(HOST) The 4th of July is most closely associated with the Revolutionary War, but historian and commentator Howard Coffin reminds us that important events also occurred on this date during the Civil War – as reflected in the experiences of two Vermont brothers.
(COFFIN) Of all this country’s Independence Days since the first, the most momentous was probably that of July 4, 1863. That day the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to Ulysses Grant, assuring the vital Mississippi River’s soon return to Union control. The previous day the Union Army of the Potomac had defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, Pa. The Confederacy never recovered from those two hammer blows.
As that history played out, on the Lake Champlain shore at West Haven, storekeeper Volney Rice and his wife Adeline waited anxiously for word from their soldier sons Sam and Herbert, serving in the 14th Vermont Regiment. News reports had the Army of the Potomac on the move north toward Pennsylvania, in pursuit of Robert E. Lee‘s forces. The local paper dated July 2 told of a "reported battle between Meade and Grant." the next day, the headlines were "Severe Battle in Pennsylvania" and "The losses heavy."
The Rices had been expecting their boys home within a week or two, since the 14th Vermont’s nine months enlistments would expire any day now. Then they learned that a great battle was likely. The stress level quickly rose in West Haven, and on July 4 Adeline Rice wrote to her sons:
"Well absent children, I have a great many fears in regard to your safety. We learn you are on the march and ere may have been obliged to face the enemy cannons’ mouths – You don’t know the anxiety we feel – We understand there has been a battle in the direction you are going. We have not got the particulars about it yet – I feel so uneasy I don’t hardly know how to contain myself."
Next day, Volney Rice wrote his sons, "I fear you are among the slain at Gettysburg city. I hope you will not delay in writing so we can know the worst of it – I think I am afraid you have had to face the Rebel guns. If you have had the luck to escape battle I shall be glad and hope the ruler of all rulers will protect you in doing your duty and be spared to return home once more."
The Rices did not know that when they wrote both letters, the 14th Vermont had already been under a heavy cannonade, then in the path of Pickett’s Charge. The Second Vermont Brigade, including the 14th, had played a major role in the Union victory at Gettysburg. Son Sam would soon write from a hospital that in the battle "I got a clip on the head just above my right ear with a piece of shell. It is doing first rate." Son Herbert was unscathed.
The long wait in West Haven ended in late July, when the Rice boys safely returned. Down the waning season the former soldiers surely paused upon hearing the first rumbles of summer thunder advancing against the hills of home, the long enduring front line of Vermont’s most western ridge.