A local historian treasures the peculiar human stories of the Civil War.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Even from a palliating distance of 150 years, the casualties of the United States Civil War seem unfathomable. In a grisly, protracted conflict played out in bloody, eyeball-to-eyeball battles over thousands of meadows, forests, and villages across dozens of states, more than 600,000 Americans died, and hundreds of thousands bore the indelible scars of physical wounds.
“What humbles me when I study it,” says longtime Civil War scholar Jack Anderson, Director of the Woodstock Historical Society, “is that three million men, farmers, merchants, lawyers, you name it, left their families, left their jobs for the cause they believed in, and were perfectly willing to die for it.” Bitter divides over political, economic, and moral consequences of the slavery entrenched in southern states, and the desire of some to expand it, drove the country to war in 1861. In this sesquicentennial year of America’s most devastating conflict, the Woodstock area and Vermont offer abundant opportunities for both fledgling students and seasoned aficionados to embrace history’s lessons.
Anderson’s fascination with the Civil War developed over a number of years. He was first inspired to study history in college by a “really good” high school teacher, and later taught middle and high school social studies himself. In the early 1970’s, Bruce Catton’s Pulitzer Prize winning Stillness at Appomattox hooked Anderson on the Civil War. Through years of reading, studying, and teaching, he accumulated a wealth of knowledge, and a massive library.
The discovery that three of his four great, great grandfathers fought in the war, one with the Vermont Cavalry, and the other two with regiments in Maine and New Hampshire, deepened his interest. Anderson’s grandmother used to tell him the story of her grandfather, who was shot in the ankle at The Wilderness, a thick and tangled forest near Chancellorsville, Virginia that was the site of chaotic battles in 1863 and 1864. “Grampy’s” wound never filled in, and years later he would tell his granddaughter, ‘this is where I was shot in the Civil War,’ and allow her to put her finger in the hole left by the bullet.
“When she was older and I’d sit with her in the nursing home and hold her hand,” says Anderson, “I’d look at that finger and think, that’s my connection to [well known generals] George Armstrong Custer and Alfred Pleasanton and Phil Sheridan and the Union Cavalry.”
And although Anderson has studied the war’s battles, examined its strategies, and can quote its statistics, he most loves to impart his sense of history through the human stories of the men who fought and the families and communities that supported them. Amongst many chronicles of heroism, tragedy, and destruction, a few peculiar tales stick out.
General Daniel Sickles of New York, for example, was one of the war’s quirkiest officers. Future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton represented the general-to-be when, in 1859, Sickles shot his wife’s lover dead; he was acquitted with the nation’s first successful temporary insanity defense. At President Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers to fill Union armies, Sickles recruited hundreds of men with the ambition of becoming a general. When the governor of New York refused to sanction his “brigade,” Sickles used political sway to persuade officials in Washington to federalize his troops and appoint him their commander. He was often absent from the field, and when present, was known to disobey or modify orders. During the Battle of Gettysburg, his right leg was shattered by a cannon ball. Sickles sent the amputated limb to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where, it’s said, he visited it annually.
In one of a number of incidents along the Canadian border devised to distract Union attention, Confederate soldiers attacked St. Albans, Vermont in October of 1864. A group of twenty or so escaped prisoners of war, posing as civilians, had gathered in the town where they rested in its hotels and cased local banks, livery stables, and even the Governor’s mansion. On the 19th of that month, they corralled citizens onto the public green while they robbed three banks of over $250,000; one unlucky visitor was killed and at least one local was injured. The raiders intended to leave the town burning as they rode out, but most of their chemical “grenades” fortunately failed. They escaped across the border; many were captured by Canadian authorities, who rebuffed attempts by the United States to extradite them. After the incident, Vermont’s Governor raised two Calvary units, a total of 1,500 men, and stationed them in St. Albans for the duration of the war.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, the country’s standing army amounted to only about 16,000 men. At the new President’s call for volunteers, in response to Confederate secessions and shots fired on the federal Fort Sumter in North Carolina, Vermont raised the first of its many regiments. In May of 1861, seventy-some boys and men from Pomfret, Hartford, Barnard, Woodstock, Bridgewater, Hartland and other nearby towns formed that first regiment’s Company B. After a few days’ training in Rutland, nearly 800 freshly minted soldiers departed for Fort Monroe in Virginia. All along their route, throngs of spectators reportedly cheered and lauded the men.
