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Library of Michigan: The Civil War Era

On January 27, 1859, Jesse Eugene Tenney became Michigan's state librarian. Eighteen months later, Michigan and the rest of the nation were plunged into the Civil War. In Tenney, the state had for the first time someone who worked aggressively to fulfill the role of the state librarian and actively define a more significant role for the library. Tenney, a highly educated lawyer who had also served as a school principal and superintendent, was the first appointee to stay in the position for more than three years and the last male state librarian for over 100 years.

The State Library was located within the first State Capitol in Lansing, a relatively small building where space was always at a premium. Like many state librarians before him, Tenney worked hard to increase the collection despite the lack of space. When he became librarian in 1859, there were roughly 13,000 books in the collection, and when his term ended a decade later, there were over 24,000 volumes in the State Library. One of the ways Tenney accomplished this was by using both the University of Michigan and Michigan Agricultural College (present-day Michigan State University) as book depositories until more space became available in the library. Another method was to link with other organizations. For example, some of the materials that increased the library's collection were documents from the federal government, as the library had become a designated federal document depository in 1860.

Although Michigan's home front was never a battleground during the Civil War, the war affected every aspect of the state and its citizens. Michigan sent 90,000 men to serve in the Union forces. On the home front, mining, lumbering and railroads became major contributors to the war effort. Newspaper readership increased as people followed the war's daily progress. They also followed the exploits of Michigan soldiers through letters and could read about the feats of Michiganians like George Custer in national publications like Harpers Weekly. Newspapers of that time rarely used headlines, yet the headlines in the 1861 Detroit Free Press reflected Michigan's immediate reaction, literally shouting, "War! War! War!"

The shelling of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, brought Michigan into the war to save the Union. Michigan's response reflected the high idealism with which the war began, sending some of first troops from the west to Washington just in time to engage in the battle of Bull Run. It was a desperate situation that saw the Union forces defeated and a realization on both sides about the horrors of war.

Yet, through all this turmoil, the state government carried on in an orderly manner without any major interruptions. Throughout the 1860s, State Librarian Tenney's annual reports mention a concern for library administration more than the Civil War and its effect on the library's operation.

Jesse Eugene Tenney was not the first state librarian, but he was first who was able to wield political power to develop the position from a sometimes librarian and/or custodian to a full time professional librarian. Tenney was another of the long line of well-educated New Englanders who assumed leadership positions within the young state of Michigan, moving here from Vermont in the mid-1850s.

As state librarian, Tenney began his advocacy by submitting the longest library report the Legislature had seen up to this time, which reflected Tenney's strength for identifying and reporting the practical details necessary for the function of a professional state library. The report also called attention to the lack of legislative support for the library and included an in-depth account of the past two decades of State Library administration. Through this report, Tenney made the Legislature aware that no money had been given to the library for over a decade. He then proposed an annual appropriation of $500 for the next five years.

To strengthen his case, Tenney appealed to the competitive nature of the Legislature, comparing Michigan's State Library to other states' and asserting that, "Michigan ought not to be behind her sister states in regard to this manner." He called attention to fact that Illinois annually appropriated $1,500 for their State Library, Ohio $2,000, Massachusetts $2,800 and New York $6,000. Tenney's strategy apparently worked, for as a result of his report the House Library Committee inspected the library and recommended a $500 annual appropriation to increase the collection of books, with a note that it should be increased again at a time when the budget could support additional funding. The committee's report noted the "excellent manner in which the library is kept. by the present faithful and efficient Librarian."

As state librarian, Tenney continued to make statements regarding the war that reflected his patriotic zeal and his pragmatism in State Library matters. Tenney's report of December 1862 observed that "quite a number of the United States, have been so busily engaged in diving down to 'the lowest deep' of the foulest rebellion which ever challenged the wrath of Almighty God [sic]." Yet well aware as Tenney was of the significance of the Civil War in the scope of history, he could not refrain from calling attention to how the Confederacy's rebelliousness had affected library operations, saying "that their authorities have willfully denied us their usual courtesies by failing to supply us with their accustomed quantum of exchanges." Again in the 1864 State Library Annual Report, he mentions that nine rebel states failed to maintain document exchanges. As in most of his previous reports, Tenney then went on to leverage for things he could control. For example he recommended that plans for a fireproof brick building be drawn up for a future State Library.

Like most people of his time, Tenney held a special regard for the flag. He was well aware of the flag's importance as a symbol and a signaling device on the Civil War battlefield. Tenney also must have known about Michigan soldiers who gave their lives for their "colors." With this in mind, Tenney made several requests for more room to store Civil War battle flags. Although the battle flags ended up being stored in Detroit until the present State Capitol was built, Tenney still gave several reports to the Legislature deploring the lack of space in the library not only for books but to display "tattered ensigns and flags of Michigan's scarred and war-torn veterans."

In 1866 and 1867, Tenney again requested more room, but he also requested something significant to future state librarians - a salary increase. He had gotten many notations of praise from the library committee and the Legislature for the professional manner in which the State Library was administered, and finally in 1867, he received a $100 raise, making his salary $600 per year. In 1869, Tenney's salary was raised again to $700, and the state librarian was authorized to make purchases without approval of the library committee, another step toward recognizing the stature of the state librarian.

Tenney left the library in 1869, leaving a legacy of leadership and respect by bringing several issues regarding the needs of the State Library out into the open. But in spite of all Eugene Tenney's accomplishments, some might argue that his most significant accomplishment was bringing his wife to Michigan from Vermont. For Harriet Tenney not only succeeded her husband as state librarian but began an era of female library leadership that lasted for over a century.

by Jim Schultz, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 03/01/2003