Historic Detroit

Alpheus Starkey Williams Monument

Major Gen. Alpheus Starkey Williams sits atop his horse in the middle of Belle Isle, checking a map as his steed seems to saunter toward downtown.

Williams, a Detroiter, was a congressman, a judge, a lawyer, a postmaster, a newspaper publisher and a failed gubernatorial candidate, but he made a name for himself in the military, serving in the Mexican-American War and for the Union in the Civil War.

He was born Sept. 20, 1810, in Saybrook, Conn., and went on to graduate from Yale College in 1831 and moved to Detroit in 1836 to practice law and enlisted in the local militia. He became a Wayne County probate judge in 1840, serving until 1844, when he became the editor of the Detroit Daily Advertiser until 1847. It was at this point that he left the city to serve in the Mexican-American War as a lieutenant colonel of the First Michigan Infantry on Dec. 8, 1847. After being mustered out on July 29, 1848, Williams returned to Detroit and became the city’s postmaster from 1849-1853. In 1861, he was commissioned a brigadier general and, four years later, a brevetted major general. The majorly mustachioed Detroiter would go on to see action in some of the Civil War’s key battles.

Ol’ Pap

He faced off against Major Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley; played a role at the end of the Second Bull Run campaign; fought in the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Resaca; defended the Potomac and, in the Battle of Gettysburg, fended off Confederates on Benner’s Hill. And Williams and his men participated in Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Mud March and marched on Atlanta with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Unlike his fellow Union leaders, Williams was not a West Point graduate, and was often passed over for promotions and praise. But to his soldiers, he was “Pap” Williams, a nickname he earned because he treated his men like they were his sons. He was said to have felt sorrow over each casualty. He wrote one of his daughters, Mary, back in Detroit in 1864: “Early in the war, I had a curiosity to ride over a battlefield. Now I feel nothing but sorrow and compassion, and it is with reluctance that I go over these fields. Especially so when I see a ‘blue jacket’ lying stretched in the attitude that nobody can mistake who has seen dead on a battlefield. These ‘boys’ have been so long with me that I feel as if a friend had fallen, though I recognize no fact that I can recollect to have seen before. But I think of some sorrowful heart at home and oh, Minnie, how sadly my heart sinks with the thought.”

Giddy-up, Plug Ugly

When riding into these key Civil War battles, Williams was riding Plug Ugly, a large warhorse that he preferred over a show horse named Yorkshire. The latter was his sports car; Plug Ugly was his Ford F-150. Williams wrote in a letter to his family that Plug Ugly “is admired by everybody and pronounced by all as the finest animal in the army.” In another letter he wrote that the horse “is a regular old soldier. … For a year and a half we have been daily companions. … I should grieve to part with old Plug Ugly.” Plug was injured several times in battle, even lost most of his tail, but he took a licking and kept on ticking, carrying Williams through Gettysburg. Old Plug finally tuckered out in the summer of 1864, and Williams sold him for $50. The tired soldier died soon thereafter.

Vote for Alpheus

After leaving the military on Jan. 15, 1866, the general did what many other Civil War leaders did: He got involved in politics.

Williams was named the minister to San Salvador (now El Salvador) after the war and stayed in the post until October 1869. At this point, he launched an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1870 as a Democrat, losing to Republican incumbent Henry P. Baldwin, who is best remembered for his efforts to build the State Capitol. Undeterred, the general dusted himself off and ran as a Democrat in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. He was elected in 1874 and again in 1876, serving from March 4, 1875, until he suffered a stroke in the U.S. Capitol and died on Dec. 21, 1878. He is interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit.

Honoring ol’ Pap

Though he died in 1878, the push to honor this dedicated public servant didn’t get started until decades later. The General A.S. Williams Association was formed April 17, 1911, in order to get him a monument so that he wouldn’t be forgotten like many of the battles he had fought. The Common Council appropriated $15,000 (about $330,000 today, when adjusted for inflation) for the site and base of the monument, and later set aside another $10,000 ($220,000 today) for the foundation and pedestal. In April 1912, it cut another check for $30,000 ($660,000 today) for the sculpture. The total price tag was about $55,000 (about $1.2 million today).

While the statue was commissioned in 1912, it was delayed nearly a decade because of World War I. Sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady of New York was given the commission for what would become Detroit’s first equestrian statue. Shrady is best known for another statue of a man on his steed: The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Grant Memorial, unveiled in 1909, took Shrady 20 years to complete and is strikingly similar to the Williams Monument.

The monument of Detroit’s mounted hero was unveiled by the Loyal Legion and city officials on Oct. 15, 1921. A band played as a muslin shroud slipped away revealing the general and ol’ Plug Ugly cast in bronze atop a large block of white granite. Shrady cast Williams atop the horse studying a map of the battlefields during a storm, perhaps symbolic of the tempest in the union at the time. A weary ol’ Pap wears rain gear with his hat pulled down over his eyes as a tired ol’ Plug trudges on through the mud. The monument sits in the middle of Central and Inselruhe avenues, creating a rather haphazard traffic circle that can create confusion during heavy traffic. In May 1934, the Detroit Common Council looked at moving the statue closer to the Douglas MacArthur Bridge, but the general held his ground.

On one side of the monument’s pedestal, it proclaims in all caps:

“The Michigan Commandery of the
military order of the
Loyal Legion of the United States
and citizens of Detroit
have erected this tribute
to the valor and abilities of
Alpheus S. Williams, lieut-colonel
First Michigan Infantry volunteers
in the war with Mexico
Brig-general and brevet maj-general
United States volunteers
in the Civil War”

The other reads:

“Hero of two wars
Judge, editor
Postmaster, diplomat
Member of Congress
An untiring servant
of the people
An honor to the
City of Detroit”

There also is a Williams Avenue in the Gettysburg National Military Park that is named in his honor.

Fading memories

In 1959, Wayne State University Press and the Detroit Historical Society published a collection of Williams’ letters to his family as “From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams.” The book helped to raise his legacy as a leader of the Civil War.

The statue was restored in 1999-2000 by the Detroit-based Oliver Dewey Marcks Foundation in partnership with the Detroit Recreation Department. The Marcks Foundation has restored other Detroit monuments, such as the Abraham Lincoln statue by Alfonso Pelzer at the downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library.

Never forget

Over the years, Civil War veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic would venture out to Belle Isle to lay wreaths at the monument. Perhaps they had been one of Pap’s “boys.” But the last of Detroit’s Union veterans would be gone come 1942, and the memory of the general and his ever-ready steed would be largely forgotten. To many, one of Michigan’s mightiest warriors was now merely “some dude on a horse.”

Legendary Detroit Free Press editor and columnist Neal Shine urged in a February 1988 column not to forget the Great Lakes State’s great heroes. He told readers to visit the general and Plug and “spend a few minutes looking at the somber face of Maj. Gen. Williams and think of the summer day in 1862 when he led 3,000 shouting young men from Michigan across an open wheat field near Cedar Mountain, Va., and of the 1,200 who were lying in the field when the fight ended.”

Remember that there is a reason this man, this legendary Detroiter, was honored with such a majestic monument.