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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Unending War

JUST A LAD. George W. Martin was just 13 years old when he joined the 10th Vermont Infantry Regiment in 1862. A large boy he misrepresented himself as 18 or 19. He fought with the regiment and was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor.  When he died in Haverhill in 1935 he was the last of the 102 members of the Bradford GAR post. (Bradford Historical Society) 
Members of Bradford's Washington Post #17 of the Grand Army of the Republic and members of the Women's Relief Corps are pictured at a reunion at Lake Morey about 1895. (Bradford Historical Society)

Register for GAR post in Wells River (photo Michelle Sherburne)
 Published in the Journal Opinion, May 20, 2015
 “Mustered out!  And what then?  Are these tattered and dusty warriors only to receive as their recompense the homage of admiring crowds who assembly to witness and welcome their return?”

The Caledonian, July 14, 1865

The Civil War came to an end with the Confederate surrender in April 1865. Despite the grief resulting from the assassination of President Lincoln, communities throughout Vermont and New Hampshire resounded with celebration. By the end of the year most regiments from the two states were mustered out and soldiers returned home. 

This was the bloodiest of America’s wars. For the millions of Americans who were affected by it, the war was often unending. This column deals with Vermont and New Hampshire veterans’ attempts to return, with varying degrees of success, to civilian life. It also describes the attempts of the two states to care for veterans and their families while striving to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The Civil War Trust estimates there were 620,000 casualties from battle wounds, disease and starvation.  Of the 31,650 New Hampshire men who served, 4,882 died.  Vermont suffered 5,224 deaths from among the 34,238 men involved.  It is estimated that for every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died of disease. 

Locally every town felt the burden of the war. Bradford lists 158 men involved and 30 killed or wounded: Haverhill 37 out of 150: Topsham 41 out of 142: and Newbury suffered 32 out of 203. Some families sent more than one man into service and the impact of the losses was widespread.  Articles on five of the significant battles involving local men can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

Modern studies conclude that many of the returning soldiers suffered from “soldier’s heart,” a form of what is now called post traumatic stress disorder.  Civil War combat experiences involved “intimate violence”, such as hand-to-hand fighting.  Soldiers fought side by side with friends and relatives and often saw them die violent deaths.

Those studies conclude that these battle experiences led to an epidemic of emotional, psychological and physical disorders.  Unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicides and mental disease were evident among veterans in some areas.  

Soldiers returning home often carried diseases such as typhoid fever or malaria, They contracted their illnesses during the war, but would remain afflicted  for the remainder of their lives. These affects were evident in both the North and the South, although defeat and destruction added to the plight of Confederate veterans. 

A review of available Vermont newspapers and town histories from 1865 to 1910 indicates that much of this suffering was in silence. As with veterans of other wars, many men came home, put away their uniforms and either never spoke of what they experienced or lied about what the real conditions had been. 

For many it was a private battle, with men unwilling to admit the need for care. The few that are mentioned include a local veteran who died in 1866 from chronic diarrhea resulting from the war, one who was “so badly disabled as to be no use to the community,” another who was unable to care for himself because of a head injury or “intermittent fever” and several others who were “just worn out by the war.”   

Many veterans returned home with a limb missing.  Some were fitted with prosthetics such as those invented by B.F. Palmer, who had lost his leg in a Bradford bark mill accident in 1846.  Newspaper reports mention crippled veterans who adapted to their handicaps and continued to  work as farmers, factory workers, post masters and even as a  governor of Vermont.    

Many did not return home because they saw advantages of relocating to other areas of the nation.  By 1870, over 42% of native-born Vermonters were living elsewhere. The author of the Peacham history concluded that the war “freed men out of their accustomed groove and disinclined many of them to return to the quiet of a rural village.”  New addresses ranged from North Carolina to Nebraska, California and the Dakotas as well as Boston and Chicago.

Whether at home or away, many veterans were highly successful in commercial and government positions.  For the next half century, local and state leaders in every avenue of life counted themselves as veterans of the conflict.  Whether they asked for it or not, their status aw war veterans  was a badge of honor.   

Veterans sought solace in the company of others who understood their traumatic experiences. A number of veterans’ organizations were established. The ost prominent among them, the Grand Army of the Republic , was established in 1866 and with over 400,000 members counted posts throughout the North.

 New Hampshire had 94 posts, including those in North Haverhill, Warren and Orfordville.  Vermont had 117 including those located in East Corinth, Bradford, Fairlee, Post Mills and Wells River.  As with posts elsewhere they were named after local military heroes. 

State and national annual encampments were held. Established first for camaraderie, the G.A.R. took a strong role in promoting pension legislation, founding Soldier’s Homes and giving assistance to needy veterans, their widows and orphans.  Political candidates sought the endorsement of the group and its support was often instrumental in elections. 

The Women’s Relief Corp, established in 1883, was the auxiliary of the G.A.R.  It assisting in support of veterans and promoting patriotic observances. In 1901 the national headquarters for the organization was located in Bradford as the national president was a local resident.  

Other veterans’ groups included the Reunion Society of Vermont and the Orange County Veterans.  In later years the Orange County group merged with the Grafton County Veterans.

 Newspaper reports of the Orange County reunion at Chelsea in September 1884 describe “the grounds for the encampment are very pleasant…there will be an abundance of tents, and fuel, straw, etc will be furnished.  Each soldier should being his blanket and rations.”   Attendees gathered around campfires to hear speeches, fire rifles and cannon and sing old songs while fighting the battles over again.  Other encampments were held in more formal settings.

The New Hampshire Veteran’s Association held its first encampment in 1875. In 1880 it built a hall at the Weirs on Lake Winnipesaukee.  A number of colorful and ornate regimental buildings or barracks were added nearby and encampments were held there yearly.

