Teaching the Civil War
The following is an extract from a 1903 text-book designed to teach Vermont history, but without any specific grade level assigned. Fraught with errors and overly simplistic, it was, nevertheless, an effort to explain the war, which is something too many schools today fail to do. (See also Miriam Irene Kimball's 1904, Vermont History For Vermonters)
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I am desirous to learn your views as to the expediency of legislation in the Free States at the present time touching the affairs of the General Government and the action of certain Southern States. . . . Should the plans of the Secessionists in South Caroline and the cotton States be persevered in and culminate in the design to seize upon the National Capital, will it be prudent to delay a demonstration on the part of the Free States assuring the General Government of their united cooperation in putting down rebellion and sustaining the Constitution and the dignity of the United States Government? --- Extract from a letter of Governor Erastus Fairbanks to the governor of Connecticut in 1861.
VERMONT's Status on the Slavery Question
The position of Vermont on the question of human slavery has never been equivocal. Her official expression on the matter was made in the very first article of her constitution in the following words:
No male person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law to serve any person as a servant, slave, or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.
Before the constitution had been distributed the officers of the new state began to interpret the spirit of this article; and from the time when Ebenezer Allen in 1778 freed the slave Dinah Mattis, who had been
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taken among the prisoners of a raid near Ticonderoga, and gave her a certificate of her emancipation duly recorded in the office of the town clerk at Bennington, down to the President's call for troops, Vermont had stood stanchly for the freedom of man. In 1803 Judge Harrington of the Supreme Court said that a bill of sale from Almighty God was the necessary proof that one man could hold another as his slave.
In 1828 the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was at Bennington, editing the Journal of the Times, which, although run primarily for campaign purposes in the political race of John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson for the presidency, showed unmistakably the trend of its editor's views on the slavery question. Garrison announced as one of the great objects of his life the emancipation of slaves. Clear and vehement were his utterances. "We are resolved to agitate this subject to the utmost," said Garrison; and he sent to Congress a petition signed by twenty-three hundred and fifty-two citizens of this state requesting Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The government of that district rested with Congress, and it was literally true that negroes were driven to market past the doors of the national capitol wherein sat the chosen apostles of American liberty; but the appeal was ahead of the times.
Public men in the state kept an anxious eye on the great lurid cloud of national politics. Time passed without bringing war, until in 1861 the governor of the states wrote to the governor of one of the neighboring states on the duty of the North in this issue. This
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action of the chief executive of the state shows that he was fully abreast of the times and aware of the significance of the action of the South in this great crisis.
VERMONT'S PREPARATION FOR THE WAR
When President Lincoln issued his call for troops, Vermont presented to exception to the other Northern states in lack of adequate preparation for even the slightest military service. It seemed as if the entire North lay in a state of lethargy. Federal forts and arsenals had been appropriated by Southern militiamen; state after state had passed ordinances of secession; they even invaded the North and transferred one hundred and thirty thousand stand of arms from the heart of New England to Southern depots, and no one lifted a finger to stop it.
After the War of 1812 military drills had been kept up for a time, after a fashion; but the martial spirit flagged before the tasks of peaceful industry, and after 1845 there was hardly a semblance of military organization left within the state. The state had given up making appropriations for the support of the militia. One by one the uniformed companies had disbanded, and June trainings became a jest and sport for the countryside.
From 1858 to 1860 public interest in the militia began to be aroused. By the close of the latter year there were several organized companies again in existence, nominally forming a brigade of four regiments. They
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had as arms smooth-bore percussion and flintlock muskets! On New Year's day, 1861, the state possessed less than a thousand stand of arms, seven six-pound fieldpieces, five hundred and three Colt's pistols of no use whatever, and about a hundred tents. One regiment could be equipped with superannuated stuff.
On the 12th of April, that same years, the booming of cannon sounded through Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter, one of the three or four military posts in the South which remained in federal possession, was fired upon. In two days the garrison surrendered. President Lincoln's call for troops was sent broadcast through the North, and war was on.
