] Albert Prentiss returned to the Michigan Agricultural College and became a professor of botany and horticulture. He eventually led an entire department and was generally respected by his peers. He died in Ithaca, New York in 1896.[25]

Professor Albert Prentiss. Member of class of 1861, later a popular MAC professor. From History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.
Gilbert A. Dickey in Uniform. Image Credit Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Perhaps the most remarkable story of all these men belongs to Gilbert A. Dickey. He returned to Michigan after his time in Missouri to marry his sweetheart, Rosetta, on July 1, 1862. He returned to the war when he enlisted with the 24th Michigan in August. The 24th Michigan was eventually assigned to the famous Iron Brigade, the first Brigade of the first Division of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On the day of his first wedding anniversary Dickey died fighting as a commissioned officer during the brutal fight at Herbst Woods at Gettysburg.[26] The commander of his regiment, Colonel Henry A. Morrow, described Dickey as “a young officer of great promise,” and the 24th Michigan named future camps after their fallen friend.[27] Classmate George Haigh was with Dickey from their enlistment in the Howland’s Engineers up until Dickey’s tragic death. Haigh also joined the 24th Michigan after his time with Howland’s Engineers. In 1896, Haigh reminisced about Dickey. Haigh recounted that Dickey’s time with the Howland’s Engineers helped prepare him for increased responsibility in the 24th Michigan.

Burial place at Gettysburg National Cemetery of Gilbert A. Dickey. Author photo.

In the 24th Michigan, Dickey first served as Commissary Sergeant, burdened with the responsibility of feeding and equipping his company. According to Haigh “there was never a word of fault found with his work.”[28] Haigh also witnessed Dickey’s death. He watched as “overwhelming numbers of the rebels”[29] flanked Dickey and his company, which was stationed on the regiment’s extreme left in Herbst’s Woods along Willoughby Run. Dickey “was shot and instantly killed.”[30] It is likely that Haigh was the last person Dickey talked to before the battle. Right before the battle, Dickey sat and read a bible as Haigh approached him and “engaged him in friendly conversation.”[31]  

24th Michigan Monument at Herbst Woods, Gettysburg. Monument stands near where Lieutenant Dickey died. Author photo.

In 1925, the Washington D.C. Michigan State Agricultural College Alumni Association honored fallen students by commissioning a war memorial. The plaque still stands in the university’s Union building today. The memorial includes the names of the fallen students from the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I.[32] That same year, the college held a contest in which students nominated a new nickname for the college. “The Michigan Staters” won the contest, replacing the old moniker of “Aggies.” However, a dissatisfied local sports editor named George Alderton found that the new nickname did not read well in his sports articles. He found the original nickname contest entries and noticed someone entered “Spartans” as a possible replacement name. In 1926 Alderton slyly began referring to the college’s baseball team as the Spartans and the name has stuck ever since. It is unlikely Alderton had the class of 1861 in mind when he chose the nickname. Accident or not, he found a name and mascot that perfectly embodied the warrior spirit of the class of 1861.[33]


Adam Burke is an active duty military officer in his twelfth year of service. He graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Political Theory. He also earned a Master’s in Cybersecurity from Pennsylvania State University. In addition to civilian education, Adam has completed two Joint Professional Military Education programs from Air University and National Defense University. He is an avid reader of history, particularly of the Civil War. 


[1] Beal, W. James. (1915). History of the Michigan agricultural college and biographical sketches of trustees and professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Michigan State University Magazine. “Spartans in the Civil War.” March, 1961. From The Michigan State University Archives. https://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/162-565-5144/spartans-in-the-civil-war/ (Accessed August 2, 2021).

[4] The Lansing State Republican. “The Fourth.” July 10, 1861. From newspapers.com. https://www.newspapers.com/image/325953437/ (accessed August 3, 2021).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Battle Creek Journal. “First Grade Engineers.” September 13, 1861. From Willard Library. https://archives.willardlibrary.org/newspapers/chronicling_bc.php (Accessed August 9, 2021).