The largest veterans’ reunion was held in 1913 at Gettysburg to observe the 50th anniversary of the battle.  Over 53,000 veterans, primarily Union, spent six days at a gigantic campground.  Attempts at camaraderie between former enemies were partially successful.  Extending a hand “across the bloody chasm” was just too much for some. Twenty-five years later only 1870 veterans, with an average age 92, attended the 75th anniversary observance. 

I shared this history of veterans’ gatherings with a local Vietnam veteran. He suggested that these get-togethers represent an earlier version of the support-group therapy now offered by the Veterans’ Administration. They help veterans feel less isolated and alone.

Beginning as early as 1870, histories of state regiments were published, written by regimental historians. In the 1890s both states authorized the publishing of official rosters of their participating soldiers and sailors.  Individual accounts, including diaries and lengthy letters to the editors of newspapers told of men’s experiences.

 In 1891, Lt. Thomas White, formerly of Topsham, began writing a series for The United Opinion on his experiences with the 10th Vermont Regiment.  Like the regimental histories, these individual accounts made sure the public remained aware of the veterans’ services and sacrifices.

Many local communities erected monuments. In 1912, Haverhill dedicated its Soldiers’ Memorial and in 1917 Lyme did the same. Both monuments feature an infantryman standing at parade rest, common on monuments across the nation.  Fairlee and Bradford established veterans monuments following the end of World War I.  Regimental markers were also placed at battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam.

To meet the need of aging veterans, Vermont opened its Soldiers’ Home in Bennington in 1887. Within the first 10 years, the home admitted 286 veterans. The Burlington Weekly Free Press reported that many destitute veterans did not take advantage of the Vermont home as “the question of actually leaving their families and going to be cared for at public expense” was too much of a shame.   New Hampshire’s Soldiers’ Home in Tilton opened in 1890 and within the first two years admitted 143 veterans.

Beginning in 1861, the Federal government began awarding pensions to disabled veterans and widows and orphans of the deceased.  At first the benefit for a totally disabled pensioner was $8 a month.  Under pressure from veterans groups, pension laws were repeatedly modified to increase payment rates and make eligibility easier.

In 1893 it was reported that there were 9705 pensioners in New Hampshire receiving benefits and in Vermont there were 10,068. Of course as veterans aged or joined “the bivouac of the dead,” the number of pensioners changed.

As the public’s memories of the war were replaced by other concerns, there was some blowback to the cost of these pensions.  In 1894, these benefits consumed 37% of the federal budget.  This, plus veterans preferences in civil service positions and the failure to provide pensions for Confederate veterans, caused some push back against veteran benefits nationally.   

Between 1865 and 1877, the Federal government pursued a policy of reconstruction of the former Confederate states.  The controlling Republican Party was divided on the methods and policies.  Bradford’s National Opinion urged caution in allowing former rebels back into power.

The Republican Party controlled  politics in Vermont during this period.  The Democratic Party was often linked with terms such as traitor and rebel. In 1875 the Bradford Opinion printed: “A vote for the Democratic ticket was a vote to encourage the rebels in their purpose to overthrow the government.”  The Democrats accused the Republicans of “waving the bloody shirt” to keep alive memories of Southern treachery.

The difficult task of reconciliation between the two sections of the nation was not totally successful.  It failed to effectively rebuild the South, integrate the freed slaves into the social order or resolve the bitter feelings among those who had been affected by the conflict. 

 In addition to helping veterans and their families, veterans’ organizations were dedicated to memorializing their fallen comrades.  Within several years of the end of the war, efforts were made to decorate the graves of their dead. The G.A.R. was instrumental in creating May 30th of each year as Decoration Day and establishing it as a holiday in a number of states.

In 1868 Vermont newspapers described the state’s first observances of Decoration Day. In June 1869, Bradford’s National Opinion published an article from the national G.A.R. supporting the organization’s refusal to decorate the graves of the Southern dead.  “Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not our hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died.”

 Known now as Memorial Day, the observance was made a national holiday in 1971 and moved to the last Monday of May. Memorial Day 2015 was a special one as part of the Bradford250 observances. 

On Sunday, May 24 the Vermont Hemlocks Civil War re-enactors group had an encampment in Bradford. Folks joined them all day to view their camp and watch their activities. That evening the members will gather at the Upper Plain Cemetery to present the stories of Bradford Civil War veterans buried there.  Over 70 residents joined them.   

On Monday, May 25  a ceremony was held on the front lawn of the Bradford Academy to rededicate the Veterans Memorial monument.  A local unit of the National Guard joined the Hemlocks and local veterans and Scoouts in this ceremony.  An audience of over 150 viewed the ceremonies.      

The ranks of surviving Civil War veterans thinned with the arrival of the 20th century.  One of the last surviving local veterans was George W. Martin of Bradford and Haverhill.  Martin was just 13 when he joined the Tenth Vermont Regiment in 1862. He was wounded at Cold Harbor.  When he died in 1935 he was the last of 102 members of Bradford’s G.A.R. Washington Post #17.   The last Vermont veteran was Gilbert Lucier who died in 1944 and New Hampshire’s was James Lurvey who died in 1950.

Upon returning home in July 1865 Pvt. Wilbur Fisk of Tunbridge , a member of the 2nd Vermont Regiment, wrote “If I was asked ‘how it seemed’ to be a free citizen once more, I should say it seems as if I have been through a long dark tunnel, and have just got into daylight once more.”  For other Vermont and New Hampshire veterans there was no such release.

In November 1888, the editor of The Burlington Weekly Free Press editor wrote, “Every armless sleeve, every wooden leg, every scarred and crippled veteran is living proof that war does not end as the smoke of the last battle floats away.” This is a stark lesson Americans learned then but must relearns again and again. 

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