Now witness a change. No longer the North was sleeping. Mass meetings and flag raisings were so numerous that the newspapers could not find space to tell of them. From every public building flew the stars and stripes, and from private buildings, too, so long as flags could be obtained, or red, white, and blue bunting could be had for love or money. A public meeting was held at Burlington on the 18th of April, in the town hall; but hundreds were turned away from the doors, unable to find room within. Hon. George P. Marsh, then on the eve of his departure as United States minister to Italy, was the principal speaker. As he addressed the crowded hall, from one of the galleries were flung the broad folds of the stars and stripes; in an instant the audience were on their feet, in a contagion of enthusiasm and emotion, cheering, shouting, and crying like children.
Meantime men and money were offered all over the state. Private persons offered to the state sums ranging
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all the way from one thousand to twenty thousand dollars each. Towns voted to raise money on their grand list, and subscribed to equip the militia and support the families of volunteers. Banks at Montpelier placed twenty-five thousand dollars each at the disposal of the governor to equip the troops; at Burlington and St. Albans they offered ten per cent of their capital, and more if needed. The students of the University of Vermont and Middlebury College organized into companies and began to drill. Railroad and transportation companies offered their lines and boats for the gratuitous transportation of troops and munitions of war. Wherever companies were forming, the women labored to make uniforms for the recruits.
So much for public opinion. The officers of the state had not been idle. When the President called for troops Governor Fairbanks at once issued a proclamation announcing the outbreak of armed rebellion, called for a special session of the legislature, and for a regiment for immediate service.
We have seen that there was not a regiment in the state ready to march. But when the field officers of the militia met at Burlington on the 19th of the month to select the companies which should make up the first
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regiment of Vermont volunteers it was reported that eight companies-from Bradford, Brandon, Burlington, Northfield, Rutland, St. Albans, Swanton, and Woodstock---were substantially filled and in efficient condition. Other companies were in partial readiness, and preparations were everywhere being made.
The special session of the legislature had been called for the 25th of April. The members were greeted at the capitol with the roar of the two brass fieldpieces which Stark had taken from the Hessians at the battle of Bennington pouring out the national salute of thirty-four guns. Within twenty-four hours both houses had passed by unanimous vote an appropriation of one million dollars for war expenses. In forty-two hours from the time it met the legislature adjourned, with its work completed. It had passed acts providing for the organizing, arming, and equiping of six more regiments for two years' service-the government had called for only three months' troops---and had voted seven dollars per month pay in addition to the thirteen dollars offered by the government; had provided for the relief of the families of volunteers in cases of destitution, and had laid the first war tax, --- ten cents on the dollar of the grand list.
This work was without precedent, and was equaled by the records of but few states. Vermont had voted for the war an appropriation of a larger sum than had been voted by any other state in proportion to the population, and had made provision for her sons and their families, which took from first to last four millions from
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the states to say nothing of the other
for the recruiting troops were issued by the governor on the 7th of May, and three days later the services of fifty full companies were offered to the government, --- more than twice as many as it was then ready to accept.
VERMONT TROOPS IN SERVICE
The Civil War practically involved the conquest of the South. In point of military tactics, therefore, it had to be an offensive war on the part of the Union forces, and was, conversely, defensive on the part of the Southern army, with the exception of Lee's projected invasion of the North.
The Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River cut the field of action into three great sections. The Mississippi and its tributaries made important naval operations possible in the West, and there the Federal forces were almost uniformly successful. Not so in the East. The scene of conflict was here mainly in Virginia, which was for four years the battle ground of two armies: one - the Army of the Potomac - trying to defend Washington, conquer Virginia, and capture Richmond; the other - the Army of Northern Virginia - trying to defend Richmond and Virginia, attack Washington, and invade Maryland and Pennsylvania.
It was on this ground, in the region around and between the two capitals, Washington and Richmond, where the fighting came thick and fast, that the
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Vermont troops rendered the heaviest part of their service in the Army of the Potomac.
