BRATTLEBORO—The annual Memorial Day service is usually held in front of the town’s memorial to the people who served in the wars of the 20th century — from World War I to Vietnam.
This year, the service paid tribute to the 46 men from Brattleboro who gave their lives in the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of the end of that bloody conflict.
That war killed 620,000 Americans, a scale of mass death never before or since experienced by this nation.
Decoration Day, the original name for Memorial Day, came into being in 1868, when wreaths and flowers were placed on the graves of Civil War dead in the then-new Arlington National Cemetery.
On Monday morning on the Town Common, Brattleboro attorney Tom Costello led a service that honored the hundreds of young men who left Brattleboro to join the Union Army in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865.
One of those men, George White Hooker, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1891 for his heroism. John Lowery, an Army veteran and Brattleboro native who served two tours in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division, read the citation:
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant (Infantry) George White Hooker, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 14 September 1862, while serving with Company E, 4th Vermont Infantry, in action at South Mountain, Maryland.
“First Lieutenant Hooker rode alone, in advance of his regiment, into the enemy’s lines, and before his own men came up received the surrender of the major of a Confederate regiment, together with the colors and 116 men.”
Hooker, who died in 1902 and is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, was one of 32 Vermonters who won the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
“Brattleboro has a storied history of service,” Lowery said. “The great Edmund Burke once famously said the only thing needed for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. First Lieutenant Hooker certainly showed us how to stop this from happening.”
Lowery, who is now studying at the Vermont Law School and apprenticing with Costello in his Brattleboro law office, said that he “remembers and honors the many brave men who fought, and made the ultimate sacrifice, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, every day. But today is a day to remember all who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Seven Brattleboro Union High School students — Tyler Clement, Gideon May, Dante Fernandez, Zeb Hathaway, Gwendolyn Harris, Jake Gartenstein, and Breanna Sheehan — read the name and a brief biography of each of the 46 Brattleboro men who died during the war. Standing in two files on opposite sides of the town’s Civil War monument, they approached the microphone, holding the name of the soldier they were honoring.
The silence of those assembled on the Common during this 15-minute reading was interrupted only by the sound of traffic and the spring birds.
Costello said 35 of the 46 had ancestors in this town, “some of them going back to the very beginning.” Three of the men had come to Brattleboro from Ireland. And eight of the men were African-American, “unable to enlist in Brattleboro because, at that time, there weren’t African-Americans in the Union Army. ”
Those eight went to Boston and joined the all-African-American units, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
“And all those young men, in many cases, were barely older than these extraordinary students who have done this for us today,” said Costello, a Marine combat veteran during the Vietnam War.
Speaking for his classmates, Fernandez said what they did “was but a small gesture for such a great sacrifice. In truth, no amount of gratitude that we pay will ever repay the debt that we owe them.”
Two days of tribute
Monday’s service was the culmination of two days of events marking the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
On Sunday afternoon, 11 scholarly presentations highlighted different aspects of Vermont’s participation in the Civil War.
A banquet at American Legion Post 5 that evening took place in conjunction with a talk by Civil War historian Howard Coffin, who also presented earlier in the day.
A staunch advocate for Vermonters and their role in the war, he said the historical record is clear that, at so many key junctures of the war, it was the Vermonters turned the tide for the Union.
He recalled the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864 and the order issued by a New York infantry commander during the chaos of that battle: “Don’t run, men, ’til you see the Vermonters do.”
Coffin also recalled the words of General Martin T. McMahon, who was chief of staff of the Sixth Army Corps, who perhaps summed up best why the Vermonters, in particular the First Vermont Brigade, were so beloved by the Union commanders:
“They were honest farmers turned vagabonds. They were simple countrymen changed into heroes. They were quiet townsmen that had become rovers. They stole ancient horses and bony cows on the march. They pillaged moderately in other things. They swept the dairies and stripped the orchards for miles where they traveled. They chased rabbits when they went into camp after long marches, and they yelled like wild Indians when neighboring camps were silent through fatigue.
“They were ill-disciplined and familiar with their officers. They swaggered in a cool, impudent way, and looked down with a patronizing Yankee coolness upon all regiments that were better drilled, and upon that part of the army generally that did not belong to The Vermont Brigade. They were strangely proud, not of themselves individually, but of the brigade collectively, for they knew perfectly well they were the best fighters in the known world.
“They were long of limb and could outmarch the army. They were individually self-reliant and skillful in the use of arms, and they honestly believed that The Vermont Brigade could not be beaten by the combined armies of the rebellion.”