[9] National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers.htm#q=%22Howland’s%20Independent%20Company,%20Michigan%20Engineers%22 . (Accessed May 4, 2022).

[10] Z. T. Peavy. Battle Creek Journal. “First Grade Engineers.” September 20, 1861. From Willard Library. https://archives.willardlibrary.org/newspapers/chronicling_bc.php (Accessed August 9, 2021).

[11] The Michigan State University Magazine. “Spartans in the Civil War.” March, 1961. From The Michigan State University Archives. https://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/162-565-5144/spartans-in-the-civil-war/ (Accessed August 2, 2021).

[12] Battle Creek Journal. “First Grade Engineers.” September 13, 1861. From Willard Library. https://archives.willardlibrary.org/newspapers/chronicling_bc.php (Accessed August 9, 2021).

[13] Ibid; National Parks Service “Soldier Details.” https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers-detail.htm?soldierId=E8B0999F-DC7A-DF11-BF36-B8AC6F5D926A . (Accessed May 4, 2022)

[14] Battle Creek Journal. “First Grade Engineers.” September 13, 1861. From Willard Library. https://archives.willardlibrary.org/newspapers/chronicling_bc.php (Accessed August 9, 2021).

[15] Battle Creek Journal. “From the Engineer Corps.” November, 1 1861. From Willard Library. https://archives.willardlibrary.org/newspapers/chronicling_bc.php Accessed August 9, 2021).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The Cass County Republican. “From the Engineers.” November 28, 1861.  From National Endowment for the Humanities. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85033611/1861-11-28/ed-1/seq-1/ (Accessed August 9, 2021).

[19] The Michigan State University Magazine. “Spartans in the Civil War.” March, 1961. From The Michigan State University Archives. https://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/162-565-5144/spartans-in-the-civil-war/ (Accessed August 2, 2021).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Michigan. Adjutant-General’s Department, and George H Turner. Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers In the Civil War, 1861-1865. [Kalamazoo, Mich.: Ihling bros. & Everard, printers, 190.

[22] Beal, W. James. (1915). History of the Michigan agricultural college and biographical sketches of trustees and professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.

[23] Diary of Nelson, Wilbur. Held by Michigan State University. Archives and Historical Collections. https://d.lib.msu.edu/cwc-wnelson/1

[24] Beal, W. James. (1915). History of the Michigan agricultural college and biographical sketches of trustees and professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “A young officer of great promise:” The fate of 2nd lieutenant Gilbert Arnold Dickey of the 24th Michigan Infantry. The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park. (2020, April 20). Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://npsgnmp.wordpress.com/2020/04/20/a-young-officer-of-great-promise-the-fate-of-2nd-lieutenant-gilbert-arnold-dickey-of-the-24th-michigan-infantry/

[27] United States. War Records Office, et al.. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies. Washington: Govt. Print. Off, 18801901.

[28] Beal, W. James. (1915). History of the Michigan agricultural college and biographical sketches of trustees and professors. East Lansing: Agricultural college.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Union War Memorial. https://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/162-565-2700/union-war-memorial/

[33] History & traditions. Michigan State University Athletics. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://msuspartans.com/sports/2018/7/20/trads-msu-traditions-html.aspx#:~:text=In%201926%2C%20Michigan%20State’s%20first,has%20lasted%20through%20the%20years.

16 Responses to Michigan’s Spartans Go to War: The Class of 1861

  1. Go Green! Very cool. I’ve also read that the origins of today’s Spartan Marching Band was also formed by Civil War veterans.

  2. An excellent piece on a subject I knew nothing about. I went to school in South Bend (aka Father Corby’s School) and know a lot about ND’s ACW history but not about Sparty’s connections. I think we have something else in common, as well – it’s called Ann Arbor. 🙂

    1. Thank you. I need to read about ND and the Civil War then.
      University of Michigan, my nemesis, admittedly has an amazing online digital archives that includes tons of letters, diaries, and miscellany from the people of Michigan in the war. It’s an amazing resource.