The First Regiment was ordered at once into service; for, said General Scott, "I want your Vermont regiments, all of them. I have not forgotten the Vermont men on the Niagara frontier." So they went forward. Their term of enlistment expired in August of the same year, for it was not anticipated that the war would be of long duration, and the President's call was for only three months' service. But their service did not end; for when the period of this regiment's enlistment expired five out of every six of its rank and file reenlisted; the field, staff, and line officers returned to the service almost to a man; and not lest than one hundred and sixty-one of its members became officers in Vermont regiments and batteries which were afterward organized.
In the fall of 1861 the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth regiments were formed into the Vermont Brigade, as it was then called; and later, when a second brigade was formed of regiments subsequently enlisted, it was known as the First Vermont Brigade, or the "Old Brigade." It will be absolutely impossible to follow the history of these troops in all their service. Indeed it would tax out limits to tell the history of any one regiment. For instance, Benedict, in his history, Vermont in the Civil War, which is our authority for this period, says of the Second Regiment:
"It had a share in almost every battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, from the first Bull Run to the surrender of Lee; and its quality as a fighting regiment is indicated by the fact that
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its list of killed and wounded in action numbered no less than seven hundred and fifty-one, or forty per cent of its aggregate of eighteen hundred and fifty-eight officers and men; while its ratio of killed and mortally wounded was more than eight times the general ratio of killed and mortally wounded in the Union army.
In March, 1862, McClellan, then in command of the Army of the Potomac, began what is known s the Peninsular campaign, a plan to advance on Richmond, the Confederate capital, from the east. He was slow in moving, and found the Confederates ready for him, fortified at every point. By the end of May he had succeeded in getting within ten miles of Richmond; but Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson attacked him so persistently that he decided to withdraw, and then they continued hammering away at him during the seven days' retreat. This campaign gave the Vermont troops plenty of service. They took part in engagements at Lee's Mill, Williamsburg, Golding's Farm, Savage's Station, and White Oak Swamp.
The battle of Lee's Mill was one of the bloodiest in proportion to numbers in which our troops took part during the war. The first assault on the enemy's works was made by the Third Vermont Regiment, four companies of which, led by Captain Samuel E. Pingree (later a governor of the state), made a daring dash across Warwick Creek, assaulting and carrying the rifle pits of the enemy.
After McClellan had decided to abandon the siege of Richmond and to retreat, the Vermont troops once more rendered brilliant service in the battle of Savage's Station. The importance of this action becomes apparent
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when we learn that the success of McClellan's retreat depended first of all on getting an army of one hundred and fifteen thousand men, with an immense army train of five thousand wagons, through the White Oak Swamp. This great natural barrier stretched half way across the peninsula south of Richmond, squarely across his line of retreat, and was passable only through one narrow way. The stand of the rear guard, therefore, at Savage's Station, was, as Benedict says, "a notable passage in the history of the Peninsular campaign, and the battle will ever be memorable to Vermonters as that in which one of our regiments, the Fifth, suffered the greatest loss in killed and wounded ever sustained by a Vermont regiment in action."
The Fifth Regiment had orders to advance through the woods in front of them. A regiment of Union troops recently recruited had thrown themselves on the ground in the woods and refused to advance. They were under fire for the first time. The men of the Fifth Vermont walked over them and marched on. "I remember as if it were yesterday," said one of the sergeants, "the way we tramped over that line of cringing men, cursing them roundly for their cowardice." The enemy's battery was raking the woods with a terrible fire, but the regiment went on into the open field. They kept on till they met the enemy, made a bayonet charge, then halted and opened fire on the infantry line across the hollow in front of them. Meanwhile they were themselves exposed to the fire of two regiments, a battery of grape and canister, and a raking cross fire of musketry from the edge of the woods
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to their left. In twenty minutes every other man in line had been killed or wounded. And yet the regiment held its position, silenced the enemy in front, and did not go back until hours afterward, when it was ordered to the rear with the brigade. The men had sixty rounds of cartridges and used them all, taking the guns of their fallen comrades when their own became heated. The surgeon who visited the field the next day said in a letter: "Thirty men of the Fifth Vermont were found lying side by side, dressed in as perfect a line as for a dress parade, who were all stricken down by one discharge of grape and canister from the enemy's battery." One company had three commissioned officers and fifty-six men in line; seven came out unharmed. Of the rest, twenty-five were killed or died of their wounds.
