Grant crossed the Rapidan River with his army of over 115,000 men on May 4, 1864, and immediately set out on the bloody task of defeating Lee’s 64,000 rebels and capturing Richmond. Among those who served valiantly in what became known as the Overland Campaign of 1864 were Vermonters who played a key role in the defeat of Lee’s army, beginning with the first meeting of the two great armies on May 5, 1864.
On Monday, bells tolled across the towns of Vermont at 4 pm to mark the time when Vermont’s 1st Brigade was called into action at the Battle of the Wilderness. The first battle of the campaign, the Wilderness was fought in the same woods near Chancellorsville, VA, where the Confederates had won a victory the previous year, marked by a daring, unorthodox split of their army, and the wound that killed Lee’s right-hand man Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
According to Howard Coffin, Vermont Civil War historian and author of “The Battered Stars,” a book detailing Vermont’s involvement in the Overland Campaign, it’s not surprising that Vermonters fought valiantly at such a crux as the Wilderness. “They were good soldiers,” said Coffin. “They could shoot, take orders, they were physically tough, and they had the benefit of a military academy at Norwich. I would say they were among the best soldiers in the war.”
The Vermont 1st Brigade was part of Gen. George W. Getty’s 4th Corps, which saw action in the center of the Union line on the first day of battle. As the Confederate Army advanced toward an undefended crossroads at Brock Road and Orange Plank Road, the Vermont boys were called up and of 2,800 men in the 1st Brigade, 1,234 were killed, wounded or missing within 12 hours, defending the crossroads. By holding the center through two attacks, the 1st Brigade helped save Grant’s army from splitting in two, and ultimately helped win the battle. The 1st would be decimated again a month later at Cold Harbor, the final battle of the campaign, which brought their casualties to over 1,600 men in just over one month
Many soldiers from the Deerfield Valley were wounded in the battle, according to Civil War records available at www.vermontcivilwar.org. Soldier Andrew Vorce, of Wilmington, was killed in action at the battle. Lewis Pike, a 23-year-old soldier from Whitingham, was mortally wounded in the battle, and died from his wounds two days later. Willard Bugbee, a 22-year-old soldier from Dover died from wounds received in the battle almost two months later. William Vose, 18, of Searsburg, was wounded at the battle but survived, along with George Washington Rice, 18, of Readsboro.
Coffin coordinated the statewide ringing of the bells as an honor to those who fought, and also as a Vermont tradition. During the Civil War, church bells were rung when word came of victory at Gettysburg, the capture of Richmond, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. More recently, bells were rung for the state’s 200th birthday, as well as the 200th birthday of Lincoln. “I thought, what better way to mark what Vermont did in the Wilderness than to ring the bells,” said Coffin.
While the Civil War has drifted further into history each year, marking the triumph of our ancestors is important to Coffin, who gave the dedication speech at a monument in Virginia, which marks the spot where the 1st Brigade was positioned at the Wilderness. On Monday, a wreath was laid at the monument.
“The Civil War keeps getting further away but we know more about the Civil War and the men who fought in it than ever before,” said Coffin.
“As Lincoln made clear in his address at Gettysburg, the Civil War was fought for one very noble cause: for human freedom. That is as noble a cause as any to fight and die for and it’s always worth remembering these people who gave their lives for that cause.”