by P. O'Meara Edson, M. D., of Boston, Mass., delivered at the
SECOND ANNUAL MEETING OF THE FIRST VERMONT CAVALRY REUNION SOCIETY
At Montpelier, November 4, 1874.
In the corridor of the State House yonder, a plain, almost insignificant case holds the history of Vermont during five most eventful years, from 1861 to 1865. I say holds the history of Vermont, for the history of her regiments in the field, is essentially her history.
Those graven escutcheons, hearing a list of battles and encounters that one shudders to read, tell of sickness and suffering; of deprivation and hardship, beyond the power of words to describe; of wounds honorably got, patiently borne; of death in a hundred terrible forms; and more than all these, the horror of Libby, of Andersonville and the rest -- a "nameless horror" that those who did not suffer it must fail utterly to comprehend -- a horror that sets the seal of condemnation upon its authors and sends them back in the history of human existence and experience beyond the bounds of civilization.
Telling these things, those silver shields must tell also of homes desolated and hearts broken; of bitter anguish bravely borne; of noble resolve; of utter self surrender by those who were still at home; of money, time, labor, prayers and "God's blessing and God speed you" to the last and dearest; and of the dastardly political rage and disappointment fortunately so much weaker here that it could not prove its close alliance with the barbarism of the South by such an inhuman outbreak as our best men were called from the fields to crush in New York.
In one way or another every thought and every emotion of Vermonter was centred on her Soldiers. Among those quiet hills, life, that was wont to go on so sedately, was crowded with anxious hopes and fears. Women, old men, and boys were on the streets and in the fields, sad and weeping, but only regretting that sex and age kept them at home. The history of her soldiers is the history of Vermont during the years of the war. The biding at home, away from the stir and excitement of the camp, was a fitting and noble counterpart of the courage and persistence of those whose manly strength was the passport to their highest opportunity.
Any other history than this would have been unworthy the founders of the State. WHen the struggle for a separate and independent government was taxing all the energies and resources of the thirteen Colonies, Vermont, herself struggling for existence as a State, harassed by sheriffs from New York, threatened from her Northern border by a large and well appointed British army, unsuccessfully asking the Continental Congress to recognize her as a State, was still generous, martial and brave enough wisely to resolve to send her Green Mountain Boys into the battles for the common cause. Ticonderoga, Bennington and Saratoga attest that the men of Vermont in 1861 had reason to be proud of their lineage, and to accept the obligations of their high birth.
As we were filing past the column of infantry to advance at Mount Jackson, having been ordered by General Shields to charge and save the bridge over the Shenandoah, threatened by Ashby and his regiment, I remember hearing the men of an Indiana regiment call out: "Let the Green Mountain boys go at them. They are al sons of Ethan Allen and will show the Michigan boys something new." The prestige of Vermont's early history made those veterans (for they had had their baptism) believe that Vermonters would fight at the first opportunity. Whether those men of Indiana had any ground for their faith or not, let the list of seventy-two battles and encounters credited to the First Vermont Cavalry, in that modest yet glorious record at the State House, testify.
And yet as I recall the details of the history of that regiment, I feel that its glorious record is not all written in the list of its encounters with the enemy. There were hardships and trials endured, through which to have held together as an efficient regiment, without winning a brilliant reputation as a fighting one, was proof of the good qualities of its officers and men.
During the last days of October 1861 there were collecting at Burlington men of all ages, from the beardless boy to the old man who had to dye his hair and beard to pass muster, having I presume inherited enough of Allen's diplomatic skill to answer readily the mustering officer's questions. Most of them were natives of the State to whose flag they were rallying. They had enlisted in companies by counties, and had, by election, generously given into the bands of men entirely their equals in lack of military training and experience, and in many instances in no way their superiors in courage, patriotism or intelligence, the superior positions, honor and pay of company officers. These officers they recognized and obeyed by a tacit compact springing from the same good nature that elected them, and from a recognition of the necessity for organization and subordination. But in so doing they had by no means surrendered their right of independent judgment and the consequent expression of their opinions. "Fraternity, Equality, Liberty" Americanized indeed, expressed their mental and moral relations toward the officers they had themselves created. The true relation of officer and soldier they had not in the slightest degree comprehended; nor did they for a long time nearly attain a condition of discipline that would not have driven a regular officer to madness. it is not too much to say, that they never became soldiers in the technical sense of the term. THey were men who owned real and personal property. They were self-sacrificing patriots, who marched and fought, endured cold and heat, rain and sun, hunger and thirst, wounds and disease, imprisonment and death, because they had enlisted to do those things, if necessary -- not for pay, not for glory, but because they were citizens, who had made a complete surrender of themselves to their duty as citizens. They grumbled much and often, 'tis true; but that is the privilege of human nature under all circumstances. The company officers were but counterparts of the men, bred in the same school and trained in the same experience. It was one of their functions to participate in company caucuses and to hold mass meetings with brother officers of the line. Such were the units of the organization. The Field and Staff officers were but privates raised through the company grades, alike inexperienced, alike ignorant of their duties, except those appertaining to the regimental town meeting that seemed always in session.
