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16th Vermont Infantry
COL. WHEELOCK G. VEAZEY'S ADDRESS
Delivered at Chester, Vt., on the 3d of July, 1878, at
The Re-Union of the Sixteenth Vermont Regiment.
Soldiers of the 16th Regiment: -- Fifteen years ago this very hour, not only was the issue of a great battle, but we have reason to believe the destinies of this Republic, with its tremendous consequences, were trembling in the scale.
On the then hitherto peaceful hillsides that overlooked a quiet, country village, two veteran hostile armies, extending along the circling valley for miles, had for two days been contending for the mastery until those green slopes, clothed in the rich verdure of summer, had drank of the blood of more than 20,000 men. The vicissitudes of the battle had brought you, who never before felt the shock of arms, not only to the extreme front, but to the front in that point of the bending lines where all the power of rebellion was being concentrated by its most skilled and trusted leader for one mighty final effort to break and destroy the army that had ever stood as a wall of fire around the heart of the Republic, and which made rebellion a failure; and there, in that meadow bottom, on the afternoon of the 3d of July, 1863, you, standing below and between the lines of more than 300 cannon, first witnessed that artillery duel which made the very earth tremble beneath your feet and seemed almost to shake the heavens above, giving those opposing crests the appearance as though the pent up hearts of earth were bursting therefrom in volcanic fury. And after two hours of such waiting and enduring you received the first onset of that terrible charge, when Pickett so grandly swept down with his chosen columns to finish the work of destruction which Lee supposed his artillery had well begun; but instead of yielding to the shock there you remained, counter-charging to right and left as the rebel line broke against your front, until the enemy was literally swept from the face of earth.
A hundred thousand veterans who had stood on many a battlefield, witnessed our valor and victory, and applauded with cheers that rose above the rattle of musketry and roar of cannon.
Forty millions of people have read of your achievements, and told the story to children since born how the untrained Green Mountain boys, by their skill and bravery, plucked the first laurels in the greatest and most important battle of the war.
Now, after fifteen years of separation, we, the survivors of this regiment, again meet in happy reunion, to exchange the soldier's greeting, to refresh our memories of those heroic days and scenes, to renew the old song and story of camp and march, and to bid each other god speed through the few remaining years vouchsafed to us.
Soldiers, I wish it were possible for me to express the joy I feeling your hearty grasp and in the look of kindness and affection that beams from your eyes. no one can know as I know what true men you are. No one can know better than I how much the country owes to your valor. No other had occasion to feel the gratitude for that valor ad displayed on the field of Gettysburg. Whatever reputation I have as a soldier, I owe to you.
It has seemed to me that I could, perhaps, make no better return for the obligation I owe you than to prepare carefully for this occasion a history of our regiment, so that your services for your country could be preserved in permanent form, and to that end I took measures at once after being selected to address you to-day, to collect material for this purpose; but the time has been too short to obtain the full data that will be required to make a complete history, and I therefore thought it best not to attempt to carry out the project now, but to complete the arrangements which this occasion affords to carry it out in the future. I shall therefore content myself with a mere outline, which I promise shall be filled up as soon as all the facts can be collected.
The failure of the Peninsular campaign of 1862 and of the campaign of Gen. Pope immediately after, compelled the government to resort to extreme efforts to protect the nation's Capitol and resist the victorious march of the rebel army northward.
One means of meeting this emergency was to call our a large force of men to serve for nine months.
Vermont was authorized under that call to raise five regiments, of about 1,000 men each.
The 16th was one of these regiments. I pass by now the account of the location and organization of the several companies, with the remark that they, ten in number, were all recruited and organized in the counties of Windham and Windsor in the late summer and early fall of 1862. The regimental organization was effected by the election of Field officers at a meeting of the Line officers at Bellows Falls, on the 27th day of September of that year. The regiment was ordered to rendezvous at Brattleboro, Oct. 9th, and was mustered into the United States service o the 23d day of the same month by Maj. Wm. Austin, of the U. S. A., at camp Fort Dummer, Brattleboro. Leaving Brattleboro for the seat of war o the next day, they arrived at Washington on the 27th of October, having received the customary ovation tendered to troops along the route on their way to the front, and especially at New Haven, New York and Philadelphia.
