Vermonters have a long record of military service
MIDDLEBURY — At the top of Merchants Row in Middlebury a relic of history watches over the town green.
Standing at just over 30 feet high and constructed of granite excavated from quarries in Barre, an ornate statue marked with the legend “Middlebury to Her Soldiers” commemorates the men who left their families and homes in the Champlain Valley to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. The artilleryman, cavalryman, marine and infantryman at the four corners of the pedestal have stood silent watch over downtown Middlebury since its dedication by retired Col. John Ilsley on May 30, 1905.
This and the many other similar monuments around the state serve as constant reminders of Vermont’s long history of military service.
Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys are well-known as the liberators of Fort Ticonderoga from the British in the American Revolution.
Vermont was again on the front lines of battle in the War of 1812. Commodore Thomas Macdonough led a fleet of boats built in Vergennes in the pivotal Battle of Plattsburgh.
As the first state to outlaw slavery, Vermont entered the Civil War from a strongly abolitionist position. In 1861, after rebels fired on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, S.C., harbor, recently inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln called on the country to raise an army of 75,000 soldiers. The Green Mountain State responded by sending the First Vermont Regiment, 782 men from 10 towns, including Rutland, Brandon, Middlebury, Woodstock and St. Albans. Officers at Norwich University provided training to companies of volunteers before they were shipped south.
They served at the first battle of the war, the Battle of Big Bethel, in Virginia in June 1861. More Vermonters volunteered for service that year with the creation of the 1st Vermont Brigade, comprising five infantry regiments totaling 4,898 men that were incorporated into the Army of the Potomac under Gen. George McClellan. The “Old Brigade” as it was called, was the only brigade in the Army of the Potomac composed of men from one state and known by the name of its state, an exception to War Department Policy.
“It was unheard of at the time,” said Howard Coffin, a historian and author of four books on Vermont’s role in the Civil War. “The reason being that the government assumed that if one state suffered too heavily, they might pull out of the war effort.”
Rather than replenish units as they were depleted, Vermont continued to send volunteers throughout the war. With a population of 350,000, Vermont sent a remarkable proportion of its residents to fight in the Civil War — 34,238 soldiers served in 17 infantry regiments, three cavalry units and four artillery batteries. The Green Mountain State supplied three sharpshooter companies to the Union armies, more marksmen per capita than any other state.
The Vermont Brigade saw action in nearly every major engagement from the Battle of Bull Run at the onset of the war to Appomattox Court House, which saw the surrender of the Confederacy.
Vermont’s volunteers earned renown for their performance. During the four days of engagements at Gettysburg in 1863, the 2nd Vermont Brigade was credited for helping stop Pickett’s Charge, the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Confederate army to turn the battle in its favor.
When Vermont troops moved to defensive positions outside of the nation’s capital, stalling a Confederate invasion route to Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln greeted the Vermonters at the edge of the Potomac River as they arrived.
“I did not come to see generals,” the president said. “I came to see the Vermont Brigade.”
In 1864, during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign towards the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., the 2nd Vermont Brigade held a crucial crossroads during the Battle of the Wilderness and suffered heavy losses. While Gettysburg saw the heaviest losses for both sides (approximately 50,000 killed over three days), the bloodiest day for Vermont came at the Battle of the Wilderness in Spotsylvania County, Va., where approximately 1,000 were killed in the first four hours. They held their position through the night and lost 249 men the next day, fighting from a prone position.
“Time and time again, Vermonters were at the crucial point,” said Coffin, a Montpelier resident. “They were good soldiers because they were farm boys — they could shoot and could take orders.”
By the end of the Civil War, Vermonters suffered a total of 1,832 men killed or mortally wounded in battle; another 3,362 died of disease or from other causes, for a total loss of 5,194. More than 2,200 Vermonters were taken prisoner during the war, and 615 of them died in or as a result of their imprisonment.
Sixty-four Vermonters received the Medal of Honor after their service in the Civil War, including 13-year-old Willie Johnston, a drummer boy from St. Johnsbury, the youngest person to receive the award.
TWO WORLD WARS
Vermonters’ dedication to service to their country did not waver. During World War I, more than 4 million men and women served overseas in combat or support positions (see the Vermont Adjutant General’s report here). After the declaration of war in 1917, according to Department of Defense records, 15,877 Vermonters entered the armed services. A total of 770 came from Addison County, with Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes providing 105, 176 and 117, respectively. Burlington provided the most of any city, at 1,453.
The large number of civilians entering the Army, Navy and Marines created a concern about a shortage of labor during farming season so agriculture agencies and organizations in the state established the Vermont Farm War Council and created a camp to train young Vermont boys in farm work as a means of helping assure an adequate workforce at wage rates farmers could afford to pay. The camp, called Camp Vail, was located on 2,000 acres in Lyndon Center and trained three classes of 50 young men, ages 16-20, in dairying, haying, wood cutting and other agriculture skills.
“The older sons ‘Over There’ are pointing the way,” read one promotional pamphlet. “What else can we do but follow it?”
Meanwhile, the war in Europe continued. By the time the armistice was signed in 1918, 1,246 had died.
During the Second World War, over 50,000 enlisted or were drafted, according to DoD records. Almost every family sent at least one person in the armed forces. By 1945, 1,233 Vermonters had lost their lives.
KOREA, VIETNAM AND TODAY
After the fall of fascism, the United State’s military power turned to confront the spread of communism in the Pacific theaters. The federal records are less complete on the state of residence of soldiers post-World War II, but it is clear that 94 Vermonters were killed in Korea and 100 died in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the northbound information center in Sharon on Interstate 89 was opened on Oct. 30, 1982, in honor of the 22,908 Vermonters that served in Vietnam. It was the first government-sanctioned Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation.
Most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicate 3,851 veterans from the Korean War and 15,980 from the Vietnam War still live in Vermont. It also reports 13,222 veterans from the first Gulf War.
Today the Pentagon does not provide state-by-state breakdowns of troops sent overseas. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Vermont Army and Air National Guard members have seen deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq. Latest data from the U.S. Department of Defense state that 6,829 servicemen have died in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn in Iraq and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
On Nov. 11, 2010, a commemoration was held at a memorial in Randolph for 40 Vermont servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first memorial of its kind in the country.
Today, Vermont is home to approximately 49,000 veterans including 3,000 women veterans and 23,000 veterans age 65 and older.
Middlebury’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7823 will hold a memorial service next week on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, starting at 11 a.m., the time at which the World War I armistice took effect, at their Exchange Street headquarters. The event will include a prayer, a message from the post commander, a salute to veterans and the playing of taps. A rifle salute will conclude the ceremony. Post commander Kenley Hallock said the occasion is important to families with members who have served or continue to serve abroad.
“It gives them a chance to think about and reflect on these persons,” he said.
A veteran of 21 years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard, this will be Hallock’s seventh year as the commander of Post 7823. The occasion is an emotional experience for him every year.
“It’s not long enough to be boring, but enough to touch some people,” he said. “It happens to me every year.”