Russell Alexander Alger was born on February 27, 1836, in Lafayette Township in Medina County, Ohio. His parents were Russell and Caroline (Moulton) Alger. He was orphaned at age 13 and worked on a farm to support himself and two younger siblings. He attended Richfield Academy in Summit County, Ohio, and taught country school for two winters. He studied law in Akron, Ohio, and was admitted to the bar in March 1859. He first began to practice law in Cleveland and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1860, where he engaged in the lumber business.
On April 2, 1861, he married Annette Huldana Squire Henry of Grand Rapids. They had six children; Henrietta Fay Huldana (Alger) Bailey, Caroline Annette (Alger) Shelden, Frances Aura (Alger) Pike, Russell Alexander Alger, Jr., Frederick Charles Moulton Alger and Allan Alger. Frederick graduated from Harvard in 1899, served as a lieutenant colonel with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France during the First World War and was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
Alger was the scion of a prominent family, many of whom became involved in 20th century Michigan politics and active in the Republican Party.
His son, Russell A. Alger, Jr., was instrumental in persuading the Packard Motor Car Company to move to Michigan from Ohio; he also built in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a palatial Italian Renaissance style estate, "The Moorings", which was donated in 1949 and became the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, honoring veterans of World War II.
Russell A. Alger had a home in Black River which is in Alcona Township, Michigan, which he maintained while overseeing his lumbering operations.
He enlisted as a private soldier in the American Civil War on September 2, 1861. He was commissioned and served as a captain and major in the 2nd Michigan Cavalry Regiment.
At the Battle of Boonesville, July 11, 1862, he was sent by Colonel Philip Sheridan to attack the enemy's rear with ninety picked men. The Confederate forces were soundly defeated, and although Alger was wounded and taken prisoner, he escaped the same day. On October 16, he was made lieutenant colonel of the 6th Michigan Cavalry.
On February 28, 1863, he was promoted to colonel of the 5th Michigan Cavalry. His command was the first to enter Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on June 28, and he was specially mentioned in the report of General George Armstrong Custer on cavalry operations there. Alger was considered a military strategist and stood with President Lincoln on the battlefield surveying the Union supplies and while pursuing the enemy on July 8, he was severely wounded at Boonesborough, Maryland. He participated in General Sheridan's Valley Campaigns of 1864 in Virginia. On June 11, 1864, at Trevillian Station, he captured a large force of Confederates with a brilliant cavalry charge. Alger resigned from the army on September 20, 1864. On January 13, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Alger for the award of the grade of brevet brigadier general of volunteers to rank from June 11, 1865, and the U.S. Senate confirmed the award on March 12, 1866. On February 28, 1867, President Johnson nominated Alger for the award of the grade of brevet major general of volunteers to rank from June 11, 1865, and the U.S. Senate confirmed the award on March 2, 1867.
In three years, he served in 66 different battles and skirmishes. In 1868, he was elected the first commander of the Michigan department of the Grand Army of the Republic, and in 1889 became its national Commander-in-chief at the Twenty-Third National Encampment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was also a member of the Michigan Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS). Alger's two sons, Frederick W. Alger and Russell A. Alger, Jr. were hereditary companions of MOLLUS.
After the Civil War, Alger settled in Detroit as head of Alger, Smith & Company and the Manistique Lumbering Company. His great pine forest on Lake Huron comprised more than 100 square miles (260 km2) and produced annually more than 75,000,000 board feet (180,000 m3) of lumber. In order to transport the lumber, Alger led his company to create the Detroit, Bay City and Alpena Railroad, of which Alger served as president.
At the turn of the 20th century (following Alger's service as Secretary of War), he and Florida landowner Martin Sullivan established the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company, which milled lumber in Foshee, Alabama and Century, Florida.
In 1884, Alger was elected Governor of Michigan, serving from January 1, 1885, to January 1, 1887. He declined renomination in 1886 and was a presidential elector on the Republican ticket in 1888. Alger's name was placed in nomination for president at the 1888 Republican National Convention. He rose in balloting to 142 votes, with 416 necessary to win, but Benjamin Harrison ultimately obtained the nomination and went on to win the general election. In 1888, Alger was elected as the Commander of the Michigan Department of the Grand Army of the Republic and as the 18th Commander-in-Chief of the GAR in 1889.