      1. There are some interesting aspects. ND had a couple of MOH winners at Stones River and (IIRC) Chickamauga. It appears that a couple of students from the South (Louisiana, IIRC) returned home to fight for the other side. The University’s founder, Father Sorin, knew Stanton and dispatched several of the CSC’s, including Rev. William Corby of Gettysburg fame, to serve as chaplains in the Union armies. (After the war Corby would succeed Sorin as University President). Sorin also was friendly with Sherman’s father-in-law, Senator Ewing of Ohio. During the war Sherman’s wife Ellen and two of their children lived at ND. Sherman actually gave the commencement speech in 1865 when he stopped there to pick up his family. The archives hold a good collection of Sherman’s papers.

  3. Go White! Thanks for the article! It brings me back to the memories on the banks of Red Cedar River!

  4. Thank you for a good human interest story. I knew nothing about the “Aggies” contribution to the ACW. Gilbert Dickey’s story is moving. Many of us can picture the general area where he died. As a former Wolverine, I tip my hat to this noble Spartan.

    1. Grandad,

      Thanks for reading. If you are a Wolverine then I have a bit of info you will enjoy. As far as I can tell, Dickey made close friends with a man in the regiment named Lucius Shattuck of Plymouth, Michigan. Shattuck was a former student at the University of Michigan, a Wolverine. It appears the two men became close. They were from different companies but probably met when they both served as the Commissary Sergeant for their separate companies. The men liked to hang out there because they had first access to and control of food and supplies. Shattuck wrote home to his family often and on several occasions mentioned Dickey. He told one amusing story about a time the men were excited to have the chance to host the Colonel’s wife while at winter quarters at Belle Plain, VA. Unfortunately that very morning a fire broke out in the men’s mess as they were making breakfast and they lost a lot of food and equipment. Shattuck and Dickey took it upon themselves to beg, borrow, steal, and call in as many favors as possible to scrounge up an acceptable meal for the Colonel’s wife.

      Shattuck and Dickey had a lot in common. They both went to college. They both served as Commissary Sergeant. They were both well liked. They both were natural leaders and rose to Lieutenant to lead companies in the 24th. Sadly they both died on July 1 at Gettysburg. Both of their families came looking for them. Sadly, Shattuck’s body was never found but his sister in law was apparently told Shattuck was shot once and was ordered to fall behind the lines for treatment. Apparently he refused and was shot again. He still didn’t go get care and was shot a third time and killed. His diary is preserved and there’s a bullet hole right through the middle of it. His sister in law thinks that is the shot that killed him but I’m not sure.

      I hope to write something specifically on Shattuck at some point, or on Shattuck and his friends, including Dickey. It would be neat to tell the story of how a Spartan and a Wolverine came together to save the Union.

      Thanks for reading!


  5. Wonderful article! I have done some very limited research on the Agricultural College in connection to a book I have written on Lansing in the Civil War (coming out in February, 2023) I found several references to Charles T. Foster having attended the Agricultural College, I write quite a bit about he and his abolitionist family in my book. Charles would be killed in the Spring of 1862, carrying the colors of the Third Michigan Infantry at the battle of Fair Oaks. I am curious, in your research did you find him listed among the early students at MAC? My presumption has always been that he dropped out pretty early on, but I have not located an official source that lists him as a student, the references to him being a student are from family letters. Granted I did not take the time to research his connection to the College very fully, as it was not the focus of my book. Thank you for this wonderful addition to Michigan Civil War history.

  6. Matt,

    Apologies if a similar comment populates here; having trouble posting. Anyways, good news: I found your Charles T. Foster of Lansing, MI on page six of a book called “The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan” (1857) at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t1tf0mq58&view=1up&seq=9&skin=2021 . Let me know if you can see that link; if not I will figure out how else to share it.

    Congratulations on your book! I will be pre-ordering that for sure!

    Thank you for reading,


  7. Adam:

    Thanks you for the link to the student list, I appreciate having that official source of verification of his status as a student.

    Happy New Year!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!