'Put the Vermonters ahead'

buzzSteven Gunlock has memorized the lines of a telegram President Abraham Lincoln sent to Vermont’s governor in the spring of 1861.

As the Civil War began, Lincoln sent a message to Gov. Erastus Fairbanks: "Washington is in grave danger. What may we expect of Vermont?"  The governor’s reply: "Vermont will do its full duty"

Fairbanks called a special session of the state Legislature and told lawmakers, "The United States government must be sustained and the rebellion suppressed, at whatever cost of men and treasure."

Vermonters fulfilled that pledge.

“They really did serve. And they served selflessly,” said Gunlock, who has been a “living historian” for the past 50 years and will spend the days before Independence Day remembering Vermonters’ tenacity and resilience on the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa. The Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1 to July 3, 1863.

Gunlock, 63, often wears full a Union Army uniform, complete with a Civil War rifle made in Windsor, Vt., to help bring the state’s history to life. He tells the story of Vermont’s commitment to the Civil War through the eyes of a 46-year sergeant from Vergennes, Vt., named Josiah Buck. Buck lost three of his 11 children during the Civil War and ultimately died himself, said Gunlock, who prefers the term “living historian” to “re-enactor.” 

During the Battle of Gettysburg, waged from July 1 to July 3, 1863, Vermonters fought heroically. Under the command of Gen. George Stannard, Vermonters “broke the back of Pickett’s charge,” Gunlock said, helping lead the Union Army to victory in the decisive battle.

generalAnother Vermonter, William Wells, won the Medal of Honor for leading his men in a daring cavalry charge against Confederate lines during the Battle of Gettysburg. A statue was built in his honor in both Gettysburg and in Burlington’s Battery Park. Wells served as Vermont’s Adjutant General after the Civil War.

The importance of Vermont’s role in the Civil War and other wars is not lost on Michelle Kapusta, 39, of Underhill, Vt., who was touring Vermont Veterans Militia Museum and Library with her three children last week.  “Their Dad is in the Army and my son is fascinated by this place,” she said of the Colchester museum. “It’s good for them to know the history - and why we fight for our freedoms.”

Despite its small size, Vermont was a major contributor to the Union Army.

The rate that Vermonters volunteered to fight in the Civil War particularly impressed Gunlock.  In all, 33,200 Vermonters fought in the war, or more than 10 percent of the state’s population at the time, figures compiled by the Vermont National Guard state.

“Just imagine seeing Fenway Park -- and fill that entirely up with Vermonters,”  Gunlock said.
Major William McKern compiled data on Vermonters’ contribution to nation’s wars for the Vermont National Guard. He determined 28,200 Vermonters served in the state militia and another 5,000 enlisted for federal service during the Civil War. At the time, the state’s estimated population was 320,000.

Nearly half of Vermont’s men of military-age signed on, Gunlock said. McKern agrees with that estimate.

Vermonters suffered 5,194 deaths, during the Civil War, McKern wrote for a presentation used by the Guard. The figures include 1,832 Vermonters killed or mortally wounded in battle; 2,747 who died of disease or other causes and 615 who died while prisoners. More than 2,200 Vermonters were taken prisoner during the war, he said. Major McKern, 45, is the Vermont National Guard’s unofficial historian. The designated historian, he said, is currently deployed to Afghanistan.  

The history of the Vermonters who fought during the Civil War lives on. The Vermont National Guard’s 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, now deployed in Afghanistan, uses a famous line from the Civil War - “Put the Vermonters ahead” -- as its motto today, McKern said.
The line comes from a famous order by Union General John Sedgwick.

When the battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Sedgwick’s soldiers were in Maryland, 35 miles from the battlefield.  “At dusk orders came to move, but it was about 10 o'clock at night before the column started for Gettysburg. It was on this occasion that General Sedgwick issued his famous order: ‘Put the Vermonters ahead and keep the column well closed up,’” according to historical website cited by the major.

Vermonters “march faster and longer”, McKern said. Putting the Vermonters in the front would advance the army most quickly.

Life Changing History

museumVermont’s role in the Civil War is an engaging historical chapter that has persuaded some to change the course of their lives.

Paul Zeller, 64, of Williamstown, Vt., was born in West Virginia and lived most his of life in Virginia. Despite his southern ties, he wrote two books about Vermont’s involvement in the Civil War after being intrigued by a set of identification tags he found in 1977 while fiddling with his metal detector in Newport News, Va. The ID tags were from a Union soldier from Brattleboro, Vt.

“They just caught my interest,” he said, explaining what inspired him to research Vermonters’ role during the war. “That dog tag changed my life.”

Zeller became so fond of Vermont, he moved here three years ago. Like Gunlock, Zeller is impressed by Vermonters’ dedication to fighting the war.

“Vermont, proportional to its population, lost so many because they were so tenacious and would always be used to plug holes,” Zeller said. “And they tended not to retreat, too hard-headed.”

Volunteers from Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery, signed up in great number. “They were fighting because their grandfathers fought to make a country and they resented the fact that someone was tearing it apart,” Zeller said.

Another Generation of Storytellers

Gunlock’s passion for the Civil War is contagious.buzz

Gunlock grew up in Maryland, a border state during the Civil War, in a family that cherished storytelling as a tradition. “It spoke to me at a very early age,” said Gunlock, who has a traveling museum with thousands of artifacts from the Civil War. He calls it “The Traveling Civil War Knowledge Emporium.” 

He takes great joy in sharing the details about Vermont’s involvement in the war. When the southern states were blockaded and the source of sugar was limited, for example, Vermont maple syrup helped fill the void, he said. The Union Army’s uniforms, he adds, were made mostly from wool from Vermont’s sheep.

Gunlock has helped inspire another generation of Vermonters to help preserve the stories of the Civil War. Tim Williams, 19, of St. George, has been learning about the details of the war since he was 13 and joined Gunlock to speak about Vermonters role in the war. Williams is now studying at Johnson State College to be a history teacher.

MASSIVE PAINTING, MODEST MUSEUM – Outside the gates of the Vermont National Guard at Camp Johnson in Colchester, Vt., the Vermont Veterans Militia Museum and Library houses a 17-foot by 28-foot painting from 1890 depicting Vermonters during the Battle of Cedar Creek. To learn more about the museum, click here.