Here let me say, (though I hardly believe it necessary) that I am indulging in no criticism upon any one. This picture is drawn to heighten the glory and honor of men who out of such seeming chaos could bring such grand results. We were rollicking good fellows, all bound to do something of our very best, utterly ignorant of what might or ought to be. What was true of us, was equally true of all the regiments. Rugged experience came at last, and knocked away the nonsense, while it did not and could not take away our sense of citizenship, to make us machines, mere food for powder and ball.
In such an assemblage, with such a form of organization, the regiment left the State, the sold great fear lest we should have no chance to see a fight, then filling every breast. In the end, I think, most got over that fear -- some much earlier than others, however.
The official record of the organization and departure of the regiment from the state, and its history for the first year, reads as follows:
"The First Regiment of Cavalry was in camp at Burlington on the first day of November 1861, and was afterwards, on the 19th day of November, mustered into the United States service, with 966 officers and men, commanded by Col. Lemuel B. Platt; and left the State December 14th.
"It has participated in all the most severe service in Virginia and has suffered great hardship and exposure. In every engagement both officers and men have distinguished themselves for the most daring bravery. There have been many changes during the year in the field officers.
"Col. Platt resigned his commission and Jonas P. Holliday was commissioned Colonel, Feb. 14th, 1862. Major John D. Bartlett resigned and Capt. Edward B. Sawyer, Co. I, was commissioned Major, April 25th. Col. Holliday committed suicide and Charles H. Tompkins was commissioned Colonel April 24th. Lieut. Col. Geo. B. Kellogg resigned July 18th and Col. Tompkins resigned Sept. 9th. Capt. Addison W. Preston, of company D, was appointed Lieut. col. and Capt. Josiah Hall of Co. F, was commissioned as Major."
Thus, during the first year of its existence, the regiment had distinguished itself by bearing hardship with fortitude, by meeting the enemy with bravery, and by changing its field officers unaccountably. The report of the Adjutant General of the State does not embody any statement of the fact that it had also distinguished itself by exciting to the highest rage the usually placid temper of Secretary Stanton, who possibly thought that, as the regiment was organized originally as a town meeting, any citizen of the State could take part in its deliberations and exercise a controlling influence upon its officers. If rumor at the time was true, the regiment was sent by the worthy Secretary where it could have been of no sore of service in suppressing the rebellion, though it probably would have found a great many rebels there. But the order was never transmitted; so the regiment kept its head-quarters near Fort Scott through most of the winter of 62-63.
But I am anticipating the story.
Leaving Burlington Dec., 14th, 1861, the regiment reached Washington, by way of New York, Elizabethport and Harrisburg, some time in the night during the same month, and had landed before sunrise in that horrible graveyard, into whose graves, just emptied of their previous occupants, many horses and men stumbled, as, jaded and hungry and nearly frozen, they made their first bivouac in the graves. Here occurred another illustration of the truth, that in others' grief we sometimes find the best solace for our own. The only thing that saved the regiment from utter despair was the consternation of the wagoners when they saw the transportation furnished by the Quartermaster's department -- nondescript wagons, broken down horses and mules, saddles and "Yea-a" line, for men who had enlisted with visions of four horse teams with reins and long whips with silk snappers! This stupendous joke on the teamsters, was food and fuel, during the few days they were at Washington, for men to whom scanty army rations had been issued or the first time, in place of Drew's hash.
Some of you will remember the march on Christmas day, to Annapolis, which we did not reach, but found ourselves late at night at Marlboro, equally distant from Washington, and the place we had started for. There were no good roads in Maryland, and the highways had not been worked that years, so 'twas no wonder we found ourselves where we did. Annapolis was the Mecca of our journey, and in the persistence of purpose that marked all our doings we eventually got there. It was a good place to go to, for we found there the 5th New York, always afterwards ready to fight the rebels or the 2nd Pennsylvania in our defence.
