Vt. Gettysburg role recognized History: Howard Coffin's book, 'Nine Months to Gettysburg,' throws light on the little-known role of Vermonters in the pivotal battle of the Civil War.

July 26, 1998|By boston globe

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - "Nearly inconsolable" after the failure of Union campaigns in the spring of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called for 300,000 more men to serve nine months in the Union army. Nearly 5,000 Vermonters answered the call.

Green soldiers from Vermont's Green Hills, they would play a pivotal role in the most storied battle of the war: the epic July 1-3, 1863, conflict at Gettysburg.

After the battle, a New York Times account concluded that a Vermont brigade "did more than any other body of men to gain the triumph which decided the fate of the Union."

But somehow over time, the Vermonters' story got lost. Books, films, even tour guides at the Gettysburg battlefield scarcely mentioned their contributions.

Now research by historian Howard Coffin of Montpelier, Vt., is reawakening appreciation for the accomplishments of Vermont soldiers led by Brig. Gen. G. J. Stannard.

Steve Wakefield, a Civil War re-enactor, said Stannard's men performed a wheeling maneuver that helped break the Confederate onslaught up Cemetery Ridge known as Pickett's Charge.

No one ever doubted that soldiers from Vermont fought at Gettysburg. But exactly what they did, and how important it was, is not well-known, Wakefield and others said.

The 20th Maine Regiment - led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain - is the New England unit perhaps most associated with the battle of Gettysburg. But that hardy unit held the far left of the Union line at Little Round Top on the battle's second day - rather than on the third day, when the Vermont brigade played its role.

"I've been on battlefield tours at Gettysburg and never heard the word Vermont, " said Brad Limoge, an amateur Civil War historian from Morrisville, Vt. "Until Coffin's book came out, I don't think anyone understood how Pickett's Charge actually worked."

Mainers may still say their ancestors saved the Union Army. But historians including James M. McPherson and D. Scott Hartwig have praised Coffin's "Nine Months to Gettysburg." He draws on old diagrams of military maneuvers, eyewitness accounts in letters the soldiers wrote home, and other reports to show conclusively, he claims, that Vermonters played a decisive role.

The 5,000 men who joined the Vermont Brigade in 1862 were a well-educated bunch, many with political ambitions, most in their early 20s, Coffin says.

Veteran soldiers, who typically enlisted for two or three years, derided the Vermonters as opportunists, "nine-month boys" trying to get through their service as safely as possible. But other Yankees supported them enthusiastically.

Remembering the unit in October, just after it had formed, Pvt. Ralph Sturtevant wrote: "Our camp was thronged with visitors from all parts of [Vermont] of high and low degree, beautiful women and red-cheeked girls and their anxious faces ... there to make farewell visit and say good-bye."

Clothing never was large enough or long enough for the Green Mountain boys. Supplies were inadequate. "The tents are so short that those who sleep in them get wet either at one end or the other," Lt. Col. Roswell Farnham wrote home.

When the men reached Gettysburg near the end of their term, they had hardly fought at all, but disease and the privations of camp life - rain and chill or heat exhaustion, crowded conditions, inconsistent food - had taken a fierce toll, reducing their ranks to about 2,500.

The two armies collided just north of Gettysburg on July 1. Union troops fled through the town but managed to hold onto the high ground along Cemetery Ridge as darkness fell. Fighting resumed and intensified on July 2 as the Vermonters helped plug a hole in the Union line, recaptured four cannons, and took about 80 Confederate prisoners.

The decisive moment, Coffin claims, came on July 3.

On that day the Union line resembled a giant fish hook, stretching three miles from Culp's Hill, along Cemetery Ridge south to the Round Tops; Confederate soldiers were massed to the east along Seminary Ridge. Previously, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had attacked both ends of the Union line; on July 3, he decided to attack the middle.

His main target was the portion of the Union line near a clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge. To one side, crouching in a ravine, the Vermonters in three regiments formed the most advanced part of the line.

About 3 p.m., after an earth-shaking, two-hour artillery duel, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Confederates started across the mile of farmland toward the Union line.

Lt. Frank Haskell, from Tunbridge, Vt., described the scene as the enemy advanced: "Every eye could see his legions, an overwhelmingly resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us! Regiment after regiment ... the red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the arms of [15,000] men gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel."

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