Vermonters at Gettysburg

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(Host) Commentator Howard Coffin reflects on events leading up to July 4th, 1863.

(Coffin) One hundred forty years ago this afternoon the rains fell hard on the battered fields around Gettysburg. The soldiers, when they had time to think about it, said the rain had come to wash away the blood. Though the rain lasted all day and well into the night, it could never wash away all the blood, not on fields were 50,000 men had fallen.

The Second Vermont Brigade worked in the rain to bury their dead, pausing to hear the airs and marching tunes the bands would strike up along the Union lines. From those lines the day before some 900 men of their brigade commanded by George Stannard of Vermont had swung out into the shot and shell of no mans land and smashed the southern flank of Picketts Charge. Now as the rains drove across the great battlefield, newspapers throughout the north were beginning to tell of Union victory at Gettysburg, and of the decisive blow delivered to Robert E. Lee’s army by the Vermonters.

While the burying went on, far to the west the Confederate commander at Vicksburg was surrendering his rebel citadel on the Mississippi bluffs to Ulysses S. Grant. Soon Lincoln would say, The father of waters again flows unvexed to the sea. The Confederacy would never recover from the first days of July, 1863.

Back in Pennsylvania, Standards Vermonters soon joined the Army of the Potomacs belated pursuit of Lees Army of Northern Virginia, marching down into Western Maryland. There they were halted and told their nine month enlistments were up. But before turning eastward for home, the veterans of the First Vermont Brigade came marching by, headed south toward war, and the Green Mountain brigades cheered each other.

Then the Old Brigade disappeared off down the dusty road and over the green hills headed for the horrors of Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Winchester, Cedar Creek, Petersburg and, at last, blessedly, Appomattox. The First Brigade had not fought at Gettysburg. But the Second had seen the worst of the brutal bloodbath that involved nearly 170,000 Americans.

When Stannard’s men came home as heroes, they basked for a brief time in the glow of their fame, and loved far more their homes. When recruiters came in winter to entice them back to the ranks, most of them said No. They had seen the worst of war and felt they had done their part. They had been men of war.

Now they would be men of peace for all the years they would live in the Green Mountains, though some would join the Independence Day parades and festivities. And each July Fourth would bring memories of the vast mournful roar of the Civil Wars greatest battle – and the relief of a blessed rain.

I’m Howard Coffin from Montpelier.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian, who’s specialty is the Civil War.

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