There, too, was found a hint of discipline. Col. Holliday did dress parade in full ceremony, and Gen. Hatch insisted upon company officers attending to "stable duty," even though buckwheat cakes grew cold.
Suddenly, in the midst of dreams of thorough drill and discipline, there came a summons to the field for the regiment, and the death knell of Colonel Holliday; for skilful soldier as he would have proved himself, thorough disciplinarian, as he was, courteous gentleman and high souled officer, as those who knew him best still hold him in memory, he felt that the conditions on which he had accepted the command had been violated, and that he was about to take the field with a mere mob. his professional training had unfitted him for a just estimate of the quality of the men he was commanding. Out of his care of the men whose well being and life he was so careful of and whome he sincerely felt to be capable of great achievement, came largely that overthrow of his reason which ended in his suicide near Strasburgh. Short as was the time he was with us, I believe he left an indelible mark upon the regiment, in giving it a hint of what a competent and thoroughly conscientious officer could accomplish.
The sense of his loss, that overwhelmed all at that time, was a just measure of the confidence he had already inspired.
The night following his death, while stunned by the suddenness of the blow; in the face of the enemy, without a head; in all the doubt of inexperience; away from the brigade; feeling that the hopes of the regiment had gone out at the Stone Bridge beyond Strasburg [where the regiment stayed its furious charge of October 19th, 1864,] a group of officers was electrified by the hot words of Surgeon Gale: "Gentlemen, our duty is with the living and not with the dead. By Godfrey, there is material enough in the regiment to save it." The wise doctor knew what he was saying. His words only expressed the spirit and determination that was as yet latent.
Weeks of doubt and detachment service made the future uncertain, even though the personal thanks of General Shields had been won at Mount Jackson.
Finally, at "Tom's Brook," hope grew again in a reunited regiment and a new commander from outside; for the regiment had not yet risen to a realization of what it could do for itself. Banks made his retreat. The regiment made its own. Its new commander was careful of it and never exposed it to danger unnecessarily, so it came somewhat safely through Pope's campaign, having acquired experience in seeing others' fighting, and in doing most arduous marching and picketing. For the cavalry at least, "headquarters" were emphatically "in the saddle" -- until, under the protecting guns of Fort Scott, the brigade was surrendered to the manipulations of Butler, Price and the 2nd Pennsylvania. The regiment was scattered from Mt. Vernon to Goose Creek, and the fight for existence against circumstances and Mosby began.
The winter of 1862 and 1863 was a time of trial and gloom out of which there seemed no hope of escape. The winter was inclement. There was no shelter for men and horses. The details for picket duty were heavy. The duty itself was unsatisfactory and demoralizing. There was a line of scattered posts requiring at times the breaking up of companies into squads. There was no drill. The isolation of the companies and detachments prevented any development of regimental pride, or any feeling of regard for and dependence upon one another.
Though regularly reporting to a headquarters twenty miles away, there was no outward semblance of, nor indeed any actual, superior authority that could weld the various units into a strong and effective whole. The picket line was so exposed and so badly arranged for the mutual protection and support of adjacent posts, that a detail for picket might mean at any time capture and the subsequent horrors of Libby and Belle Isle. Rolled in blankets for the night, my heartiest self congratulation usually was that my quarters at least would be likely to escape the notice of Mosby if he should decide to capture the camp at Drainsville. Crippled by the loss by capture of some of its best officers and by the terrible disaster at Broad Run, where gallant Capt. Flint paid for his temerity with his life; disheartened by a long series of minor disasters and petty annoyances, the wonder is that any thing more than a driveling existence and a final muster out without honor was gained by the regiment. Added to all these local influences, so unfavorable to the development of any esprit de corps, were the sneers of the army and the cry throughout the country that cavalry was worse than useless; that the war was not one in which cavalry could be of any service. Joe Hooker though otherwise, and showed his determination to prove that cavalry could do good service, when he said he would show the army of the Potomac what it had not yet seen -- "a dead cavalry man." Through his wiser councils the scattered detachments were brought together. Regiments were gathered into brigades and divisions. Instead of cowering in concealment, dreading capture, they moved in large masses and were made to take the offensive. Instead of swelling the retinue of some general officer, they swept the country between the opposing armies, or far on the flank and rear of the enemy. They grew self reliant and strong -- able and willing to care for themselves. The time of trial was ended. The opportunity was offered. The future was secure. Brandy station, Aldie, Yellow Tavern, Cedar Creek and Five Forks were made possible in the spring of 1863. The first Vermont was born again. A slight, almost insignificant affair at Thoroughfare Gap showed its anxious and distrusting commander the "the boys" would fight. The depression and despondency of the winter had vanished with its snow.
