Grand Rapids historian Albert Baxter wrote that as a boy Stephen had been “an eager reader of history and it is related of him that at twelve years of age he had well studied the histories of Rome, Greece, France, England, and the United States, and was familiar with the story of Napoleon Bonaparte's campaigns as he was with his spelling book. He was educated at the common schools and at the academy at Rhinebeck [Dutchess County], New York,” although he apparently remained there but one term.
By the time he was 15, in 1842, Stephen began professional studies in medicine, and for three years studied at Harperfield, Delaware County, under Dr. Streets of Roxbury and commenced a medical practice three years later at Warwarsing in Ulster County, New York. In 1848, at the age of 21, he gave up medicine, however, and the following year he turned to the study of law with T. H. Westbrook, of Kingston, New York. Stephen reportedly attended two terms of the Law School of Professor Fowler at Balston Spa and in 1850 he was reported to be studying law and living at Vanetting’s hotel in Kingston village, Ulster County, New York. That same year Stephen was admitted to the bar of the state of New York.
Stephen married Mary E. Smedes (d. 1910) on January 1, 1851, in Wawarsing, Ulster County, New York, and they had at least one child, a son Alexander.
Stephen practiced law for some two years in Ulster County before deciding to move west and in 1853 moved to Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan where he formed a partnership with Lucius Patterson. Three years later he was elected judge of the Recorder’s Court of Grand Rapids, serving in that position for two years. In 1857 Stephen entered into a law practice with Harry Yale. (His brother John W. would eventually serve as mayor of Grand Rapids and as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court.) It also appears that Stephen's parents settled in Walker, Kent County, where Jeffrey reportedly died around 1872. In any case Allis was listed on the 1870 census for Walker.
On November 5, 1858, the
Grand Rapids Enquirer
reported that Champlin, the Democratic candidate for Prosecuting Attorney for Kent County, had been “elected by at least a 19 majority.” In the aftermath of that victory there was considerable celebrating in some quarters of the city. On November 13, 1858, the
, quoting the
Grand Rapids Eagle
, wrote that the new prosecuting attorney “was complimented last evening by the German Band at the instance and expense of some of his overjoyed party friends. The Band acquitted themselves handsomely, and came up with some of their best notes, whereupon the worthy future prosecutor came down with his, to the tune of several dollars worth of lager, at which the crowd, who are always understood to be on hand at such occasions, also issued their notes of satisfaction.”
If local sources are to be believed, Champlin proved quite successful as County prosecutor. On March 2, 1859, the Enquirer declared that Champlin, as County attorney, “has thus far won golden opinions from all classes of his fellow citizens, for the manner in which he has attended to the interests of the public. The term of Court now in session will still further add to his reputation, we have no doubt, before its labors are closed.”
In 1859-60 Stephen was residing on the east side of Mt. Vernon, at the corner of Shawmut Street on the west side of the river. In 1860 he was an attorney living in Grand Rapids, Fifth Ward, and, according to the Enquirer of March 17, 1860, was chairman of the Fifth Ward Democratic nominations. (His parents were both living in Walker, Kent County in 1860.)
Besides his active political life and his legal practice Stephen was also involved with the growing prewar militia movement in the state of Michigan. On April 22, 1856, Champlin was elected Captain of the Grand Rapids Light Artillery, also known as the “Ringgolds” Light Artillery, and was technically subordinate to Captain Lucius Patterson’s Grand Rapids Artillery. In February of 1858, Champlin was elected Major of the newly formed Grand River Battalion, headed by Colonel Daniel McConnell, and which was composed of several western Michigan militia companies. This unit would soon become the nucleus of the Fifty-first Regiment of Michigan State Militia, which in turn would serve as the core infrastructure for the Third Michigan infantry in April of 1861.
In fact Colonel McConnell became the colonel of the Third regiment when it began forming at the old fairgrounds south of city in April of 1861, and Stephen, who was 33 years old and still serving as Major of the Fifty-first Regiment and working as Prosecuting Attorney in Kent County, enlisted as Major of the Regiment on May 13, 1861.
Stephen was on duty with the Regiment when it left Grand Rapids on Thursday, June 13, 1861. For his coolness and bravery under fire on August 30, 1861, during a reconnaissance led by Champlin, General George B. McClellan commended him. Champlin wrote in his official report from Hunter’s Chapel, Virginia, that
while reconnoitering from the top of Mrs. Hunter's house, the enemy was observed to send off from the top of the hill lying north of Bailey's Corners two companies of infantry, who numbered about 200 men, who were marched in the direction of our pickets, stationed northeast of Bailey's Corners and on the right of Captain Dillman's position. I started immediately for Bailey's Corners, to inform Captain Dillman and take steps for defense. I found that Captain Dillman was acquainted with the movement of the enemy.
A few moments after my arrival about 100 of the enemy attacked our pickets on the right side of the road, and occupying the Bailey outhouses and premises adjoining. An attack was also made on our line of pickets, extending as far as the first house on the direct road from Arlington Mill to Bailey's Corners. The pickets returned the fire and retreated back on Captain Dillman's command and upon the reserve stationed half way from Arlington Mill to Bailey's Corners. I directed Captain Dillman to march one company of his men on the table-land to his right to a point opposite the enemy in the woods and deploy them as skirmishers, advance them across the road, and engage the enemy on their flank, while I brought up and engaged the enemy's front with the reserve stationed half way to the mill, under command of Lieutenant Morris, and also with a portion of Captain [Samuel] Judd's command, stationed near Arlington Mill. The order was executed, and the enemy retreated before the skirmishers, and would not and did not wait an engagement. Our pickets were re-established, and the forces of both sides are again in the same position they respectively occupied this morning. Our loss was none [killed]; wounded, 1 or 2 slightly. The enemywere observed to carry off 3 of their own men, who were either killed or wounded.