After passing two or three days in Washington we crossed the river that was regarded as the geographical division between loyalty and treason, and entered upon that routine of duties which prepared us to be soldiers.
We passed into Virginia Oct. 30th, and encamped first near Ball's Crossroads, at Camp Seward, where we remained until Nov. 3d, when we moved to Huntoon Creek, near Alexandria, and went into camp, which was named Camp Vermont, and where we expected to remain through the winter and made preparations accordingly.
Here began that round of duties, picket, guard, fatigue, and drill four times each day, which made you grumble so much, and scold about your Colonel, and probably you would never have stopped scolding if Gettysburg had not come to my relief and shown you the advantage of perfection in drill and discipline when standing before the enemy in battle.
On the 12th of December the order came to leave our nicely stockaded tents and log houses, (I slept in mine just one night,) and move on still further into the enemy's country. Our next camp was near Fairfax Station, and here we continued the same routine, except we had more picket duty to perform and an occasional raid by Stuart's cavalry. during all this time the officers recited to me each night in tactics and army regulations. Here it was that we had those brigade drills, reviews and inspections, and those magnificent dress parades which won you the reputation of being one of the finest appearing regiments in the army.
Here it was that the old veteran of the regular army, Gen. French, who for a time commanded the division, after witnessing your movements in drill and the manual of arms, told you that you could beat the regulars.
We next went to Union MIlls, in March, and besides guarding the line of Bull Run, the regiment was pushed out on the line of the railroad to the Rappahannock river, being the first force that opened up that road since its destruction on the retreat of Pope the summer before.
And here we had the picket firing and night alarms, and Moseby's raids, and a thousand and one incidents to give a sort of zest to the service and help to make us soldiers.
And here, in spite of the strict orders not to forage, and of the fact that no rations were issued except hard tack, pork and coffee, you seemed to lack no luxury that that rich country afforded.
Fresh meat, poultry, hams, butter, eggs, milk, vegetables, seemed to be contributed in the utmost profusion by some unseen hand. I have never yet heard this mystery explained.
It is true those old Virginia farmers used to come to my quarters occasionally and complain that certain pigs and chickens, etc., had disappeared, but when I would show them the stringent orders against foraging or trespassing on any man's premises, they could not reasonably believed it was any of you who had "reached" in their direction. And it was while here that we heard the distant booming of cannon at Chancellorsville, and expected and indeed hoped to receive orders to join the Potomac army so as to participate in the mighty struggle upon the Rappahannock.
But it was reserved for the untried Green Mountain boys to test their valor on the free soil of the north. And in late June the Potomac army began to approach us and rapidly passed on in a northerly direction, and soon after we were ordered to follow and join them; and this was our famous march to Gettysburg, at the rate of about twenty miles per day for a week.
The regiment left Union Mills on the 25th of June in heavy marching order, with 100 rounds of ammunition and seven days' rations.
It was a week of most intense heat, relieved only by violent showers, which were about frequent enough to keep us completely drenched day and night. Long before our arrival at Gettysburg you had thrown away blankets, overcoats, knapsacks; about everything except cartridge box and musket.
You all remember the drenching showers of the first day of July, the day we marched from Emmettsburg to Gettysburg, and the tremendous efforts we made as we heard the distant roar of the battle to reach the scene of action; but impeded by the rain and mud the battle for the day was over as we marched upon the field.
That night we slept on our arms, except a detail for picket duty, and I doubt not you each felt conscious that it was the night before a battle. The thoughts at such a time can better be imagined than described, and are too sacred for utterance.
The next day, as you remember, which opened hot and sultry, we lay behind the crest of a hill drying ammunition, cleaning our rifles, dodging the shells as they came whizzing over us, and waiting the order of attack. And towards night it came, when the third corps, under Sickles, supported by the second, under Hancock, was fighting their great battle with Longstreet. Sickles had moved forward and occupied a position considerably to the front of the general line, and this movement resulted in the terrific struggle which there took place, with disaster to Sickles' corps, and it was to reinforce that portion of the line that our brigade was ordered to move to the left.
As you moved along the ridge which slopes off from Cemetery Hill toward round top, you for the first time saw a battle in the height of its fury and rage. All over that portion of the field for two or three miles the smoke had settled so densely as to render everything obscure; but through it, here and there, burst the lurid light of musketry fire and of the bursting shell.
Back through the roar and tumult and confusion poured the broken columns, closely followed by the enemy, until he saw your long line of gleaming bayonets, and as they advanced he turned back and the struggle of that day was over, leaving you in the fore-front of the position which Gen. Meade designed to hold.
Soon after the whole regiment was detailed for picket duty that night; and as soon as it was fairly dark, the line was posted, as your remember, from near the village of Gettysburg on the right, across the battlefield of that day, out toward Round Top on the left.
As I rode up and down the line that night, strewn as the grounds was with dead and wounded men in blue and grey, and heard the groans and lamentations; the piteous cries for help, for a drop of water, for a listening ear to receive a dying message, and heard the imprecations and curses of those in delirium, it seemed to me then and has ever since, that most trying night that a well man ever experienced.
I confess it required all the resolution I could muster to sustain me through it; and you will not wonder that I was very anxious as to its effect on your who had never seen anything of the kind before, and as I contemplated the probable ordeal of the next day.
At last morning came, and with it that early attack on our front which you quickly repulsed. Then followed that long, hot, dry, trying forenoon, when you were watching the enemy in front and listening to the furious battle which seemed and was in fact directly in our rear -- not that we were surrounded, but in the horseshoe-like formation of the lines of our army, the right flank, where the battle of that forenoon was being fought, was directly behind our position.
And then toward noon came the lull, and after that the cannonade and the vigorous assault on the left center which we occupied.
I alluded to it at the beginning of this address.
I could not describe it if I tried, and I need not to you because you saw it and were most conspicuous in it.
You remember how well we hugged the ground while an average of 600 reports of cannon and bursting shell per minute roared in our ears and filled the air with deadly missiles.
You remember how valiantly you, while deployed as skirmishers, repulsed the rebel skirmish line which preceded the charging columns.
You remember how steadily you rallied and formed as you fell back before the main body of the enemy as he charged down the slope. How with the 13th and 14th regiments some ten rods to the front of the general front line of battle, you rose as if suddenly grown out of the earth, and poured those deadly volleys into the opposing ranks as they came within range of your trusty rifles. How the enemy broke and surged off to the right as though to pass by.
How you wheeled out and formed on the left of the 13th, and moved on the rebel flank, firing as you advanced. And how his lines withered and disappeared under your destructive fire. And then how another column of the enemy came rushing down in a direction that would carry him by our flank and rear as we were then situated.
It always seemed to me that your conduct from this time better showed your bravery and your skill and discipline and soldierly qualities than anything else you did throughout the battle.
In the movement we had made, and in the capture of prisoners, the regiment had become very much broken.
The appearance of this new force, about to pass us as before described, made it necessary for rapid and decided action on our part.
It was plain that we must do one of two things, either double quick back to our original position with a view of reaching it before the enemy did, and so be there to receive him as he came down and advanced on our artillery, which was on the rise of ground to our rear, or change front, (we then being faced at nearly right angles toward the right,) so as to face obliquely to the left and charge the enemy's flank as he should reach the bottom of the valley, along which was the ditch and bushes where we had been during the forenoon.
With an ordinary regiment the latter plan would have been an act of desperate folly.
It seems to me now almost inconceivable that in the confusion of that terrible battle, a regiment that had begun its fight on the skirmish line, had formed into battalion under a fearful fire and in the face of a charging foe, had made a change of front and counter charge with a vigor that resulted in disorganization, could in a moment's time be straightened out, reformed, make another charge of front in the very center of the field where the battle raged in its greatest fury and men were falling every minute, and then charge again.
But at the time my confidence in you was such that I did not even debate the matter in my mind. There was in fact, no time for that, for the whole movement took place quicker than it can be described.
I decided instantly to make the change and charge, because I felt and knew you would make it if ordered.
At that moment I received an order from our lion-hearted general, who was, as usual, at the very front, to move quickly back to our original position.
This order was sent, as I now understand, before this new column of the enemy appeared but did not reach me until after its appearance, and I then understood it was made with reference to the approaching enemy. I therefore sent word back that we would be in season to take care of him. And while you were going through the movement of a change of front, I saw Gen. Stannard and explained my plan, which he was quite willing should be carried out, but at first thought it was impossible. I so well remember his remark, "Good God colonel, your men will do almost anything, but the men don't live this side of Hell that can be made to charge down there." My reply, whatever it was, convinced him to let us try. By that time you had completed the change of front and the enemy had reached the point to be struck, and I remember, as I stepped in your front and said, "Men are you ready for a charge?" your shout of response seemed to me could be heard from Virginia to Vermont, and instantly the order was given and before the enemy could change his front to meet you or could fall back, you reached his flank and swept down his line capturing regiment after regiment, and stand after stand of colors, until the whole line had disappeared, and the battle of Gettysburg was victoriously closed by the sons of Vermont all unused to battle, amide the thundering plaudits of the veterans of the grand old army of the Potomac.
This movement had the effect to concentrate a heavy artillery fire upon us which continued after the charge was over, and caused us severe loss. It was after this that Lieutenant Lawton, that accomplished and favorite young officer fell.
The question is often asked me how we could go through such a battle without greater loss, it being less than 150 out of a total present of about 400.
The explanation is that the enemy clearly did not know our location during the artillery fire and so it was mostly over our heads, and after the infantry attack we were on the move almost constantly, hence the enemy could get no deliberate range upon us.
During this engagement two companies were in another part of the field doing equally valiant service.
But my time is rapidly wearing away and I must leave the sad scenes after the battle, the burial we gave our brave dead on the field of their glory, the mingled feelings of joy for the victory and sorrow for the loss of fallen comrades, the pursuit of the enemy till his escape across the Potomac, never again to pollute the free soil of the north with the foot of treason, the return home at the expiration of our term, the happy greetings of friends; the muster out and final separation on the 10th day of August, 1863. All these and many other things I must leave to your own quickened memories, promising however that it shall at some future time be put into history.
But I cannot close my remarks without allusion to those of our number who by their martyrdom sealed their devotion to their country. I cannot mention them all, but I now recall Emery, and Howard and Larned and morse of Co. A, and Ranny and Jacobs of Co. B, and Baldwin and Ashley and Lambe, Spaulding and Winship of Co. C, and Cook and Dyer and Martin and Spring of Co. D, and Tarbell and Tyrill and White of Co. E, and Chandler of F, and Davis and Stevens of H, and Cook and Lincoln and Pierce of I. And there were many others who died of their wounds and exposures of the campaign. And others still who were killed in battle under subsequent enlistments, among the latter being Lieut.-Col. Cummings and Captain Eaton.
The joy of these occasions is mingled with sadness as we think of our dead comrades. Yet it is a sadness and sorrow tinged with pleasure, because we remember them with pride. We remember that they were patriots and heroes and martyrs.
We remember that they did all that men can do for country.
They gave their lives that the nation might continue to live.
To have been associated with them was our greatest honor.
I remember well the noble, patriotic words of Captain Eaton.
He was severely wounded early in the engagement and taken to the rear. The next day I visited him and the other wounded men in the hospital. He lay upon the floor of a barn, the torture of his wound being intensified by the fearful July heat, but almost the first words he said to me, were: "Colonel, I shall not be able to return home with you, and I have one request to make; that you will immediately apply to the Governor to give me another commission if another regiment is raised. I am determined to see this war through if I live." He had his commission and served until he was killed in battle as the Major of the 17th regiment.
Such indeed was the spirit of all. There was with all, both those who are now dead and those who now survive, a display of patriotic devotion such as the world never saw surpassed.
While this spirit lasts our country is safe.
Therefore cultivate it, my comrades. Infuse it into your children. Keep it alive by meetings like this. Celebrate your deeds in song and story by the hearth-stones. Invoke the eloquence of the orator and the muse of the poet at your festivals. Strew fairest flowers upon the graves of your fallen comrades, rebuild the camp fires, and while there is one tottering soldier left to repeat the story of those grand old heroic days, be assured it will rekindle the first of patriotism and loyalty in the hearts of a grateful people.
Return to 1878 Reunion
Source: Sixteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers. Reunions and Rosters 1878 and 1888. Montpelier, Vt.: Argus and Patriot Book and Job Printing House, 1889.
Contributed by: Mike Ellis, Rochester, MI, great-grandson of Private George A. Ellis, Dummerston, Co. I, 16th Vermont Volunteer Infantry.
See Colonel Veazey's biography