(Host) Vermont wasn’t a state yet at the time of the Declaration of
Independence, so there weren’t many fireworks here. But writer,
storyteller and commentator Willem Lange says we sure made up for it
four score and seven years later, at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Almost every year on the Fourth of July, if we’re able, Mother and I
sit down to watch the long film Gettysburg, usually with some friends.
July 4th is the day Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, shattered
by three days of fighting at Gettysburg culminating in Pickett’s
Charge, began to withdraw toward the Potomic River. We take a break halfway
through the film for a quick supper, and watch the last of it as the
darkening sky around us reverberates with explosions celebrating the
country’s Declaration of Independence.
The first Independence
Day was no big deal for Vermont, as the state hadn’t yet been admitted
to the Union – though during the Revolution, it fought for it at the
same time it formed a republic independent of it. It’s doing much the
same thing today with health care reform: We’d love to join the rest of
you, but if you can’t get it together, well, we’re gonna try to go it
The Second Vermont Brigade, commanded at Gettysburg by
General George Stannard, had a lot to do with General Lee’s retreat. The
day before, July 3rd, it had been positioned at the left-center of the
Union line on Cemetery Ridge to meet Pickett’s charge. I’ve walked the
course of that catastrophe a few times, toward the famous clump of trees
at the Union center, and could see clearly the sloping field where the
The right-hand brigades of Pickett’s division
charged straight for the Second Vermont, but suddenly veered left toward
the clump of trees. Stannard spotted the opportunity, swung two
regiments in a pivoting movement, and poured fire at close range into
the flank of the attacking Virginians.
The commanding general,
George Meade, later said, "There was no individual body of men who
rendered a greater service at a critical moment then the comparatively
raw troops commanded by General Stannard." General Abner Doubleday
agreed: "It is to General Stannard…that the country is mainly indebted
for the repulse of the enemy’s charge and the final victory of July 3 .
[His] brilliant flank movement… greatly contributed to, if it did not
completely insure, our final success."
So today’s a day to commemorate that fearful battle for what Lincoln later called "a new birth
of freedom"; to picture the survivors writing letters home to Vermont,
telling of the struggle and the deaths of their friends, and perhaps
wondering if the folks back home had enough help to get the hay in.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, remembering and giving thanks.