Throughout the whole of this affair both officers and men behaved with great coolness and bravery, and I think the retreat was timely for the enemy, for had they waited the advance, they must have been repulsed with considerable loss.
On September 5, an aide to General McClellan sent Champlin word that the general had received Champlin's report of his reconnaissance and skirmish. “The general is much pleased with Major Champlin's dispositions on the occasion, which he deems eminently proper, and he desires you to convey his thanks to Major Champlin for the efficient manner in which this service was performed.”
Sometime during the fall of 1861, back in Grand Rapids there were rumors that Stephen would soon be offered the colonelcy in another Michigan Regiment about to be organized in the state. The
wrote on October 30 that Champlin was offered the Lieutenant Colonelcy of the Third Michigan Cavalry, but he had reportedly declined saying that he believed he could “be of more service to his country where he is.” In fact, owing to disability, Colonel McConnell had just resigned (in mid-October) and Stephen had been commissioned Colonel of the Third Infantry on October 28, 1861 (“jumping” as it were the Lieutenant Colonel of the Third Michigan, Ambrose Stevens). It remains unclear why Champlin was promoted over his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Stevens, although one must not rule out the very real possibility that Champlin’s political connections ran deeper and farther in Michigan (and elsewhere) than those of Ambrose Stevens.
In any case, McConnell’s departure was most welcome in some quarters and Champlin’s promotion certainly pleased some of Third Michigan rank and file.
On November 7, Frank Siverd of Company G wrote to Lansing, “Colonel McConnell has resigned, a procedure necessitated from the precarious condition of his health. So say the papers. We learn he is about to receive a pension from Uncle Sam, on account of the permanent injury to his health brought about by severe exposure on the field, incident to his arduous duties as an officer. We opine, that liberal as our uncle is, he would not grant ninety dollars a month pension to a man who is notorious for never having done the government any service, especially if he could have observed the great accumulation of empty bottles in and around the Colonel's quarters. Major Champlin takes his place and will make an efficient officer. . . .” And in early February of 1862, Siverd wrote the Republican that Champlin’s “fellow officers presented Colonel Champlin with a fine horse as a new year’s present. The Colonel is universally popular and will be followed by the boys wherever he leads.”
George Miller, a private in Company A wrote home on November 8, 1861, that Colonel Daniel McConnell “resigned a few days ago and Major Champlin has been promoted to Colonel in his stead. We have a colonel now that we can depend on and we are all proud of him, [as] he looks to the comforts of his men as well as his own, he goes through the camp every little while to see the men in there [sic] tents and see if they want anything, a thing Colonel McConnell never done [sic].”
Some of the officers, too, seemed pleased with the change. Captain Stephen Lowing of Company I wrote home on November 9 that Champlin as Colonel of the Regiment “makes a good one”. Lowing may have been prejudiced, however. He mentioned in a letter to his brother-in-law Franklin Bosworth on November 27 “Colonel Champlin was a friend of mine at home, and is no less so here.”
Champlin’s first serious test as Colonel of the Third came in February of 1862, while the Third Michigan was on picket guard, Champlin had been ordered to undertake a reconnaissance to Occoquan Village, Virginia. Consequently early on the morning of February 4 a “reconnoitering party” was sent out which returned about 3:00 p.m. that afternoon.
The party was commanded by Captain Lowing, and consisted of Lieutenant Brennan and 44 men from company I, and Lieutenant Ryan and 44 men from company H. They took the road leading by the millstead and went as far as Burke's station and then pass over to brimstone hill, returning by way of old Ox road; but the storm was so severe that the captain did not think it advisable to continue farther, so turned off to the left, and passing the house of Williamson, went down to Occoquan village. The river side was reached through a ravine through which the road passes. Arriving on the shore of the river, the road turns sharply to the north, while a precipitous rocky bluff of near 100 feet rises high immediately behind, leaving only room for the roadway. Upon nearing the river Lieutenant Brennan and 10 men were thrown forward to reconnoiter. He saw but few men in the streets of the village on his arrival, and those men appeared to be squads of unarmed recruits drilling. The scouting party was soon discovered by the enemy and the alarm give, when Captain Lowing then came up and ordered the fire to be returned. Three rounds were fired, when the men, being too much exposed and having accomplished the object of their mission, were ordered to retire, and returned by way of Pohick church.
The falling snow prevented objects from being distinctly seen. Four of the enemy were seen to fall, however, and were carried off by their comrades. Great confusion seemed to prevail. The enemy were evidently taken by surprise. Owing to the difficulty of getting men under cover Captain Lowing did not deploy his men, but brought them through the ravine in sections of eight men abreast, delivered his fire in this order, retiring from the right and left to the rear, thus exposing the head of the column, the balance being hid in the ravine through which they approached the river. The men delivered their fire deliberately and filed to the rear without confusion, acting with coolness and courage throughout.
A camp of the enemy was seen below Occoquan and on the south side of the river. No fortifications were seen. The range of vision was limited, however, by the falling snow. At the corner near Mrs. Violet's house a cavalry picket post was discovered, but the pickets had fled up the old Ox road. They found a good common tent there, in which the pickets had sheltered themselves. They destroyed the tent, as they were too much exhausted to bring it away with them. Wit the exception of this, no picket post was seen.
