Salisbury to honor Civil War hero; descendants come from afar
SALISBURY — The date was April 2, 1865, and Salisbury’s Lester Hack was a long way from home, in a whole world of hurt.
Hack, a sergeant with the 5th Vermont Infantry, Company F, was comforting a dying comrade as bullets flew during the Third Battle of Petersburg — one of the final engagements of the Civil War. As the story goes, Hack got fed up with the hostilities around him and resolved to take dramatic action. So with rifle in hand, he rushed around 200 yards across the Virginia battlefield to single-handedly take on a group of soldiers from the 23rd Tennessee who had been rallying around a Confederate flag.
Hack waded into the group of rebels, swinging his rifle. He eventually captured the Confederate flag, tied it to his waist, and took several prisoners back to camp.
For this action, Hack was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government.
Hack’s legacy, and that of other area Civil War soldiers, will be celebrated at the Salisbury Community School at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, with the participation of two of Hack’s great-grandchildren who will be meeting each other for the first time. And it is no coincidence that the event will be staged at the local school, built on the very grounds that Hack was farming when he mustered into service with 19 other Salisbury residents at the start of the great war between the states in 1861.
The event is being organized by the Salisbury Historical Society to mark the community’s 250th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Building the occasion around Hack seemed like a natural thing to do, noted historical society President Barry Whitney Jr. Hack and Middlebury Postmaster Amasa Tracy (Battle of Cedar Creek) were the two Addison County soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
Whitney explained Salisbury Historical Society members wanted to make the May 5 event more than a simple display with text and a couple of old photos.
“We started looking for descendants,” Whitney said.
And they succeeded.
They tracked down one of Hack’s great-granddaughters, Lisbeth Johnson, in Washington state and a great-grandson, Paul Smith, in New York. Salisbury officials reached out to the pair, who agreed to participate in what will not only be a celebration of their mutual military ancestor, but also allow them to meet each other for the first time.
Johnson, reached en route by cell phone, said she is looking forward to the May 5 festivities. She will be bringing some interesting Lest Hack memorabilia, including the remnants of his original Medal of Honor (that was badly damaged in a 1925 fire) and a booklet of war stories passed on by Lester Hack to his ancestors.
Johnson, 62, noted that her father as a young child would listen spellbound to some of Grandpa Hack’s soldier stories. Johnson made sure to transcribe many of those stories into a booklet before her dad passed away.
“I valued those stories so much,” Johnson said.
One of those stories involves Hack’s heroics during the First Battle of Fredericksburg during the fall of 1862. Under the orders of Major Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, Union troops built a series of pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in the first step of a planned assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. But Union forces didn’t act quickly enough, as Confederate forces mustered near the river and beat many of the Union forces back. Among them was Hack, then a private, who volunteered to be one of the last to leave so that he could disable one of the pontoon bridges.
Adding to the suspense was the fact that Hack was wielding a dull axe, slowing his progress in cutting the ropes that held the bridge to the riverbank.
“Fortunately, he was very strong,” Johnson said, and he was able to slice through the ropes, sending the bridge downstream.
But he could not afford to stand around and watch his handiwork. He beat a hasty retreat to his fellow troops through a hail of bullets unleashed by rebels shooting from the other side of the river.
Hack made it home in one piece after the war, and would eventually marry and settle in Ticonderoga, N.Y., where he is buried. He died on April 24, 1928, at the ripe old age of 84.
“Both Salisbury and Ticonderoga claim him,” Johnson said of Hack.
In all, 79 soldiers from Salisbury enlisted for duty in the Civil war. Many of them would not survive the hostilities.
The May 5 event is free and open to everyone, and refreshments will be served. The Salisbury Community School located on Kelly Cross Road. Any questions or comments should be directed to Barry Whitney Jr. at 247-4340, or [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonin