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Adjutant General Peter Thacher Washburn

Biography

Commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel First Vermont regiment (three months); mustered into the United States service May 9, 1861; mustered out August 15, 1861. Commanded the First regiment during nearly all of its term of service at Fortress Monroe and Newport News, Va.

Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn left Newport News June 10, 1861, with a battalion of five companies of the First Vermont, and five companies of the Fourth Massachusetts, and was present in action at the first battle of the war at Big Bethel, Va.

While the result of the expedition was unsuccessful, the troops in command of Colonel Washburn made the only formidable assault upon the enemy's works, as they went to the top of the same and poured in so violent and continuous a fire of musketry for some twenty minutes that hardly a man of the enemy ventured to show his head above the works. Colonel Washburn did not retire from this position until he received orders to do so, and then performed the movement in a slow and deliberate manner, calling together his men and marching to his original position in line. Colonel Washburn continued in command of the First regiment until they were mustered out of the United States service.

In October, 1861, he was elected Adjutant and Inspector-General of Vermont, with rank of Brigadier-General., and continued in that office by consecutive annual elections until the close of the war. In this position he was equal to all the emergencies of the great war then in progress, and his efficient service to Vermont troops in the field, and to the people at home, will be long remembered.

During General Washburn's term of office the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth regiments of infantry, the First Vermont Cavalry, the First, Second and Third batteries of light artillery, and the First and Second companies of sharpshooters were sent to the field.

The details of his office were most carefully kept, and his annual reports were among the best of any State in the Union. General Washburn was elected governor of the State of Vermont in September, 1869 (turning over the office of Adjutant and Inspector-General to Brevet Major-General William Wells, who, after four years of gallant and faithful service in the field, proved a most efficient successor to General Washburn.) General Wells was succeeded by General James S. Peck, who had served through the war as adjutant of the Thirteenth and major of the Seventeenth regiments, and like his predecessor, was a most gallant and accomplished officer, thoroughly fitted for this position, the duties of which he performed with credit to himself and State until 1881, when he was succeeded by the present incumbent.

Source: Revised Roster, p. 744

No man in Vermont was more conspicuous or important to the troops from that State, during the four years' continuance of the War of the Rebellion, than Peter T. Washburn, of Woodstock, which makes a particular notice of him essential to the completeness of this book. He was born at Lynn, Mass., September 7, 1814, and when two and a half years old removed with his father to Vermont. He graduated at Dartmouth College in 1835, and was admitted to practice, as an attorney, at the December term, 1838, commenced the practice of his profession at Ludlow in January, 1839, and removed to Woodstock, in 1844, where he has since resided; and, as a lawyer, has attained a position second to that of no man now living in Windsor County, and to that of but few in the State. In 1844 he was elected Reported of the Decisions of the Supreme Court, for which his great industry and love of the profession admirably fitted him, and held the office eight years. He represented the town of Woodstock in the General Assembly of Vermont in 1853 and 1854, and took a prominent position as a debater and legislator among the ablest men of the State.

General Washburn's military career commenced may years ago. In 1837, when by twenty-five years of age, he was elected colonel of a Vermont regiment, and resigned his commission in 1841. At the breaking out of the rebellion, in 1861, but few men in Vermont were supposed to be versed in the science of war, and it was believed to be essential to the efficiency of the troops she might send to the field that they should be commanded by men who had been educated at some military institution. To this end, in April, when the first regiment was being organized, under the call of President Lincoln for seventy-five thousand volunteers for three months' service, John W. Phelps, a graduate of West Point, was appointed colonel, and Peter T. Washburn, of Woodstock, lieutenant colonel, and commanded the regiment during most of the three months of its term of enlistment. For an account of his service in the field reference may be had to the record of that regiment in another part of this book.

In October, 1861, Mr. Washburn was elected Adjutant and Inspector General of the State of Vermont, in which position he continued, being re-elected each year until the close of the war, and the completion of his reports and records, when, in 1866, he declined a further election. It was in this position that General Washburn particularly distinguished himself. His untiring industry, and great ability as an organizer, made him of incalculable value in recruiting, arming, and putting into the field the Vermont troops. He gave himself up to the work, and did everything that could be done to add to their efficiency and comfort while there, and to secure to his State its share of the glory of the war. His records were so perfectly kept, and his reports, made to the Governor from year to year, and then published, so carefully and systematically made, that not more than a score of the thirty-five thousand men who went from the State of Vermont to the war remained unaccounted for. He was emphatically the right man in the right place. There may be other men who could perform responsible public duties as well as General Washburn performed those of his position; but it is lamentably true that they are seldom sought out and called to them. His services are appreciated by officers of every grade, and by the rank and file who served in the field. The State owes him a debt of gratitude for his five years' service in time of war in the position of Adjutant and Inspector General.

Source: Otis Frederick Reed Waite, Vermont in the Great Rebellion: Containing historical and biographical Sketches, etc. Tracy, Chase, Claremont, N.H., 1869), pp. 256-8.

[Linda M. Welch, Historian of southern Windsor County, Vermont, offers the following additional information about Peter T. Washburn]

Peter Thatcher Washburn was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, 7 Sept., 1814, son of Judge Reuben & Hannah Blaney (Thatcher) Washburn of Cavendish (Windsor County) Vermont. He was the eldest of five children. He would serve as Adjutant General of the state of Vermont during war time and was subsequently elected Governor of the state. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1834 and immediately after began the study of law with his father, with whom he remained, excepting for three months spent in the office of the Hon. William Upham, an eminent lawyer, at Montpelier. In 1838, Peter was admitted to the bar at the December term of the Windsor County Court.

On 1 January, 1839, Attorney Washburn opened a law office in Ludlow and commenced the practice of his profession. He remained until 1844, constantly increasing in reputation and laying the foundation for a career which gave him the highest office in the gift of the people of the State. He removed to Woodstock in 1844 - it being the hub of legal matters for the County as most of the court sessions were held and also the County court, jail, and various State offices. That same year he was elected by the Legislature reporter of the decisions of the Supreme Court, to which office he was annual re-elected up to and including the year 1851. His eight published volumes of the cases argued before and determined by the Supreme Court during this time, deservedly enhanced his reputation. In addition, he published at the same, a two volume digest of Vermont reports, and at the time of his death, the third volume which would complete the work was nearly ready for the press. In 1853-4, he represented Woodstock in the Vermont House and took high rank as a debater and businessman.

When the War broke out in April of 1861, Mr. Washburn, who was then the Captain of the Woodstock Light Infantry, left his large and lucrative law practice - which was wide-ranging in scope extending into nearly all areas of the State, and turned his attention to the raising of troops with zeal and success. He received the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel of the first regiment of three months' men with General John W. Phelps as the Colonel. This regiment was ordered to Fortress Monroe. George Blood French was with this regiment, as well as other Cavendish men. At the battle of Big Bethel, Gov. Washburn was in command of his regiment and according to the official report, 'distinguished himself for coolness and bravery."

He was well respected by the Vermont men who served under him and at the age of 47 years in 1861 he was chosen Adjutant and Inspector General of Vermont in which responsible position he served with fidelity and vigor until the close of the war. In the discharge of the duties of this office he so endeared himself not only to the soldiers, but to the civilians of Vermont, that the 1869 Republican State Convention almost unanimously brought forward his name as a candidate for Governor. No Adjutant General's office in the whole country, it is said, equaled General Washburn's in order and ability. His reports consisted of 300 bound volumes and three pamphlets, and the final reports left only 75 men unaccounted for out of the 34,238 men furnished by the State of Vermont.

In the dark hours of the Rebellion, in the winter of 1863, great dissatisfaction was expressed in the loyal States at the manner in which the quotas and drafts were conducted at Washington. There was a convention of Adjutant Generals of the loyal States held at Columbus Ohio, in which the participants wanted to devise a plan by which this 'feeling' might be allayed and order brought out of chaos. The subject was referred to a committee of which Mr. Washburn was Chairman. The committee drew up a memorial addressed to Secretary Stanton, which not only pointed out the difficulties, but also presented means by which they could be avoided. This document was the brainchild and handiwork of Adjutant Washburn. It was adopted, signed by all the members without amendment, and forward to Mr. Stanton who was pleased to acknowledge its receipt with thanks. The suggestions were acted upon, and from that time onward the complaints lessened. General Washburn was a member of a similar convention which met in Boston the next summer. At this convention the Boston Journal reported: "… he was warmly greeted by his colleagues who knew his worth and respected his character."

He was elected Governor of the State of Vermont in Sept. 1869. Whole number of votes returned statewide was 43,315. He had 31,834. Homer W. Heaton, his opponent had 11,455. George W. Hendee was elected Lt. Governor. [see Peter T. Washburn's address as Governor in Black River Gazette, Oct. 15, 1869]

Governor Washburn brought to Vermont's high office, the same marked degree of executive ability and energy which had distinguished his previous career. His message was highly creditable and was received with favor throughout the State. His whole course served to strengthen him in the regards to the people. He carefully examined the bills coming before him and placed his signature to no hasty or ill-advised measure. The brief term which he served in the new office was enough to place him in the highest rank of those who came before him. At the time of his death, he was President of the Woodstock Railroad Company, Director of the Rutland & Woodstock Railroad and one of the trustees of the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College. His labors on behalf of the Woodstock Railroad were unceasing and he used his labor to push forward the enterprise.

Governor Washburn died at his residence in Woodstock, Vt., Monday morning, at four o'clock a.m., 7 Feb., 1870 (age 55).

From his obituary: "As a lawyer, he stood in the front rank. Gov. Washburn was so well known to the people of the Black River Valley, among whom he has lived and with whom he has associated, that no words of ours can add to the respect and admiration entertained toward him. He was ever considered as one of us. We watched his course with pride and felt that his honor was in some sense our honor. In his death we realize that it has come near to us all. For thirty-five years, the father of Gov. Washburn (Judge Reuben) was identified with the town of Ludlow. At the time his father removed to Ludlow, Gov. Washburn was eleven years of age. He lived in Ludlow, therefore, for nineteen years - the last five in the practice of law. His mother and one sister still live in town highly respected and esteemed by a large circle of acquaintances. With them we feel to sympathize most deeply. We would mingle our sadness with their grief. This aged mother has lost a noble son; the State a noble citizen."

Governor Washburn's funeral services were held at the Congregational Church in Woodstock on Thursday at 2 o'clock p.m. All members who were able of the State of Vermont's GAR were in dress and attendance. [see the rest of this story in the 11 Feb. 1870, Black River Gazette] [ Linda M. Welch would like to correspond with all interested researchers of the WASHBURN family of Windsor County, Vt.]

Washburn, Peter T. Governor, adjutant and inspector-general during the war, and one of that brilliant group of lawyers that made Woodstock famous through so many years, was born at Lynn, Mass., Sept. 7, 1814, the eldest son of Reuben and Hannah B. (Thacher) Washburn. There was distinguished ancestry on both sides. John Washburn, the sixth generation back, was secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Co., while in England. Joseph Washburn, his grandson, married a granddaughter of Mary Chilton, the first female member of the Pilgrim band that stepped upon Plymouth Rock. The Thachers were for several generations distinguished preachers in Massachusetts

In 1817 the father of Peter T. Washburn moved to Vermont, first settling at Chester, then at Cavendish, and finally at Ludlow. Young Peter graduated at Dartmouth in 1835, studied law first under the direction of his father, then for a time in the office of Senator Upham at Montpelier, was admitted to the bar in 1838, and began practice at Ludlow, moving in 1844 to Woodstock where he formed a partnership with Charles P. Marsh which continued until the death of the latter in 1870. Mr. Washburn was in 1844 elected reporter of the decisions of the Supreme Court of Vermont, holding the position for eight years with high credit. He represented Woodstock in the Legislatures of 1853 and '54. But his chief energies had been devoted to his professional work, with ever growing reputation, until the breaking out of the war in 1861. He had been chairman of the Vermont delegation to the Republican national convention that in 1860 nominated Lincoln and Hamlin. He was then in command of the Woodstock Light Infantry, a company of citizen soldiers who at once proffered their services to their country, and on the 1st of May marched to Rutland where it was incorporated with the First Vermont Regiment. Washburn was commissioned lieutenant-colonel, but acted as colonel during its entire period of service.

In October, 1861, he was elected adjutant and inspector-general of Vermont and until the war closed devoted himself to its arduous duties, foreseeing their importance to the future, bringing order and system out of chaos and making it the model adjutant's office of the country. He was often likened by his admirers to Stanton for the energy, force and intellectual grasp with which he performed the duties of his office.

He was in 1869 elected Governor by a majority of 22, 822 over Homer W. Heaton, the Democratic candidate, and died in office February 7, 1870. He had simply worn himself into the grave by overwork in the excess of his faithfulness to duty. No trace of disease, organic or functional, could be found by the physicians after his death. The decision was that there had been a complete breaking down of the nervous system. He was at the time preparing a digest of all of the decisions of the Supreme Court from the beginning, and had worked his way through thirty-eight of the forty-one volumes of the Vermont reports when his labors were interrupted.

The able, painstaking and widely varied service he had done the state were appreciated at his taking off, and have been more so since. "He was our Carnot, in organizing and administrative talents, our Louvois in energy and executive force, " said the Rutland Herald, in speaking of his service as war adjutant Thorough, studious, accurate, absolutely incorruptible, inflexibly just, judicious and kindly, he was a man the people could not fail to admire.

Governor Washburn was twice married, first to Almira E. Ferris of Swanton, and second to Almira P. Hopkins of Glens Falls, N. Y. Two children by the first wife died young, but two daughters and a son by the second marriage survived his decease, as did the widow.

Source: Jacob G. Ullery, compiler, Men of Vermont: An Illustrated Biographical History of Vermonters and Sons of Vermont, (Transcript Publishing Company, Brattleboro, VT, 1894), Part I, pp. 99.

Photograph of Peter T. Washburn contributed by George Kane.