Captain Lowing was informed at Barker's that the enemy kept a picket post at the saw-mill between Barker's and Burke's station. I am inclined to believe that the old Ox road is picketed by cavalry from Fairfax station to Mrs. Violet's, though I have no certain information of the fact.
On the return, four of Captain Lowing's men became so exhausted that they could go no farther, he directed search to be made for horses on which to mount them. He found two horses in a barn near a deserted house. The owner of the house could not be ascertained, so he took these horses and mounted the exhausted men on them, and they rode them in. He now inquires as to what disposition he shall make of the horses -- whether to hand them over to the Brigade quartermaster or to return them to the place from whence taken.
Just before Captain Lowing returned, and when he was in the neighborhood of Pohick church, heavy firing of musketry was distinctly heard in the direction of Parker's on the Pohick road. The firing lasted several minutes. I am inclined to think that it was between two detachments of the enemy, and who met at the cross-roads, probably mistaking each other for Captain Lowing's party. I shall request the officer who relives me to ascertain if possible the cause of this firing.
I strongly second the views of Captain Moses in relation to pushing the right of our line of pickets out to the Springfield road. The advantages are, it gives a stronger line of posts, is more easily and more securely picketed, while in the rear, along the whole line nearly, is strong ground for the pickets to fall back upon if forced from their position. It will take fewer men, thus giving stronger reserves at the threatened points.
Champlin was wounded severely in the left hip May 31, 1862, at the battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, although according to one contemporary report “it is not considered dangerous. He walked some distance after he was wounded, and by his presence and energy did much to encourage his men.” In fact, according to George Waldron of the Fifth Michigan Infantry, “As the Michigan 5th advanced nearly or quite through the slashing, we met Col. Champlin, of the 3d, returning on foot, wounded in the left hip. A few of his men were with him, less than a company. He said, ‘I do not know that I have any men left but these; my regiment has been terribly cut up’.”
Apparently, “Colonel Champlin received a ball near the hip bone, which must have entered diagonally, and, striking the bone, glanced and passed out, leaving two external wounds, some five inches apart.”
He was attended on June 1 by the new regimental chaplain, Rev. Joseph Anderson of Grand Haven, Michigan. According to Anderson, he also escorted the colonel to the railroad depot either late on the 1st or early on June 2, to be sent to the hospital in Baltimore.
In any case, Stephen was reported absent with leave for 30 days as of July 1, 1862, but in fact, he arrived in Detroit on June 16, and along with several other wounded officers of the Third Michigan, was staying at the Michigan Exchange hotel.
At 8:00 a.m. the following morning, June 17, they left for Grand Rapids where “They were received,” wrote the
, “by the Mayor and Common Council, the firemen and GR Greys, and a large concourse of our citizens, who escorted them to their stopping places. Their feeble appearances excited the warm sympathies of every beholder for these gallant men who have suffered so much in defense of the government. Their noble deeds of daring excite the pride of every Michigander, and when this satanic war is over and history records the deeds of valor performed by Northern arms, the names of the Michigan volunteers will adorn its brightest pages, and first upon the record will stand in letters of gold the brave deeds of the noble 3rd.” On August 18 the Advertiser and Tribune wrote that Champlin “has so far recovered from his wound received at Fair Oaks that he has reported himself for duty,” and indeed he left Michigan on Friday, August 15, to rejoin his command in Virginia.
By the end of August Champlin was back on duty with the Regiment, and during the battle of Groveton (or Second Bull Run) on August 29, 1862, he apparently ruptured his Fair Oaks wound, which had not fully healed. Colonel Orlando Poe of the Second Michigan infantry and commanding the Third Brigade at the time of the battle, said in his official report of September 1 that “the long list of casualties in the Third Michigan testifies to the good conduct and hard fighting of that Regiment. I would particularly mention Colonel Champlin, of the Third Michigan, who was severely wounded at Fair Oaks, but who joined his Regiment and led it into the fight on the 29th, although his wounds were far from being healed indeed, so far that his wounds broke out afresh on the field owing to over-exertion, and he is now completely prostrated.”
On September 26, Wallace W. Dickinson of Company K wrote to the
that in his estimation, “None but veteran troops would have stood up against such a terrible fire [a Second Bull Run], but our brave boys not only stood firm, but charged across the field, driving the enemy from the fence corners into the cover of the woods, maintaining their position until ordered to retire. Col. Champlin, not yet recovered from wounds received at Fair Oaks, was at the head of his Regiment and led them into the fight. But in the early part of the engagement his partly healed wounds received fresh injury, and he left the field, leaving the command to our gallant Maj. Byron R. Pierce.”
Champlin was reported as sick at Alexandria, Virginia, and listed as absent on leave in December, having been appointed Brigadier General of United States Volunteers, to date from November 29, 1862.
On December 18, 1862, R. M. Strunk, a lawyer from Kingston, New York and a member of the Tenth senatorial district Military Executive Committee, wrote to United States Senator Ira Harris, introducing his “friend” Colonel Stephen Champlin of Michigan. “The Col has been nominated by the President for Brigadier General, & of course must be confirmed by the body of which you are a member. I can say that if any man is worthy of a Brigadier’s star, he is. I know all about him. Years ago he read law in my office, & he was with me a long time. I know him thoroughly & well. Most gallantly has he served his country as his scar will tell. Among the first in the field, he has served faithfully all through. May I ask you to help him through the Senate? Be assured that you will in so doing help a deserving man, & a most efficient officer.”