The second eastern campaign of 1862 - the second Bull Run campaign - resulted in the Union army being driven back toward Washington and the Confederates being emboldened to carry the war into the North. Then came the storming of Crampton's Gap and the battle of Antietam, and more good work by the Vermont troops.
The Fourth Regiment especially distinguished itself at the storming of Crampton's Gap, where on September 14 it captured, on the crest of the mountain, a Confederate major, five line officers, one hundred and fifteen men, and the colors of the Sixteenth Virginia. These colors are preserved among the trophies of the War Department at Washington.
A war correspondent of the New York Tribune reported the following from Antietam:
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Smith was ordered to retake the cornfields and woods which had been so hotly contested. It was done in the handsomest style. His Maine and Vermont regiments and the rest went forward on the run, and, cheering as they went, swept like an avalanche through the cornfield, fell upon the woods, cleared them I ten minutes, and held them. They were not again retaken. The field and its ghastly harvest remained with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that s you ride over it you cannot guide hour horse's steps too carefully.
After the bloody battle of Antietam McClellan was superseded in command by General Burnside. The Confederates fortified Marye's Heights, being Fredericksburg, on the south side of the Rappahannock. The position was almost impregnable, but Burnside attacked it, only to be repulsed with a terrible loss. "Fighting Joe" Hooker was then placed in command of the Army of the Potomac.
From the middle of December, 1862, to the end of the following April the Army of the Potomac remained quietly in camp opposite Fredericksburg, and the Confederates retained their strong position on Marye's Heights. At length Hooker began to operate. In the storming of Marye's Heights, May 3, 1863, at the second battle of Fredericksburg, the Vermont brigade accomplished more than ever before to establish its reputation as a fighting brigade. A New Jersey officer describes the taking of Marye's Heights as follows:
As we approached the foot of the hills, we could see the rebel gunners limbering up their pieces. The Second Vermont, which had got a little ahead of us, were now moving up the steep slope on our right, in beautiful line; and presently we also commenced the ascent. A terrible volley thinned the ranks of the Vermonters;
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but they pressed on, and they enemy began to give way. As we reached the top of the hill we could see the flying fore, crossing through a gully and ascending the rise of ground opposite. The terrible Fredericksburg Heights had been captured.
The heights were carried so rapidly that the Confederate general, Jubal Early, who had the greater part of his division within supporting distance, could not reinforce his lines in time to save them. Benedict says: "No similar assault on the Southern side during the war equaled this in brilliancy and success; and in these respects it was surpassed on the Northern side, if at all, only by Lookout Mountain and the final storming of Lee's lines at Petersburg." The regiments moved with the precision of ordinary drill, none rushing, none lagging. Nevertheless Lee outgeneraled Hooker at Chancellorsville and in four days dealt the Army of the Potomac a terrible blow.
He again decided to invade the North. Then came the campaign which led to Gettysburg. Lee crossed the Potomac and entered Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac kept between him and Washington. Hooked was succeeded by General Meade. On July 1, 1863, the armies came together at the little village of Gettysburg, and the Union troops being driven back in a bloody battle to a strong position known as Cemetery Ridge, Meade determined to fight the decisive battle there.
On the next day the Confederates attacked vigorously, drove back the Union left, and secured a position which threatened the whole line. Meanwhile the Sixth Corps, which had been lying quietly at Manchester, some thirty
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miles from the scene of battle, was rushed over the Baltimore and Gettysburg turnpike in the most rapid and exciting march in its history. The fate of the army and indeed the outcome of the whole war might depend on the presence of these troops. It was then that General Sedgwick gave his famous order: "Put the Vermonters ahead and keep the column well closed up." They had a reputation for marching as well as for fighting.
At General Meade's headquarters, about six o'clock that evening, there stood an anxious group of officers. The Confederates had been forcing back the Union left, and the sound of battle grew louder and nearer. Presently a cloud of dust appeared down the Baltimore pike. What did that cloud hide? Had the enemy gained the rear? As the officers stood looking through their field glasses, on said" "It is not cavalry, but infantry. There is the flag. It is the Sixth Corps."
