Historical Society’s new exhibit

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton says that a new exhibit of Vermont history is impressive – and also very moving.

(Slayton) The Vermont Historical Society’s new exhibition in Montpelier accurately and effectively captures the complexity of Vermont’s past. Entitled “Freedom and Unity: One Ideal, many Stories,” the exhibit uses that theme to explore many of the trends and conflicts that have shaped Vermont.

No episode in our 200-plus years of experience as a state and a people united us more closely than the Civil War – and of course none involved a greater or more violent conflict. The VHS exhibit touches most of the appropriate Civil War bases – it displays uniforms, weapons, banners and mentions the St. Albans Raid, the role of women, the home front.

But perhaps most poignantly, in a lovely touch that helps bring Vermont’s Civil War experience to life, visitors to the exhibit will hear an arresting ballad that memorializes the sacrifice Vermonters made in the Battle of the Wilderness. Composed and sung by folksinger Pete Sutherland, the ballad – “Wilderness Road” – tells how Asa, the eldest of three farm boys, joins the Union Army and fights at the Wilderness in May of 1864.

The ballad’s chorus suggests the presumed glory of war, declaring:

“On Wilderness Road/ Down in Virginia they say
That the boys of Vermont, they carried the load
They were heroes that day…”

But exhibit-goers who listen closely will hear a tragic story unfold in Sutherland’s ballad, as young Asa is ordered to advance toward the rebel lines. A roar of gunfire follows, “the ground is mowed down by the Devil’s own broom,” and then the scene shifts back to Vermont.

Pete Sutherland sings of the hard life Vermonters have always known as they try to wrest a living from an uncompromising land and climate: “We’ve never known nothing but hard work and hope,” he sings. “It’s a hard row we’ve hoed…”

And the carnage of the Civil War didn’t make that row any easier. Asa comes home to “a measure of joy,” but with future hopes smashed – his right arm has been lost to a Rebel volley.

Sutherland concludes his song with a dark vision of destruction and loss:

“The blood of a thousand young Yankee boys flowed…
Like leaping young streams; like the deepest of dreams,
That pass clear away, On the Wilderness Road.”

It’s a haunting song, and (whetrher intended or not) it echoes quietly throughout the latter half of the VHS exhibit – just as the civil war itself continued to shape much of Vermont’s history in the late 19th and early 20th century.

There’s much more to see and hear in this remarkable exhibit by the Vermont Historical Society. It’s entitled “Freedom and Unity,” and can be seen during regular state hours at the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. Plan to spend a couple of hours or more, to really appreciate this exhibit.

It will be the introduction to Vermont’s past for many tourists, and Vermonters as well. And it’s a good one.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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