On December 5, the
Detroit Advertiser and Tribune
wrote that “One of the best promotions that have been made in the volunteer officers of this State is that of Col. S. G. Champlin . . . to Brigadier-Generalship. If any man deserves such an honor it is Champlin, who has served his country bravely and faithfully.” On January 3, 1863, while in Washington, DC, Champlin wrote to Governor Austin Blair of Michigan and officially resigned from command of the Third infantry, as a result of his promotion to Brigadier General. On Saturday, January 3, Brigadier General Champlin wrote Governor Austin Blair, resigning his command of the Third Michigan due to his recent promotion to Brigadier General.
I write to inform you that my connection with the 3d Regiment Michigan Infantry has ceased, by my promotion to the office of Brigadier General. As any my successor I recommend Lieutenant Colonel Byron R. Pierce. He is the unanimous choice of the regiment and enjoys the confidence of the General officers over him to the fullest extent.
No longer holding a commission under my State I deem it not improper to tender to you my sincere thanks for many manifestations of confidence of which I have been the recipient! for the kind forbearance extended me in my many shortcomings! and for courtesies always extended -- of all these things I shall ever bear grateful remembrance.
Allow me to congratulate you on the success attending your management of the military affairs of the State.
The vast difficulties which lay before you, in clothing, feeding, and arming of the troops of the state, owing to the low fundamental condition of the state, and of the nation -- have been encountered and surmounted. The high place your regiments hold among the soldiers of the nation is but a just tribute paid to you, and the state, for the zeal manifested in the cause of the union. Surely the glory they have won cannot but reflect back home and glory upon the state administration, which has extended itself so strenuously and effectually in the cause of the union in the cause of the world. [Line illegible] sincere thanks to General Robertson, Colonel Grosvenor, Colonel Croul [?] and other members of your staff for the many courtesies shown me since I entered upon my military career.
The promotion of Colonel Pierce will leave a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Colonel. Enclosed I send a letter received from General Berry recommending Captain Edward S. Pierce to fill the vacancy. The letter was written by General Berry without the solicitation of any one after the Battle of Fredericksburg and is based on a judgment formed on the battle field of the relative merit of officers.
I can bear testimony that Captain Pierce is every way qualified to fill the office and can most cordially recommend him.
Champlin added the postscript that “My promotion bears date of the 29th of November. I wish Colonel Pierce's could bear the same date. It will only help him . . . as he [was] mustered Lieutenant Colonel for pay on Dec. 31st [and] could not therefore draw pay as Colonel back of that date.”
Stephen was still in Washington when he wrote his brother John on February 23, 1863, that his health was improving. He then quickly launched into a lengthy discussion of the issue of emancipation proclamation and the reasons why the war was being fought. “You speak of the President's having abandoned his primary policy of warring to restore the Union and has changed it to a line for emancipation. I think the courts will finally settle the legality or illegality of the Proclamation; so the question don't bother me much at present. But I do begin to get tired trying to preserve the rights of traitors (as if they were loyal) in an instrument they are trying to destroy.”
According to Champlin, for the southerners this war from the very beginning “was a war of ideas -- and not of infringed rights.” Indeed, he argued, they hoped “to establish a slave empire”, while “We on the contrary warned them to careful fidelity to the constitution and Union.” In any case, he believed “it is becoming on both sides more or less a War of ideas, freedom pitted against slavery. Which shall prevail?” In his mind “slavery is the only obstacle to peace,” and that the “progress of the last century shows that when it is discovered, slavery will be swept away like a cobweb. As between you and the President if the above assumptions are correct it is so after all in one sense I think only a question of force -- shall the slave of the traitor be freed by decision of a court of law or freed by the President's proper production?”
In Champlin’s opinion, and it was one which he claimed to have held for some time, “this war, with or without the Proclamation, must end in the downfall of slavery; and I don't think the proclamation will free any slaves who would not have been free without it.” He points to the absurd position of the Democrats of the North who, he wrote, “still hoped to get the South back, and preserve their domestic institutions, while among the Democrats of the South, who know the objects and aims of the south, the idea does not prevail!” He then asked “what rights have traitors under the constitution? The right if captured to trial and punishment, that is all. Their goods and chattel negro and otherwise are forfeit.”
With his lawyer’s eye he saw the proclamation as in effect illegal, and for him it now became the question of “What will you or the citizens do -- will you for this reason resist the draft? Because the President has tried to proclaim bad law, will you resist good law? This is a question the citizen must ask himself and answer. If you resist, the south succeeds, and you are charged with being an abettor! If you go in and let those charged with this thing run the war, then, in the end, there is a tribunal to right the wrongs, but not now! to oppose now is to palsy the President's efforts to put down the rebellion.”
For Champlin, “emancipation is not now the primary object but only an incident of the war, at least if the President is to be believed this is so. But whether primary or secondary, I believe it makes but little difference to those of the south -- they stake their all in the institution” of slavery and in the test of battle, and, he believes, “it will entirely fall -- may not in my day or yours but the end is near.”
Having stated his thesis that the proclamation is bad law, he nevertheless warned his brother and the Republican party members who might oppose the proclamation, not to let those feelings oppose the prosecution of the war. “The constitution if violated will still stand the shock, and we shall both live and die under it, and those who violate it; they will be judged of, in the tribunals established under the constitution . . . and of the People.” Rather, he said, “Postpone these things to the end of the war, don’t give them the chance of charging the failure of their schemes on your opposition.”