During the next day and the final day of the battle the Second Vermont Brigade won laurels on the left center. The Confederates were driven out of one position on the extreme right of the Union lines, and every attack was repelled. Lee determined to make one more assault, an sent Pickett with fifteen thousand men against the Union center. They were repulsed with awful loss. The fate of the charge was sealed by the flank attack of Stannard's brigade. Veazey and the Sixteenth Vermont Regiment charged upon and dispersed two Confederate brigade under Wilcox. This action closed the battle of Gettysburg. Lee's invasion of the North was ended.
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General Grant, who had been winning brilliant successes in the Western campaign, was now placed in entire charge of the Union armies; Sherman began his famous march to the sea; Thomas destroyed Hood's army; and Grant, with the Army of the Potomac, took up again in May, 1864, the task of destroying Lee's army and taking Richmond.
Then followed the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. A thousand Vermonters were killed or wounded in the first day's fighting of the Wilderness campaign. Two hundred fell the second day. The Third Regiment went into the first day's fight with about five hundred muskets, and in the next month's fighting lost two out of every three men.
The Fourth Regiment fought at Spottsylvania in the front line. At Cold Harbor it was again engaged. In the movement to Petersburg it suffered the greatest loss by capture that it ever experienced. Out of two hundred men taken to the skirmish line, but sixty-seven answered to the roll call the next morning, with three commissioned officers. Nearly one half of the captured men died in Confederate prisons. The colors were saved. Although it was only one of thirty-two infantry brigades, the Vermont brigade suffered one tenth of the entire loss of Grant's army in killed and wounded in the Wilderness campaign.
Lee forestalled Grant and occupied Petersburg. Grant sat down to a nine months' siege before it. Lee stood the pressure until it became intolerable; then he sent one of his ablest generals, Jubal Early, with a detachment to penetrate the Shenandoah Valley and seize Washington, thinking that this might divert Grant. Grant gave Sheridan forty thousand men and sent him after Early. Early reached Washington, but was just a little too late to seize it; while Sheridan on this Shenandoah campaign drove the Confederates back, destroyed everything eatable that could be found to support an army and rejoined Grant at Petersburg in November, 1864.
In this campaign of the Shenandoah Valley, Vermont troops did good service; they shared in the engagements at Charles Town, the Opequan, Winchester, Fishers Hill, and Cedar Creek. The battle of the Opequan restored the lower valley to Union control, put an end to invasions in Maryland and to raids against the national capital. At Cedar Creek what looked like a Confederate victory was turned into a complete rout, upon Sheridan's appearance after his famous ride of twenty miles from Winchester. Out of a total of forty-eight guns captured, the First Vermont Cavalry brought in twenty-three.
Then back at Petersburg . As soon as it was possible to move in the following spring the Northern soldiers began the final campaign of the war. The South was a mere shell. Sherman had moved at will; and not an important seaport remained in Southern hands. Grant, rejoined by Sheridan, made it impossible for Lee to hold Richmond any longer. The South had put every fighting man and every dollar she had into the war. Lee's army dwindled as his men began to despair of their cause. When Sheridan on his way to Jetersville asked, "Where are the rebels?" an old colored patriarch, leaning on the fence, replied, "Siftin' souf, sah; siftin' souf," with a smile and wave of his hand. The Union army
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Outnumbered the Confederate two to one. Lee tried to escape by the valley of the Appomattox to the mountains, hoping possibly to unite with Johnston's forces. But at last the Northern soldiers were too quick for him. He was caught and cornered with the van of his starving army at the Appomattox Courthouse. He surrendered, and the war came to an end.
