Coffin: Antietam and Vermont

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(Host) On Monday, we observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Antietam – an event in which Vermont troops fought, and one that author, historian and commentator Howard Coffin says led to a fundamental change in American values.

(Coffin) The Vermont State House Cedar Creek Room almost became the Battle of Antietam Room.

The question of what Vermont’s official Civil War memorial should depict was hotly debated after the war.

Many veterans wanted the First Vermont Brigade’s advance onto the field at Antietam portrayed by artist Julian Scott. They treasured the spectacle of their 3,500 man battle line, flags flying, marching through a golden cornfield to a position near the Union center. But there the Vermonters stayed, while ahead Confederate generals worked cannon along a thin line primed for the breaking. At nightfall only 25 members of the Vermont Brigade were among the 23,000 casualties that made September 17, 1862 the war’s bloodiest day. Had the brigade been ordered forward, the Civil War might have been won that day.

Though Antietam was a bloody draw, it may have been the most important battle of the Civil War. For Abraham Lincoln saw the Union success he had long been looking for and issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation stating that on January 1, 1863 slaves in the rebelling states would be free.

The proclamation officially made the Civil War a fight to end slavery, and Lincoln said it was the most important thing he ever did.

The result, initially, was wrath north and south. Confederates said that emancipation would lead to bloody slave revolts. Abolitionists protested that the proclamation did not go far enough. But Lincoln knew it went as far as politically possible in achieving his primary purpose, to make America a true land of the free. It also ended any chance that any countries in anti-slavery Western Europe would come to the Confederacy’s aid.

The day the Proclamation took effect, slaves in Union occupied areas were suddenly free. A young Booker T. Washington, then on a Virginia plantation, years later recalled: “As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted late into the night. Most verses…had some reference to freedom. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer I presume) …read the rather long paper…After the reading we were told that we were free…My mother leaned over and kissed her children while tears ran down her cheeks. She explained that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, fearing that she would never live to see it.”

As for the State House painting, Cedar Creek was selected because more Vermont regiments were engaged there than at Antietam. But surely Antietam would have done just fine.

Listen to Howard Coffin discuss Antietam and Vermont’s role in the Civil War on Vermont Edition

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