They Could Not Have Done Better; Thomas O. Seaver and The 3rd Vermont Infantry in The War for the Union. by Robert G. Poirier. Illustrated, maps, endnotes, bibliography, appendices, index, 333 pp., 2005. Vermont Civil War Enterprises, 93 Leo Lane, Newport, VT 05855, paperback, $25.00
The Third Vermont Infantry regiment was the second three-year unit recruited in Vermont and part of one of the more famous brigades of the Civil War, the First or 'Old' Vermont Brigade. Of a total of more than 1800 men who served in its ranks, 362 died in combat, from disease or in Confederate prisons, 20% of its aggregate. More than 23% of its members were wounded (428) and 78 were taken prisoner. Six members of the Third Vermont were awarded the Medal of Honor, more than any other Vermonter regiment.
The 3rd Vermont fought in nearly every major battle in the eastern theater, from Lewinsville on September 11, 1861, to the breakout at Petersburg, on April 2, 1865. Most often their history is intricately combined with that of the brigade, but at Lee's Mill and Finksburg, they stood out. The history of this regiment and its parent brigade is long overdue.
George Benedict, still Vermont's preeminent Civil War historian, put it best, when he referred to the character of the soldiers of the Vermont Brigade. He said that "they were so often put in where the hardest fighting was to be done, that they stayed when others fled, and that they did not know when they were beaten-if they ever were beaten," and Samuel E. Pingree, originally a 1st Lieutenant and eventually Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, later wrote that the history of the regiment "is so completely interwoven with the history of the Vermont Brigade--the long and honorable service of each of the five regiments of that brigade being the common fame of all--that the story of one is the substantial counterpart to the story of all the others," and the author has done an excellent job of documenting the regiment's service not only in its own right, but as an integral part of the brigade.
As evidenced by the volume's bibliography, Mr. Poirier has done extensive research on the regiment, and it shows. Every significant movement, battle or event he relates is amply documented. Poirier's military training and experience show through in every passage, highlighting his understanding of the military mind, tactics, strategy and the political machinations that frequently hindered the armies in the field. His treatment of the human side of soldiering is just as impressive, relating the humdrum of camp life, the hopes and fears of privates as well as their leaders.
Poirier's treatment of two of the more famous human interest stories to come out of the regiment, the Sleeping Sentinel, William Scott, and America's youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor, Willie Johnston, is measured and honest. Too frequently such events are blown way out of proportion, but Poirier relates them in their proper perspective.
Poirier frequently discusses individual acts of valor committed by members of the regiment, many acts of which would later result in these soldiers being awarded the Medal of Honor. He also relates hundreds of other courageous acts by soldiers which never resulted in significant recognition. But the Green Mountain Boys are a rambunctious breed, and Poirier has no qualms about relating many of the less conspicuous acts by soldiers, such as the fist fights in St. Johnsbury as the regiment was first forming, and several acts of cowardice and misconduct, such as drinking by some of the officers, thievery, etc.
In his Preface, Poirier explains the impetus for writing this history, his previous research detailing the contributions of Norwich University alumni in the Civil War. That is obvious from his highlighting the career of Thomas O. Seaver, a Norwich graduate and recipient of the Medal of Honor, who rose from the captaincy of Company F to command of the regiment. As explained in the study, the leadership skills of Seaver and nearly four dozen other Norwich alumni are most likely responsible for the achievements and honorable record of the Vermont Brigade.
Recently another Vermont Civil War historian opined that histories of the individual regiments of the Vermont Brigade should not be written piecemeal because they would detract from a cohesive history of the brigade itself. Poirier has proven that is not necessarily the case.
The only distractor to the work is the lack of standardized formatting, but overall, this is a wonderful addition to the historiography of Vermont in the Civil War!
Tom Ledoux is the creator and webmaster of the Vermont in the Civil War web project, VermontCivilWar.org. He has an M.A. in military studies (Civil War studies) from American Military University.
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