Alger was appointed Secretary of War in the Cabinet of U.S. President William McKinley on March 5, 1897. As Secretary, he recommended pay increases for military personnel serving at foreign embassies and legations. He recommended legislation to authorize a Second Assistant Secretary of War and recommended a constabulary force for Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. He was criticized for the inadequate preparation and inefficient operation of the department during the Spanish–American War, especially for his appointment of William R. Shafter as leader of the Cuban expedition. "Algerism" became an epithet to describe the claimed incompetence of the army, especially as compared to the more stellar performance of the navy. Alger resigned at President McKinley's request, August 1, 1899, though he perhaps got the last word on his critics by publishing The Spanish–American War in 1901.
One sidelight of Alger's career in the McKinley Administration was his personal vendetta against former Confederate partisan Col. John Singleton Mosby. Mosby, a famous (or notorious) figure, had been United States Consul at Hong Kong, China, under Hayes but had been replaced with the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland. Upon his return to the United States, Mosby had taken a position obtained for him by his close friend former President Ulysses S. Grant with the Southern Pacific Railroad which he held for fifteen years. When the railroad changed ownership, Mosby lost his position so when McKinley became President, he returned east to seek out a position with the new administration. Mosby had known McKinley for many years through his involvement in Republican politics both in Virginia and California.
Unknown to Mosby as he headed east with hopes of a good position with the new administration, Alger was doing all in his power to thwart the former Confederate guerrilla. His hatred for Mosby was personal. While Alger served with Sheridan in the Shenandoah in 1864, a number of his command had been caught burning homes in the Valley and had been executed by members of Mosby's command as war criminals. Alger never forgot nor forgave what had happened for though Mosby was not present at the time of the events, he had concurred with the actions of his men. So despite having been asked to send a list to the McKinley administration of what posts he desired, by the time he arrived from the west coast Mosby found that all had been "unexpectedly" given to someone else and he was forced to return to the west coast disappointed and unemployed. But Alger's involvement with the defeat of Mosby's hopes did not remain hidden. It was reported in the May 11, 1898, San Francisco Call under the headline "Alger Dislikes Mosby" and it is probable that until he read that article, the 65-year-old Mosby had no idea that his failure to obtain a position was anything other than bad luck.
On September 27, 1902, Alger was appointed by Michigan Governor Aaron T. Bliss to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of James McMillan. He was subsequently elected by the Michigan State Legislature to the Senate in January 1903. He served until his death in Washington, D.C. in 1907. During a memorial address in remembrance of Senator Alger, Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin said of the late senator: "No man without noble purpose, well-justified ambitions, strong fiber, and splendid qualities in abundance could have carved out and left behind him such a career." He was chairman of the Senate Committee on Pacific Railroads during the 59th Congress. He is interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan.
Alger County, Michigan, is named for him. A monument by Detroit sculptor Carlo Romanelli, consisting of a bronze bust of Alger mounted on a stone pedestal, is located on the grounds of the William G. Mather Building in Munising, Michigan. It was erected in June 1909, with funds provided by the heirs of Alger and by the Board of Education of the Munising Township Schools. A memorial fountain in Grand Circus Park, where it intersects East Adams and Woodward in downtown Detroit by sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon was dedicated in Detroit in 1921.
In 1898, a movie was made, entitled General Wheeler and Secretary of War Alger at Camp Wikoff, that documents an official visit as Secretary of War. Camp Wikoff was in New York, and this was an early event that permitted the McKinley administration to garner support from the New York newspapers.
In May 1898, his War Department established Camp Russell A. Alger on a farm of 1,400 acres (5.7 km2) called "Woodburn Manor" near the small communities of Falls Church and Dunn Loring, Virginia. In its brief existence, 23,000 men trained there for service in the Spanish–American War. Faced with a typhoid fever epidemic, it was abandoned the month that the War ended (in August 1898), and sold the following month. It is commemorated by an official Virginia historical marker.
Alger County, Michigan is named after him. It is a small community founded in the late-19th century located in the area of the lower peninsula where he oversaw lumbering and railroad operations. Russell A. Alger street is in Black River, Michigan, and the town contains an eponymous "Alger" street. So too does Lincoln, Michigan. Alger’s Camp was located a short distance from Mud Lake (now Jewell Lake) in Alcona County, Michigan.
The Grosse Pointe War Memorial is housed in one of the Alger family's former homes.
The Southeast side Grand Rapids, Michigan neighborhood Alger Heights is named after him.
In 1942, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Russell A. Alger was planned, but cancelled before construction.