“These giants of the hills,” wrote Vermont Adjutant-General Theodore S. Peck years later, with their “magnificent physiques” and springs of evergreen jauntily affixed to their caps “struck the hearts” of loyal Unionists.
In Virginia, the soldiers constructed entrenchment ditches at their camp ten miles from the Fort. They drilled and learned the routines of life in the field. The Vermont camp, according to historian George Benedict, was “a model of cleanliness and good order.” The regiment was, he added, “an example of attention to duty, and of freedom from the habits of rowdyism and pilfering which characterized too many of the troops.”
In June, Union troops, including the Vermont men, initiated the first active land engagement of the war, in the Battle of Big Bethel. It was an endeavor fraught with error and mis-calculation, and Union forces retreated without achieving their objective. The only effective assault, wrote historian Benedict, was led by Colonel Peter Thacher Washburn of Woodstock, who had to relinquish ground gained when he was not reinforced. Private Rueben Parker, also of Woodstock, was picked up by Confederates when he lingered to help what he thought was an injured colleague; he later proclaimed himself the first prisoner officially exchanged in the war.
A few weeks later at the close of their four-month term, the men of the First Regiment returned home to Vermont. In the meantime, the President called for more volunteers, now for three-year terms. In response, Vermonters raised five regiments to form “The First Vermont Brigade.” Ultimately, over 34,000 Vermonters served in the Civil War, and more than 5,000 died.
Woodstock supplied 284 men, says Anderson, and more came from surrounding towns. Some of their stories are included in the History Center’s summer exhibit, From Big Bethel to Appomattox: Woodstock and the Civil War. The exhibit includes, for example, the dress sword of Major Solomon Erskine Woodward.
“When I look at it, I like to think of it being on [Woodward’s] hip,” says Anderson of the recent addition to the History Center’s collection, “and how traveled it was, and how it made it back [to Woodstock].”
Woodward, who originally joined Vermont’s First Regiment and subsequently re-enlisted with the regular, United States army, saw action in battles at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chicamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. Although he returned to Woodstock after the war, worked in his father’s woolen mill, got married, and fathered a child, he died at age 41 in a sanitarium. “Many men were crippled or diseased [after the war], rheumatism, arthritis, consumption were big,” says Anderson, “they went to war and bad nutrition, bad habits, sleeping on the ground…shortened their lives.”
Visitors to the exhibit can also look on the placid face of Barnard-born Sergeant George Pratt. There’s a photograph of him, in uniform, hand resting on an empty, formal chair. Anderson speculates that Pratt may have been engaged to Olivia Briggs of Woodstock; before the war he lived with her family and worked on their farm. In his first two-year term of service, Pratt’s regiment fought on many battlefields, including Antietam and Gettysburg. He re-enlisted in the winter of 1863. The following spring, “his regiment was part of the renowned ‘Upton’s Charge,’ a bloody, three day encounter in the rain,” says Anderson, “[Pratt] was killed, he never came back, he lies in an unmarked grave… beneath the sod in Virginia.” The Vermont Standard marked his passing with a single line in a list of recent casualties, “Company C, Sergeant George Pratt, Woodstock, May 10.”
The Woodstock History Center at 26 Elm is open for the summer from 1 to 5 pm on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 11 am to 3 pm on Sundays.
For information about Civil War sesquicentennial events in Vermont, visit www.vermontcivilwar150.com/index.html.