BRATTLEBORO—When this former hub town for Vermont’s Union troops first debated how to honor its Civil War soldiers a century and a half ago, some locals proposed a plaque listing names, while others promoted and ultimately unveiled one limited to numbers.
“This monument commemorates the loyalty and patriotism of the men of Brattleboro, who fought for liberty and the Union in the Great Rebellion of 1861-1865,” its 40-word statement began. “Enlisted 385. Died in Service 31. Erected by a grateful town A.D. 1887.”
The bronze plate went on to turn a bluish green until a recent student history project revealed an unseen layer of tarnish: The numbers don’t account for soldiers who were people of color or lower class.
That’s why local leaders are set to dedicate a $10,000 second marker on the town common this coming Juneteenth holiday — Sunday, June 19 — to tell the rest of the story.
“In 2021, the Brattleboro Selectboard authorized the placement of this additional plaque to acknowledge the structural racism and classism that were built into this monument, and to set the record straight by honoring those who were previously excluded,” the 380-word addendum says in part.
BAMS students caught the omissions
The project is the culmination of over two years of work in the community spearheaded by years of research by Brattleboro Area Middle School students, under the direction of teacher Joe Rivers, with the cooperation and support of the Brattleboro Historical Society.
The discrepancy arose when recent students at Brattleboro Area Middle School — located on a Civil War military campground that hosted a third of all Vermont troops — researched the record with help from the town historical society.
Students discovered that, although the plaque notes 385 locals enlisted and 31 died in service, revised rosters have reported higher numbers.
Students learned that several local men of color who joined the Army didn’t travel with Vermont regiments but instead with a U.S. Colored Troops infantry unit out of Massachusetts. At the same time, wealthier Brattleboro residents arranged for Black or lower class “substitute” soldiers to serve in their place.
“The research discovered that eight of the soldiers who signed on as substitutes died during the war, or as a result of sustaining medical conditions during the war,” according to a news release from Bill Holiday of the Brattleboro Historical Society.
The website vermontcivilwar.org and book Men of Color, to Arms!: Vermont African-Americans in the Civil War confirm that several Brattleboro soldiers of color — some born locally, others said to have escaped slavery — aren’t recognized on the plaque.
Add other omissions, and Brattleboro’s Civil War numbers total at least 65 more enlistees and 25 more deaths than initially reported.
Committee develops second marker
A committee of students, residents, and representatives from the local American Legion, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and Windham County NAACP have helped design a second marker of bronze and granite to report “approximately 450 men served for Brattleboro and at least 56 died as a result.”
“This monument,” new text says next to the original, “failed to recognize the Civil War service and sacrifice of African Americans, working class laborers, and those who served as substitutes for privileged White men who chose not to serve.”
Peter Elwell, recently retired town manager, who’s organizing the event, described the plaque as “corrective,” because it addresses the omissions of the current memorial, and “interpretive,” because “it provides history and context to help people understand how the original omissions happened and how the corrections came to be.”
Brattleboro is the first but may not be the last community in the state to face the issue. Of the more than 700 Black Vermonters recorded by the 1860 census, at least a quarter served in the Union army, with at least 10 losing their lives, according to historians.
In addition to Elwell, speakers at the dedication ceremony for the new marker include Priya Kitzmiller, Avery Bennett, Anabelle Thies, Joe Rivers, Curtiss Reed, Jr., Ian Goodnow, and Mel Motel.
The new marker is set for dedication this Sunday at 2 p.m. as part of Juneteenth, the date when news of the Union victory and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the most remote of the former Confederate states, with help from some of the Brattleboro soldiers being recognized.
“That is why holding the dedication ceremony for the new plaque on Juneteenth is so intentional and appropriate,” Elwell said.