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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Call To War: April 1861

Orange County Telegraph, published in Bradford, headlines Lincoln's call for troops.

Originally published on April 11, 2007
Journal Opinion 

“Civil War Begun!” shouted the headline in the April 19, 1861 Orange County Telegraph.   This Bradford newspaper went on: “War, long dreaded, long anticipated, but with the hope that it might by some means be averted, has at last come upon us.”  In the most tragic war in our nation’s history, Americans would slaughter Americans in historic proportions.  By the time the war ended in 1865, 620, 100 Americans would be killed and numerous others wounded or displaced.

By the time that issue went to press, efforts at compromise between the North and South had failed, Abraham  Lincoln had been inaugurated the 16th President,  nine states had seceded from the Union,  the Confederate States of America had been established and  Fort Sumter in  Charleston Harbor had surrendered to Confederate bombardment.  On April 15, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation announcing an “insurrection” and calling for 75,000 troops for a term of three months.

In Vermont, Governor Erastus Fairbanks called the Legislature into special session to respond to the “armed rebellion.”  In his book Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War, Howard Coffin describes Vermont’s response to Lincoln’s call.  That Vermonters would do their “full duty” summarizes not only Vermont’s initial response, and the sacrifice its citizens would bear for the rest of the conflict.

Unprepared as Vermont may have been in 1861, by 1865 fully 10 percent of the population of the Green Mountain State would enter the conflict.  No family in Vermont was untouched.  Given the combination of a strong (although divisive) abolitionist movement and a fierce love for independence and the Union,  no less could have been expected of Vermonters.   

At the special Legislative session, West Fairlee’s representative Judge Stephen Thomas made the passionate plea “that the whole strength and power of Vermont, both of men and money, will be put into the field to sustain the government.” His efforts to double the governor’s request for a half million dollars to fund the state’s military response was accepted. 

It was the response of the Bradford Guard that filled the Orange County Telegraph’s editions. In the previous decade local militia in Vermont had declined in number and activity.  Jeffrey Marshall, editor of A War of the People states that the Bradford Guard was “one of the best-trained of the pre-war militia companies.” 

Under the command of Major Harry Worthen and Captain Dudley Andross, the Guard became Company D of the First Vermont Infantry with an enlistment of three months.  Composed of 77 officers and men, many of whom were new recruits, this company drew members from throughout the area.  They ranged in age from 18 to 46 and included students, farmers, mill workers and clerks.  No doubt these young men were drawn by the anticipation of adventure in a short conflict as well as by high ideals of patriotism and loyalty to friends as comrades in arms.  

As the date of their departure drew near, the “patriotic ladies” made uniforms and “such other articles as the Guard would likely need during their absence.”  Two businessmen placed a notice under the headline “We are off to War,” asking that all persons with unsettled accounts to settle them at once, so that they might leave them “with free consciences to fight the traitors to the Union.”  At a special Bradford Town Meeting it was voted to raise $2,000 to support the soldiers and their families.  Similar meetings were held in other towns.   

On Sunday afternoon, April 28, the whole company and its supporters gathered in the Congregational Church to hear Rev. Silas McKeen deliver a strong sermon.   McKeen called upon the men to show  “uncorruptible patriotism” and good courage strengthened by the conviction that their cause was just. Realizing that these young men would encounter the army-life temptations of alcohol, gambling, Sabbath-breaking and prostitution, he admonished them to follow a life apart from these ungodly pursuits.  

On the morning of Thursday, May 2, the Guard marched from its Armory to the Bradford railroad station as a crowd estimated at two thousand accompanied.  Their subsequent arrival in White River Jct. was met by Judge Thomas, a thirty-four gun salute and dinner.

That welcome was repeated at Troy and then at New York City, where they marched down Broadway.  By then each man had tucked a sprig of evergreen in his cap in keeping with their Green Mountain Boys heritage.  They sailed from New York on May 11th for Fortress Monroe, Virginia.  For many, this was their first adventure away from home.

It was then that the Bradford company suffered its first and only casualties.  Benjamin Underwood of Bradford died of measles and George Lougee of Fairlee of “quick consumption.” In the Civil War, death from disease outnumbered battle deaths.  This was the result of large numbers of men gathered together without acquired immunities and with unhealthy living conditions.  

For two weeks after their arrival at Newport News on May 23rd, the men would experience army life with its drills, building projects and boredom. Lt. Roswell Farnham would write, “The boys find that there is not quite so much fun about it (the war) as they first supposed.”  

On Friday, June 7th, the major event of the three-month enlistment came at the battle of Big Bethel.  The combination of raw troops, inexperienced officers, poor information and an untimely order to retreat left the company “without glory.”  In other letters, Farnham wrote of the “blunders of political generals” but asserted that “Bradford had no occasion to be ashamed of us.”

Their term of enlistment drawing to a close, the company returned to Vermont.  Many would re-enlist for three years.  In his later tribute to the Company, ex-Governor Farnham wrote, “These men stepped out from the peaceful walks of life, into the duties of soldiers and here received a training that had its influence upon all the Vermont regiments during the war.”      
The actions of the Bradford Guard are mirrored in the actions of other men over the next four years. Forty-six from Topsham would die of wounds or disease while in the service.  Bradford enlisted 158 men with 18 casualties. Many Newbury men would join the Wells River Company that became Company C of the Third Regiment.  Of the 49 Fairlee participants, 11 died.  New Hampshire towns contributed in a like manner to their state’s war participation.  Of Orford’s 113 enlistees, 30 would die.  Groton lost 17 men of its 79 participants from battle wounds, disease and prison conditions.  Piermont and Haverhill both met their quota and suffered similar casualties. 

Men from this area would be involved in every major battle of the eastern theatre.  They participated as officers and enlisted men.  They joined the infantry, navy, cavalry, artillery and sharpshooters.  They took prisoners and were taken prisoner.  Many survived horrendous battles, other did not.   After enlistments characterized by months of “sheer boredom punctuated by hours of stark terror” many of the survivors returned to take up their lives in Vermont.   For the next fifty years they would shape Vermont’s response to economic, political and social challenges.  On occasion they would gather in every declining numbers to reminisce about the time they helped to change the history of the world.   

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