Stephen also wrote to one Mr. Barstow, one of Kent County’s Democratic party leaders, saying much of the same thing to him as he did to his brother John. General Champlin, wrote the editor of the
Detroit Advertiser and Tribune
on March 21, “has written a patriotic letter in favor of the Union and the Government, which the Copperheads have suppressed. The letter denounced the Copperhead Democracy; it sustained and stood by the President; it was opposed to all peace schemes; it was a scorching rebuke of the Tory Democratic party of this State and section. The voice of our Army heroes is too loyal to suit the ears of the Submission Democrats”.
Three days later the same newspaper wrote that Champlin, “a straight Democrat and a noble patriot, has written a letter to Mr. Barstow, of Grand Rapids, breathing the firmest devotion to the Union, and containing hot rebukes of the Copperheads. Mr. Barstow, whose instincts are loyal, had consented to the publication of the letter, but the Copperhead politicians in Kent County got around him and persuaded him that the publication of the letter would injure the Democratic party! What a confession! The honest opinion of a Democratic soldier, who loves his country, contrasts so strongly with the home resolutions of the Copperheads, that the managers among the latter dare not let the people see the two side by side!”
By the end of March Stephen had returned to his home in Grand Rapids.
“He still suffers much”, wrote the
Detroit Advertiser and Tribune
on March 27, “from his bullet wounds received at Fair Oaks”. And on July 31, 1863, the Eagle wrote “we regret to say [General Champlin] gains strength very slowly. His entire constitution received a violent shock, and his hurts were far more serious than his surgeon at first believed. Nevertheless, we hope this brave and patriotic officer may long be spared to this community, in which he is universally beloved, and to the service of his country, upon which he has conferred honor.” He was much improved by mid-August of 1863 when it was reported that he had recently returned to Grand Rapids from a trip to the upper Great Lakes in an effort to regain his health, and that was “considerably improved in health and spirits.”
In late August Champlin was ordered to replace Brigadier General John S. Mason in command of the United States depot for drafted men at Camp Cleveland, Ohio. That order was quickly revoked, however, presumably on acount of his poor health, and on September 22, 1863, Champlin was assigned to the command of the depot for drafted men in Grand Rapids. By mid-October General Champlin had, reported the
, “taken rooms and fixed his headquarters, we learn, in McReynold's Block -- the Post Office building -- where his chief-of-staff and other officers may be found during business hours.”
However, Champlin’s old wound refused to heal and he resigned his commission on November 8, 1863.
But in fact it was the consumption that he had apparently contracted back in December of 1862 that was killing him.
On January 4, 1864, P. R. L. Peirce, one of the leading citizens of Grand Rapids, wrote to Mrs. Champlin. “Knowing the illness,” he said,
of your noble husband, to be of such a nature, that personal calls, other than those of his immediate relatives and friends, would tend to distract him, the board of supervisors now in session would have been pleased to have paid the Gen’l a personal visit could it have been done with safety to his health. They have placed in their records, resolution of which copies will be found accompanying this. [See below]
Permit me to add, they echo the sentiments of the people of this entire County, by whom the General is so well known, and so highly esteemed by all. And in conveying to him through you, of said resolves of the board, be pleased to add my own individual sympathies and hopes for his recovery and the assurance of a personal regard and affection that I entertain for him, next only to the love I bear for my blood kindred.
Whereas, the Board of Supervisors of the County of Kent now assembled in January session, have learned with profound sorrow that Brigadier General Stephen G. Champlin is confined to his house by severe illness, caused by wounds received in his country's service -- Therefore,
Resolved, That the heartfelt sympathies of the members of this board, be, and hereby tendered to him, and his family, in his present affliction, with the assurances of each member and officer thereof, that he is gratefully and affectionately remembered by one and all; and that he has their earnest wishes for his speedy recovery to health and renewed endeavors in behalf of his country, whose just cause he so readily espoused and has so bravely defended from armed traitors, who seek its dismemberment and ruin.
Resolved, that the Clerk be directed to furnish the General with a copy of the above.
One of the Old Third veterans, Daniel Crotty formerly of Company F, recalled in later years the last days of Champlin’s life, and summed up the sentiments of many others in the Old Third. “Our poor colonel is dying,” wrote Crotty.
His Fair Oaks wound has killed him. Oh, what a loss to the country at this time, to lose such a man, when his brilliant career has only begun. But he has done his share for the country, and can die with the satisfaction of having his comrades of his old Regiment, the Third, give him the last rites of a brave soldier's burial. As his comrades gather around his dying bed, each one takes a last sad farewell of their commander, and more than brother. The tears fall thick and fast, and each one feels his loss indeed. But we must be reconciled in knowing that all must go the same road, good and bad, old and young, rich and poor. All must pass to that great unknown beyond the grave, but happy is he who, like the brave and gentle General Champlin, can say on his death bed, I have fought the good fight, for my country, and now there is a crown of glory laid up in the hearts of my countrymen for men. The members of the old Regiment in the city march at the head of the funeral procession, for they have a right to the post of honor. We march slowly to the city of the dead and lower our beloved Colonel into the silent grave, fire the parting salute over him, and leave the warrior to his rest. Brave soldier, thy work is done. No more shalt thou lead the men that loved thee on the charge. No more shall we hear the clarion voice of our brave Colonel at the battle front. We drop a silent tear, and bid farewell to the honored dead, and march back to the city to make preparations to go and face the enemies of our country again.
