The Civil War explored in Vermont people and places
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | July 01,2013
Photo by Len Emery
A history lesson of Civil War Vermont from Howard Coffin and the role the 16th Vermont Volunteer Infantry played in the defense of Washington during the Civil War from October 1862 to August 1863 and was a member of the 2nd Vermont Brigade. The inscription on the headstone would suggest that not all who served died as a direct result of enemy fire.
SPRINGFIELD — Something abides in Howard J. Coffin’s soul about the Civil War.
Coffin’s latest book about Vermont and the Civil War brings the war home, county by county, town by town.
The Civil War is personal to Coffin, a seventh-generation Vermonter. He had six relatives who served in the war, most from Coffin’s hometown of Woodstock.
He said one of his earliest memories about what the war meant to Vermont was the story he heard from his mother about his mother’s grandfather, Elba Jillson, who was found dead in his bed, long after the war.
His great-grandfather died during an immense late-winter snowstorm at his son’s home in the hills of Pomfret in 1923, and his neighbors shoveled the three-mile distance from the Jillson farm to the Grange hall, so great was the respect held for Civil War veterans, he said. His great-grandfather had been a private in the 9th Vermont.
So it’s not by accident that the book is entitled “Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont,” the title borrowed from a quotation from famed Civil War commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine: “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger.”
“I was interested in the Civil War before I can remember,” he said.
The book is a labor of love and work: Coffin put more than 150,000 miles on three different cars going to every Vermont town at least once to research 2,500 sites that have a strong and particular tie to the Civil War. He said the idea of the book came from the late Peter Jennison of Countryman Press.
Coffin, a former Rutland Herald reporter and press secretary to former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., has now written four books about Vermont and the Civil War, and worked extensively for battlefield preservation.
Coffin’s Civil War expertise was recognized Sunday, as he was one of three speakers at the Gettysburg National Park’s 150th anniversary program on the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863. Coffin’s talk on Vermont’s pivotal role in Picket’s Charge was broadcast live Sunday afternoon on C-SPAN3.
“If, as they say, the battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton, the Battle of Gettysburg was won on the village greens of Vermont,” he said, with a trace of Vermont pride.
His research started in town halls, he said, with town clerks, guiding the former newspaper reporter to the local experts and amateur historians. Too often he was told the town’s most informed historian had recently passed away.
“This book came just in time,” he said.
The sites include historic homes, public spaces, and places best visited with the imagination.
In Springfield’s case, it’s the Common, which was a drill ground for Springfield’s soldiers who later joined A Company, Third Vermont, under the command of Pickett’s Charge hero Col. Wheelock Veazey, who later went on to head the national Grand Army of the Republic, the equivalent of the American Legion.
In Chester, it’s a Main Street home, now a bed and breakfast, that back in the 1800s, was the birthplace of Brig. Gen. Edwin Stoughton, who commanded the 4th Vermont, and then the 2nd Vermont Brigade until his capture by Confederate commander John “Grey Ghost” Mosby. His brother Charles, also raised in Chester, took over command of the brigade.
“Stoughton is terribly important,” said Coffin, pointing out the former home of the general, now called Chester House. He was a “handsome devil,” who nonetheless was not equally admired by his troops, he said.
In Rutland, the city fairgrounds were so important, he said. Sharpshooter trials were held there, where Vermonters had to compete to qualify.
In downtown Rutland, the old Bardwell Hotel hosted both Mary Todd Lincoln after the war, and abolitionist John Brown’s widow, before the war. She was accompanying her husband’s body back to the Adirondacks. Her husband’s body stayed at the train station, he said.
One of the most beautiful sites in the state, he said, is a former house site in North Craftsbury, where what Coffin says is “another dimension” prevails, and you get the sense of a family who sent four boys to the war. Three died, and one came back disabled.
“Being there, I call it a heart feeling. Something was there, ‘something abides,’” he said.
But the best site in the state, he said, is the Statehouse in Montpelier.
“It looks just as it did, and so much happened here,” he said, when the Legislature voted $1 million to start the Vermont war effort.
The Statehouse also is home to many great Civil War paintings, most notably the Battle of Cedar Creek.
And Coffin said the bust of Lincoln by Larkin Mead, a study for Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill., is “magnificent.”
“One eye shows toughness, and one eye utter kindness,” he said, noting it is rumored that Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed Lincoln in the 2012 film, came to the Vermont Statehouse to study the bust as part of his extensive preparation.
Coffin said 5,224 Vermonters died in the Civil War, either from wounds in battle or disease from the poor living conditions in the camps.
“That’s actually not enough,” he said, saying he believed the number should be closer to 6,000, because it didn’t include the soldiers who died shortly after they came home.
Reading one of the Civil War gravestones in Springfield’s Summer Hill Cemetery, Coffin finds that one young soldier of Company E, James Hogan, died falling off a train at age 21, before he ever saw battle.
“What a waste, good lord,” said Coffin, trying to trace history in the ruined marble headstone, the stones supplied by the government. “Marble sadly doesn’t last,” he said.