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Remembering Vermont’s Civil War legacy

At the site where many of the state’s soldiers assembled for battle, BUHS students honor the men who served

BRATTLEBORO—For Stephen Baker, Sept. 21 is a date with poignant family and patriotic significance.

In 1861, on that day, soldiers marched from a hastily-established military encampment in Brattleboro to the train station, the first leg of their journey to Washington, D.C., and eventually, the battlefield of the Civil War.

The 1,043 men, including his great-grandfather, Franklin Stockwell, comprised the Fourth Vermont Regiment, a unit mostly made up of young Vermonters who left their fields and farms to fight for the Union cause on Sept. 21 of that year.

Forty-five years later, to the day, “Defenders of the Union,” a monument created by sculptor Allen George Newman from granite quarried in West Dummerston, was dedicated on the site of the encampment.

And this Sept. 21, 105 years to the day of that dedication, a rededication ceremony for the 1906 Civil War monument was held at Brattleboro Union High School, which sits on the site of the former encampment.

Baker, whose father James founded the Brattleboro newspaper, magazine and stationary store that still bears the family name, brought a photograph with him to the ceremony. It was taken by his mother at a family gathering in Vernon in the early 1930s.

In the picture, a two-year-old Stephen Baker sits on the knee of his great-grandfather.

An 18-year-old from Dummerston when he went off to the war, Stockwell was among a small group of surviving veterans who attended the 1906 ceremony.

Stockwell, a musician in Company F of the regiment, completed his first term of service, and on Dec. 15, 1863, he re-enlisted for another term. He was mustered out in Brattleboro on July 13, 1865.

“He received two enlistment bonuses, and he used that money to buy a farm in Guilford,” Baker said.

Stockwell died in 1932 and is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. He was one of the fortunate members of the Fourth Vermont Regiment to survive the war unscathed and live to a ripe old age.

Nearly half of the men he served with were killed or wounded in battle, or died of disease. Five members of the regiment were awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Fourth Regiment was part of the First Vermont Brigade, which fought in every major Civil War engagement from the first Battle of Bull Run to Appomattox. It suffered the highest casualty rate of any brigade in the history of the U.S. Army, with 1,172 killed in action.

The Fourth fought at Antietam in 1862, and took a reserve role at Gettysburg in 1863. Its hardest year was 1864, when it suffered greatly at the Battle of the Wilderness and Weldon Railroad.

In March and April 1865, the regiment emerged victorious in the Shenandoah Valley and at Petersburg, victories that helped hasten the end of the war.

As part of the Vermont Brigade, the Fourth broke through the rebel lines and caused the capture of the rebel stronghold. Gen, Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, surrendered days later.

In his 1890 history, The Old Vermont Brigade, Aldace F. Walker described the regiment soldiers.

“They were called on for the hardest work; they never knew when they were whipped; they stood together like men and they fought every battle to the end; not one of their colors was ever in a Rebel hand; their appearance was quiet and their speech was often homely, but their hearts were stout and their aim steady,” Walker wrote.

“They were never surprised or stampeded; no panic ever reached them; their service was intelligent, faithful and honest; they had the full confidence of their commanders; and their countrymen will forever honor their memory.”

In the Union army, Vermonters were held in the highest regard by their commanders and their fellow soldiers. Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson called them “hardy, self-reliant and courageous, and always ready for the serious business of warfare.”

The echoes of history

The record of these young men remains indelible, and at last Wednesday’s event at BUHS, it was brought back to life by the students and staff at the school that now sits on the grounds of the military camp and hospital where the Fourth began its service to the Union 150 years ago.

Brian McCarthy read an excerpt of a speech from Vermont Congressman Kittredge Haskins at the 1906 monument dedication ceremony.

“Let us dedicate this monument not only to commemorate this historical locality and the brave men who gave up all for their country’s weal, but as an installment on that debt of gratitude that a hundred grateful generations cannot fully pay.

Dedicate it with all its wealth of meaning to the soldiers whose graves we yearly decorate with the sweetest flowers of the maiden month of May.

Dedicate it to the living as a sacred admonition to maintain the republic that has cost the whole world so much...

Dedicate it to the countless multitudes who are crowding toward us, but whose feet have not yet touched the shores of time.

Dedicate it as a sponsor for human rights and a protest against human wrongs in every nation and in every clime.

One hundred years, yea many hundred years will pass away and other assemblages may gather here; among them, possibly will be our descendants, but so far removed that we will be hardly remembered. But that assemblage standing where we stand today, may commune with us, though long since passed away, through this patient sentinel, and he made to feel the thrill and catch the heart-beat of all those present on this occasion.”

BUHS Assistant Principal Chris Day, himself a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan as an officer in the Vermont Army National Guard, reminded students that “this land, presently populated with thousands of people engaged in the promise of public education, was once a hospital and military camp where thousands of people engaged in efforts to defend our Union of States. This site was then, and continues today as, hallowed ground.”

Nearly 40 percent of the 35,000 soldiers that Vermont sent to war went through Brattleboro. Later, as the war progressed, a military hospital was built at the site, treating 1,500 patients at the height of the war.

Vermont gave more per capita in blood and treasure than any other state in the Union. Virtually every household in the state was affected by the war.

One poignant moment of the ceremony came when student Kendra Mulhall read a poem that appeared in The Vermont Phoenix about the day the Fourth Regiment marched off to war.

Slowly through the misty street

comes the measured tramp of feet

and a thousand forms sweep by

going forth to win or die.

Waving colors o’er their head

blue and white with bars of red,

proudly greet the evening sky

o’er the hearts that beat so high.

Stepping to the roll of drum

down the dark’ning street they come,

marching forth with gallant heart

Ready each to bear his part.

To resign, it may be life,

eager but to join the strife.

Cheers on cheers rise to the sky,

bravely comes their last good bye;

though the aching heart be weak

trembling lips are forced to speak.

Leaving they for coming years

childhood’s sobs, and woman’s tears.

Sadly here to watch and wait

for the footfall at the gate,

for the step upon the floor,

that may come, perchance no more.

Will they tread a homeward track?

God in mercy bring them back!

The ceremonies were organized by social studies teachers Joe Rivers and Bill Holiday, with help from the Brattleboro Historical Society and American Legion Post 5. Holiday said the planning for the event started in the spring.

The entire student body of the middle and high schools attended the ceremony, and Holiday said he was impressed by how seriously the students treated the event.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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