In the operations which led to the end Vermont troops again had their share. The Second Regiment once more distinguished itself in the final assault on the defenses of Petersburg, with many instances of individual gallantry. A portion of the Ninth Regiment was the first to carry a Union flag into the rebel capital. After the fall of Richmond the Second Regiment joined in the pursuit of Lee, and in a skirmish with the rear guard on the evening of April 6 first the last shot discharged inaction by the Sixth Corps. The Third Regiment did its last fighting in the final assault on Petersburg. This regiment lost two hundred officers and men who were killed or died of wounds received in action, and many more died of disease or starvation while prisoners in the enemy's hands. The Fifth Regiment led the storming column when the Sixth Corps broke through the enemy's lines in front of Petersburg on the 2d of April, and first planted the colors of the Sixth Corps on the enemy's works. The final statement of the regiment shows that of all the Vermont regiment it lost the largest percentage of men killed and mortally wounded in action.
The old brigade was engaged in thirty battles. Not one of its colors fell into hostile hands. General McMahon
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said: "No body of troops in or out of the Army of the Potomac made their record more gallantly, sustained it more heroically, or wore their honors more modestly. The Vermont brigade were the model and type of the volunteer soldier.
Besides the seventeen infantry regiments which Vermont sent from first to last into the war, she sent also three batteries of light artillery, one regiment of cavalry, and a larger proportion of sharpshooters than any other state, not to speak of the Vermont men who served as staff officers, soldiers in the regular army, and as privates and commissioned officers in other states.
Her cavalry regiment was raised in the fall of 1861, and was the first full regiment of mounted men raised in New England. It was the largest regiment but one sent from Vermont, comprising from first to last twenty-two hundred and ninety-seven officers and men. It had
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a notable history. Previous Vermont regiments had been raised by state authority; the cavalry was raised under the direct authority of the United States. The regiment served in the Shenandoah Valley, at Gettysburg, in the Wilderness campaign, and under Sheridan.
The organization of United States sharpshooters was an attempt to meet the marksmen of the Confederates with equally skilled shots armed with long-range rifles. They were a distinct branch of the service. There were two such regiments raised in the first years of the war, of whose total number this state furnished over one sixth. They shared in almost every battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, and made a brilliant record, second to that of no other equal number of enlisted men.
Some of Vermont's sons occupied important positions as staff officers. To them fell the duties of keeping the troops supplied, of giving the soldiers medical and surgical care, of keeping regimental and brigade and corps accounts and records, of preparing and transmitting orders in camp and field.
Vermont had a higher percentage of men killed in action than any other state, while the percentage of the
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old brigade was higher even that that of the state. The five original regiments of this brigade gave 4747 officers and men to the service of the government; 4070 more were added to these during the war, making an aggregate of 8817 officers and men. The total wounded was 2328; 774 died in Union hospitals; 578 were killed in action; 395 died of wounds; 135 died in Confederate prisons.
Vermont sent to the war ten men out of every hundred of her population. She was credited with nearly thirty-four thousand volunteers, out of a total enrollment of thirty-seven thousand men liable to do militia duty. None of her colors were ever yielded in action, while in proportion to total numbers her troops took more rebel colors than those of any other state. In 1867 General Sheridan, in the State House at Montpelier, said: "When I saw these old flags I thought I ought to say as much as this: I have never commanded troops in whom I had more confidence than I had in Vermont troops, and I do no know but I can say that I never commanded troops in whom I had such as much confidence as those of this gallant state."
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With one more incident we will close the story of the war. On the 19th of October, 1864, a party of strangers came into the village of St. Albans in small squads, scattered about the place, and made a secret and simultaneous entrance at the three banks. They closed the doors of the banks, made the inmate prisoners, relieved the institutions of their available assets, and made their escape, firing pistols promiscuously. They also attempted to set fire to some of the buildings. Excitement was intense; it was feared that the party was but an advance guard of a larger invading host. At Montpelier, where the legislature was in session, members gallantly volunteered to serve in military capacity to repel the invaders. But no invasion came. A party was hastily formed, and started after the raiders, following them into Canada. Two hundred thousand dollars had been taken from the banks. Fourteen of the men were taken, and eighty-six thousand dollars were recovered. After this affair two companies of cavalry were raised to protect the northern frontier from further similar invasion. The companies were stationed at St. Albans, and did guard duty for about six months.
Source: Edward Day Collins, editor. A History of Vermont, Ginn & Company, Publishers, Boston, 1903, pp. 234-254.