Stephen died from consumption at his home in Grand Rapids on January 26, 1864. According to former Third Michigan Regimental Surgeon Dr. James Grove, who was back in Grand Rapids practicing medicine, there had been “Evidence of tubercular disease of the lung appeared while on duty in the field in December of 1862.”
Champlin’s funeral was conducted at St. Mark’s church in Grand Rapids on January 28, and the Rev. Courtney Smith delivered the funeral address.
One must be [said Rev. Smith] a remarkable example of insensibility to be in no way moved by the suggestiveness of such an occasion as this. There is in it, and by all its arrangements, and its demonstrations of respect to the dead -- in this vast assemblage of our citizens; in the civic and military pageantry so blending into an imposing whole; in the stricken central group in the sable symbols of bereavement and sorrow; in the scenes far away, gone over in thought by the power of association -- scenes of war's wild uproar and carnage, in which the form before us has once participated; with the presence with us of those who shared with him in those scenes; who fought with him under the hall of death, and some of whom bled with him -- by this draping with the flag under which he fought at Bull Run; by all this there is verily a rare combination of force settling in upon the emotions, and stirring them in an unwonted degree.
But let us not for a moment lose sight of those facts lying along in this more recent personal history, which so impressively illuminates the ways of Providence, and go to show how unmistakable known ably true it is that though ‘man deviseth his way the Lord directeth his steps’, the old truth which was immortal before the great dramatic genius of England recast it.
While standing with others, on Tuesday afternoon, in the still chamber where the soldier was sinking into the arms of death as gently as a sleeping infant sleeps on, it was impossible not to think of the Providence which brought him away from the battle-fields and hospitals and permitted him to die this peacefully in the sanctuary of home. Yes, friends, this was Providence, and in the enforcement of this single truth to look no further now -- ‘the Lord's voice crieth unto the city’, and if we are wise, we shall see his ‘name’ -- his perfections in a clear sunlight in a Providence like this.
I could not find a meaning either in personal or general history, unless I could find Providence in it -- that great steadying and cheering truth which founds itself on the very existence of God, vitalizing all history with a high import, securing its unity, and charging all its events with energy, and with hope, too.
I trust we have learned to turn such a truth to good account during the stormy years just gone, looking higher than the human agencies in the great drama, as tremendous as these are, and stilling all unreasonable anxieties with the consideration that God lives and reigns, and that all the agents and all the events which are throning and crowding the hours, constitute an underplot, the progress and results of which shall conform to the good please of a being so infinitely excellent.
Standing on this eternal truth, we shall stand firmly, and in the day of a public calamity or, of a dark personal experience, be able to rally ourselves with such a grand old song as the 46th Psalm, which was Luther's favorite in the dark day.
The true scriptural view of life is admirably expressed in a single sentence, by a writer of considerable distinction: ‘God does not frame his empire to suit and satisfy our speculations, but for our practical profit; to bring us into his own excellence and establish us eternally in the participation of his character.’ Philosophy itself, as it seems to me, must be perturbed and distrustful, while it rests on any other view of life than this.
The idea of God in society -- as reigning over us socially, suits itself to our position and circumstances today, since the proprieties of the occasion require from us a review of the career of a valued citizen and most efficient public officer.
Whether it were him or another, it is worth while to consider . . . a social relationship to God himself; as first under the divine government and training, and yet with never interference with his own liberty. Thus, the individual is being fitted, and by a discipline and experience, of which it may be he never prophesied or dreamed, or conjectured, but all under the ordering of God, for a career of usefulness. This is indeed a "magnificent scheme" of life, in the language of the writer, from whom I have already quoted a sentence: ‘Life thus ordered to bring out the value of law, and teach the necessity of right as the only conservating principle of order and happiness --teaching the more powerfully, if so it must, by disorder and sorrow.’
With a clear recognition of these principles, if a valued and useful public servant fall, and the blow so reaches us that a sense of loss and bereavement is general as it now is, the peculiar phraseology of the prophet will assume a new interest and a new impressiveness; we shall be able to construe a providence like this recent one, into the voice of the Lord crying unto the city; we shall see a revelation of His perfections in it, and with a humble acknowledgment of Him in His dispensation, we shall be disposed to hear the precise lesson which the rod is made to speak.
The minister then launched into a discussion of armies of the past ending with a description of the army of the Potomac.
We learned early to watch the movements of this magnificent army with an intense interest. This was quite natural from the representation from our own State in its organization, and also from our special interest in the Third Michigan Infantry. I do not wonder at the effect upon the enemy of which we hear, when as charging up the acclivity at Gettysburg, under the delusion that theirs was the trifling work of dispersing a horde of undisciplined militia, the undeceiving came by a discovery of their old enemies of the Army of the Potomac, from whose stern front they recoiled as if thrown back by a great wave of the sea.
The old foe waited for them, the firmness which had illustrated itself all along, from the Potomac to the James was girded for another endeavor -- was about to hew its way to another victory -- this was all.
For the Army of the Potomac the future is secure. It now has a proud history, and it has sent back, in history, its dead heroes to us from time to time; we have gathered from the lips of its maimed and scarred veterans the details of its marches and battles; we have looked on the torn battle-flag of our own Third and thought where, when and how it received those rents and disfigurations, and we share in the pride of that splendid organization whose history is associated with so much of the heroic; the future historian will take care of it all.
