Joel S. Harrison was twenty-two years old when he joined the Union cavalry for service in the Civil War. A resident of Lansing, Michigan, he volunteered for service on September 18, 1861 as a private in the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Just ten days later, Harrison was assigned as a musician in the regimental band. He continued to serve in this capacity until mustered out of service at Ball’s Cross Roads, Virginia on September 4, 1862.
The 1st Michigan Cavalry served in the Cavalry Brigade commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. The unit became one of the most famous cavalry units to serve during the war. Custer’s Brigade made a heroic charge during the battle of Gettysburg that made his battle cry, “Come on,
Wolverines!” one of the stirring moments in the history of the fight.
Although Harrison left the Regiment in the fall of 1862, the 1st Michigan remained in United States service until March of 1866. During its service, 3244 men served with the Regiment. A total of 10 officers and 92 men were killed in action, with 5 officers and 246 men lost to disease. During its service, the Regiment participated in 67 different skirmishes and battles from Winchester, Va., Mar. 23, 1862 to Appomattox Va. April 9, 1865.
After the war, Private Harrison was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veteran’s organization. He was a member of the Charles T. Foster GAR Post 42 in Lansing, Michigan. Harrison filed for a veteran’s pension on August 1, 1892. Looking at this original photograph of Harrison in his GAR uniform coat, one is reminded of the famous Memorial Day speech by the Supreme Court Justice (and Civil War veteran) Oliver Wendell Holmes who lamented: “…the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those that come after us…”