Back to the frontlines: Vt. History Expo brings Civil War home
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | June 17,2012
Mark Collier / Staff Photo
The theme for this year's Vermont History Expo "Vermont in the Civil War" brought out history buffs and Civil War enthusiasts from across Vermont, and beyond. The biannual event put on by the Vermont Historical Society has been named one of the top 10 summer events by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. In this photo, John Peterson convincingly slips into his persona as Isreal Goode, the Sutler. Sutlers were merchants who followed the army, selling goods not available as a part of the standard kit or rations supplied by the army. In the foreground, a recruitment poster seeks volunteers to fight in the Civil War.
TUNBRIDGE — It may be the largest collection of Vermont Civil War memorabilia ever assembled. But the impact of this weekend’s state History Expo is felt one item at a time.
Take the exhibit from Morristown titled “We Loved Him and He Died: George Roscoe Powers, 1843-1862.” It features a coffin and crying handkerchiefs to punctuate the story of a 19-year-old local soldier who succumbed to diphtheria a century and a half ago.
Or read the letter from Landgrove, birthplace of sharpshooter Carmillus Warner: “I suppose you are making sugar by this time,” he wrote April 11, 1863, a year before he was shot to death at age 21. “I would give something to be at home to help Page make it and eat a good deal more than I help make.”
Or peruse the frames from Rochester that picture many of the 90 men it sent off to battle — and point out the 40 who didn’t return.
Some 150 local historical societies, museums and heritage organizations are illustrating the War Between the States with period wardrobe, weapons, papers and photos brought together for a special onetime showing at the Tunbridge fairgrounds.
“This is an opportunity that will never happen again,” Howard Coffin, author of “Full Duty: Vermont in the Civil War,” said of the Expo before addressing a standing-room-only crowd Saturday.
The Vermont Historical Society’s 11th summer showcase — so big, it’s held just once every two years — chronicles the experiences of ancestors both on the battlefield and back home.
The town of Glover is spotlighting local Civil War nurse Amanda Colburn Farnham Felch, who followed her 21-year-old brother to the frontlines and, on one occasion, removed a bullet from a wounded soldier with a pair of buttonhole scissors.
Guilford is remembering native John Wolcott Phelps, an Army general who led the First Regiment Vermont Infantry Volunteers — the first such group in the nation — before becoming a poet, essayist, diarist and 1880 presidential nominee.
Randolph is recognizing residents Albert Chandler, who was President Abraham Lincoln’s personal telegrapher, and Capt. Frederick Aiken, who was a lawyer for Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt, the first female executed by the federal government.
In addition to illuminating personalities, the Expo also sheds light on state Civil War landmarks.
The Brattleboro Historical Society offers images of the site of a major local encampment where more than 10,000 of Vermont’s 35,000 soldiers were “mustered in” and, after turned into a military hospital, 4,666 survivors were “mustered out.” (The state lost more than 5,000 lives to the war.)
Bennington is featuring its Vermont Soldiers Home, built for Civil War veterans such as local boy Norman Puffer, who at 14 was thought to be the state’s youngest enlistee.
Montpelier is remembering its Sloane Civil War Hospital, which would become the site of Vermont College.
And West Fairlee is one of several communities to focus on the Battle at Virginia’s Cedar Creek, known to Vermonters who have seen it depicted in a floor-to-ceiling Statehouse painting.
The Oct. 19, 1864, conflict began with a predawn Confederate attack that overwhelmed the unsuspecting Union army. A single brigade — outnumbered by some estimates 10-to-1 — was ordered forward and held its ground for a crucial half-hour. The 8th Vermont Regiment lost 110 of its 164 men in the brutal, often hand-to-hand fighting, but the resulting Union victory clinched Lincoln’s re-election.
“Vermont did more than any other state on a per capita basis to win Mr. Lincoln’s war,” Coffin said.
And as an exhibit from Ryegate shows, the staggering amount of national casualties helped the granite-rich state become a major U.S. monument producer, with the small Caledonia County town creating 15 towering statues for Gettysburg alone.
“The History Expo is a reflection of how important our heritage is to Vermonters,” said Mark Hudson, executive director of the Vermont Historical Society. “I don’t know of another event like this anywhere in the country.”
The Expo is set to continue Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Tunbridge fairgrounds. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students or $20 for families, with more information available at the website www.vermonthistory.org.