The connection of the deceased with the Army of the Potomac will suggest the propriety of this allusion; it prepares the way for a more particular notice of him, and estimate of his character. As a citizen he was valued, confided in and honored by you. He was not a noisy and pretentious declaimer, nor an intriguer; he was above the low arts of the demagogue, and although fearless and emphatic in the expression of his opinions, his unquestioned integrity, large-heartedness and patriotism challenged the respect of men of all parties. In the most exciting political contests he bore himself so manfully and courteously so to alienate the respect and weaken the confidence of no one.
I do not say that he was not ambitious, but his modesty was conspicuous, and in a nice sense of honor and the sway of moral considerations held him aloof from all dishonorable expedients, in the temptation were his personal elevation.
He was, as you well know, peculiarly quiet in his manner, but a man of noble impulses, quick and generous sympathies; genial, kind and considerate in respect to the comfort and happiness of others -- or, as I might have said, eminently unselfish. The men of his Regiment, were they to speak, would testify to the truth of what I have now said, and they will readily recall his paternal solicitude for their welfare, in all their vicissitudes of their experiences while he commanded them. His friendship was valuable for his genuineness and strength, and not in the least influenced by caprice, or liable to be improved by suspicion or revenge.
He had a clear and vigorous intellect, disciplined in a fair degree by reading and study and an acquaintance with men sufficiently extended to equip him for usefulness in the civil profession he had prepared himself.
His military qualities are conceded to have been of a high order. The testimony of his companions in arms is concurrent in relation to this particular. Those who have shared with him in the perils of battle, and seen him under such a scourging fire as that which so wasted his Regiment at Groveton, testify with soldierly pride to his cool courage and his skill.
His military qualities were rather solid than brilliant; if it could not be said that he exhibited the showiness of some different organization, his courage, and coolness, and skill, formed a rare combination, and precisely such as to inspire his men with confidence.
After a brief discussion of Champlin’s early years growing up in New York and his education and training for the law, Rev. Smith then turned to the great civil war.
We come now to the opening of the great and bloody drama in our country, in 1861, and I revert with pleasure to the enthusiasm which marked that memorable spring-time; and when the news flashed over the country that the conspirators against our Government had opened their batteries upon Sumter and its heroic garrison, giving this defiant form to an infamous plot, which had been maturing for a quarter of a century,men's blood was stirred as never before, and they vented their righteous indignation through clenched teeth at the unparalleled audacity of the demonstration at Charleston. General Champlin partook of this feeling, and we saw him, on the 13th of June of that year, take leave of us, as Major in that splendid Regiment which we call our own -- the Third -- whose fighting material was probably never excelled, and whose prowess is talked of from the Mississippi to the Atlantic.
The Regiment, under its first Colonel, McConnell, participated in the July battles of Blackburn's Ford and Bull Run, and there, as everywhere else, distinguished itself, and, as will yet more clearly appear, covered the disastrous retreat of the 21st of July.
The resignation of Col. McConnell, on account of physical disability, turned attention to Major Champlin as his fitting successor, and he was promoted to the Colonelcy of the Regiment Oct. 28th, 1861. For the skillful disposition of his men while in front of the enemy, at Munson's Hill, he was complimented by Gen. McClellan.
In the campaign which opened in the spring following, he participated in part; was with his Regiment at the siege of Yorktown, the battle of Williamsburg, and Fair Oaks, where he was severely wounded, and was fired at at short range after he fell, and how he escaped death, from scores of bullets which rained around him, was clear in his own convictions, for, said he to me, in a conversation with him within the last two months -- ‘I have ever felt, in circumstances of the utmost peril, that God was protecting me’.
He returned home, but while recruiting he was as impatient to rejoin his Regiment as a caged bird to be free. His wound was a savage one, and healed slowly, and while, as yet, wholly unfit for the hardships of the field, he returned to his command in August -- participated to some extent in the disastrous campaign of Pope -- at Groveton led his Regiment (then reduced to 230 men) in a charge in which 140 of them were killed and wounded -- was compelled, reluctantly, to yield again on account of his debilitated condition and returned to Washington, but rallied sufficiently to return to his command and be with his Regiment in the memorable march from Warrenton to Fredericksburg in November.
A few days later he received his appointment as Brigadier General, which was confirmed by the Senate. He reported for duty at the War Department January 8th , and reluctantly yielding to a necessity imposed by his enfeebled health, took leave of absence.
He reached his home in this city in March. From that time onward --manifesting a constant anxiety to return to the field, hopeful and borne up by a will of uncommon force, through alternations of a rallying of his strength, and prostration under the renewed attacks of his fatal malady, and a resort to various and unavailing expedients, he declined, and on Tuesday afternoon last he sunk gently and without a single convulsive movement, into the repose of death -- dying at only the age of 36, but, as in truth, ‘men live by deeds, and not by years,’ having lived long, and left with us, to be cherished through the years that remain, the memory of a true man.
I should have mentioned in another place his appointment, in August last, to the command of this post, which he held till his death. Gen. C was on terms of intimate friendship with the lamented [General Hiram] Berry and [General Israel] Richardson, and the keenly discriminating and brilliant [General Phil] Kearney [sic] is said to have complimented him highly for his soldierly qualities.