The courage and patriotism of the regiment had not been dimmed in the least by the losses it had sustained, by the taunts it had felt, nor by the buffetings it had received. This was its distinguishing glory -- all it did afterwards was easy, for it was done before the eyes of an applauding army and Nation. Individual effort was lost in a common impulse. Having escaped demoralization, mere fighting was easy.
Comrades! I have attempted no history of the regiment. Alas, I fear that will never be written. I have not sought to bring back to your memories those things that you have never forgotten and can never forget. I have no wish to recite to you the story of the "wild charges" you made nor of the guns you captured. I have wished only to add my mite if possible to the common fund of enjoyment we hoped to find here, and in so doing to give prominence to those qualities that contributed to essentially to the success of the regiment, because as it seems to me they are apt to be forgotten in estimating what it was and what it did.
Plain farmers' boys, who never had a thought of war and whose hearts were fully of kindness for all mankind, found themselves face to face with strange duties, but with a manliness and courage born of the free air of their native mountains, they never dreamed of faltering, and only hesitated while they were learning that leadership was a part of their duty and must come from themselves. Not until Vermonters were led by Vermonters did the Cavalry do its work.
A tribute to the dead on the field cannot be invidious here and shall not take a single leaf from the laurel crown worthily won by others.
Towering above the group of those whose life-blood sealed upon the battlefield "the last full measure of devotion," are Preston's broad shoulders, supporting a domey head, flaxen hair, with blue eyes that could flash with rage or soften in generous trust, close in scorn or twinkle with fun, and a face that could harden into lines as inflexible as his purpose to do all in his power to whip the enemy and close the war. I do not think he had a particle of purely military ambition; but he had a resolute determination to do his whole duty.
The careful attention to details, the close study of his duty as an officer, that distinguished him as a Captain, he carried into the higher position of command of the regiment. Company commanders will readily recall his urgent anxiety to have men, horses and equipments in the best possible condition. Show and outside appearance he never thought of, but of effectiveness always. Brusque in manner, impetuous in thought and speech, dominant, earnest, unwearied, he often gave offence without intention. If in his quickness he wronged officer or soldier, the amends were equally prompt. Careless of himself, careful of his men, yet ready to sacrifice both so the cause was helped, he did not willingly send his command into action over ground he did not know. True to himself, faithful to his duty to those under him, he fell as he went to "see what was at the front." Custer's tears were a tribute to his worth; his words: "there lies the best Cavalry Colonel in the army of the Potomac" are his epitaph.
Perkins, not understood, misapprehended, cultured beyond most men, learned, a successful physician, full of generous sympathies, an enthusiast, a poet, driven by his ardor of conviction into a false position, laid down his life at the head of his company.
Hall, young, full of promise, great brained, scholarly among scholars; Woodward, fresh from college, distinguished in his class, distinguished in the brilliant opening of his career in command of a company; Cushman, the perfection of manly beauty, graduated with honor at Dartmouth College, serving long in the ranks, terribly wounded at Gettysburg but undaunted still, and privileged to die by the side of his commander; Ray, earnest, sedate, clear headed, determined, raised from the ranks; Stewart, dying of his second wound, and Corporal Sperry, explaining, when told by the surgeon that he must lose his leg: "if I had known that, I would not have come off the field, for I could have staid there; but I can't ride with one leg" -- are but the beginning of the list of our heroes. They laid down their lives upon every battle field of Virginia. They died by the hand of the lurking guerrilla. They fell under the cowardly shot of a concealed foe, while keeping watch upon some lonely picket. They died in hospital of painful wounds or of lingering disease. They swelled the burial trenches of prison pens. All are worthy of mention -- officers and soldiers alike -- alike the one whose live went out in miserable squalor and want as a prisoner, or in the cheerless hospital, and the other whose last sigh was in the onset of the charge or the cheer for victory. Time forbids mention even of their names, but in the midst of our rejoicing here every heart will recall them, and tender memories of our "honored dead" shall hallow this meeting.