You will wish me to speak of his views on the most momentous of all subjects, man's relations to God and the future, and from my repeated conversations with him on this subject and the frank and free-disclosure of his feelings to me, I am able to speak advisedly. He was a firm believer in revealed and spiritual religion; faith in Jesus Christ and repentance before God for sin, he fully subscribed to as the unalterable condition of final acceptance with God.
He regarded all religious pretension as worthless which did not exert an overmastering control in every circumstance and every relation of life; abhorred cant and hypocrisy, and often expressed to me his profound conviction that the jealousies and rivalries of Christian denominations was one prominent reason why thoughtful and observant men looked with distrust upon the pretensions of them all.
I am persuaded that Gen. C. has thought much on the subject of religion since his return from the army, in March. It was ever a welcome subject to him. He felt that he was a sinner, and that his deliverance was only in Christ, through faith in His name. At one interview, not many weeks since, he remarked to me: ‘A chief trouble with me just now is this will of mine; to get it subjected to the will of God, where I know it must come.’ Later than this, and at one time when he was exceedingly weak and articulated with difficulty, I asked him if he felt that his trust was wholly in Christ. He replied that he did -- that he stood on the everlasting rock.
I was with him in his last moments, and my last question, whispered into his ear, over the fine organism of which the paralysis of death was stealing, was substantially the same.
With a great effort he faltered back his reply -- his last words of cheer to me from his last battle-field. They were the words of victory through Christ -- of trust and hope and peace -- and I heard no more. I shall think of all this, and it shall be much that shall prevent my conceptions of the grand and immortal career he has entered upon.
I have thus brought my own tribute to departed worth to mingle it here with yours, before you shall go "slowly and sadly" to lay him down to his rest ‘till the day break and the shadows flee away’. More I might have said; less you would not have had me say, and if a strong and confiding personal friendship, with repeated substantial token of it, has given a tinge to my appraisement, it will easily be appreciated by an audience like this.
The sorrowing group on whom the blow has fallen most directly will find their support in Him who is the widow's God and a father to the fatherless; who can and who will, if sought to, give ‘beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and a garment of praise for the spirits of heaviness’. To this supreme and infinite goodness I commend them.
I rejoice that some of the companions of the deceased general are permitted to be present. They have been permitted to come up from the broad Virginian battle-ground to follow these remains to the grave. They will return to the field where battles and marches await them, to achieve new victories, and pluck new honors, we trust, from the grim scenes of war. May God protect and bless them -- give vigor to every blow they shall strike upon the tottering and traitorous Confederacy of the South, and return them to rejoice with us for a Government rescued from destruction, the flag of the Union triumphant everywhere in all our domain, treason punished, and peace blessing once more a war-weary land; and where and when the conflict with the ‘last enemy’ of our race is had, there and then may they also triumph through Christ, in whom they have believed and trusted.
And now, fellow citizens, we go to our last duties in connection with this funeral pageant. Let us give heed to the voice of the Lord, crying unto our city; let us ‘hear the rod and who hath appointed it’. We, too, shall die and not live, and is not here a fitting place to purpose how to live while our swift hours travel past?
These are the times for men to be great, by magnanimous and earnest endeavor, and good by the grace of God as a scorning of all that is vile, if ever they hope to be. We are in the midst of a world's battle; truth and righteousness are everywhere contending with frauds and impurity, and the thunder of cannon, the marching of armed hosts and the shock of battle are only incidental to the mighty conflict. God calls for true men now, men who will be on His side now, and evermore.
Let us be true to Him; and reminded as we are again today how freely men are laying themselves on their country's altar, let us pledge ourselves to each other anew, over these remains to be faithful to the Government, which is perhaps the last as it is surely the best of time.
On February 22 the
reported that during a meeting of the Valley City Lodge No. 86, of F. & A. M., held at the Masonic Hall on February 16, the following resolutions had been adopted:
Whereas, It has pleased Almighty God, the Great Chief Architect of the universe, to remove from our midst, our beloved friends and brother, Gen. Stephen G. Champlin,
And Whereas, While we, ourselves stand as stricken mourners, we remembers and acknowledge the infinite power and wisdom of the hand that chasteneth, and would do all that lies in our power to comfort the stricken parents, widow and bereaved children and friends of our brother, and
Whereas, We feel that in the death of our well-beloved brother we have sustained an irreparable loss, society a true citizens and the Nation a tried patriot; therefore
Resolved, That to the aged parents, the stricken wife and relatives of our dearly beloved deceased brother, we tender our deep, our lasting and continued sympathy and brotherly affections.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be published in the daily and weekly papers of this city, and that a copy of the same be officially transmitted to the parents and wife of our deceased brother, by the Secretary.
Stephen was buried in a place of prominence in Fulton cemetery, near two other well-known young men from Grand Rapids who had perished in the war: Sam Judd who was killed at Fair Oaks while commanding Company A of the Third Michigan infantry and former Old Third solider Peter Weber, who was killed at Falling Waters, Maryland, while serving with the Custer cavalry brigade.
Some years after the war the Grand Army of the Republic Stephen Champlin Post No. 29 in Grand Rapids was named in his honor.
In 1864 his wife applied for and received a widow’s pension (no. 22583). By 1870 she and her son Alexander were living in Grand Rapids’ Fifth Ward.
Until 2001 Champlin's grave remained virtually forgotten, the stone having fallen over and covered by layers of time and dirt. Due to the perseverance and determination of a small group of local citizens, led by Bruce Butgereit and Jeannine Trybus, Stephen's grave is now properly marked with a new headstone and sits as it was originally intended, in a place of distinction within Fulton cemetery.