KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- If you thought this town had little to do with the Civil War, it might interest you to know that every piece of gunpowder manufacturing equipment used in the war was built here.
Additionally, not only did Bennington have its share of Confederate sympathizers, but after the war former Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife visited Bennington to see her mother, who had taken ill.
Given that it’s hundreds of miles away from the front line and with its defining feature a 306-foot obelisk commemorating a Revolutionary War battle, one might be forgiven for thinking Bennington had nothing to do with the Civil War. However, a new book by local author Bill Morgan shows otherwise.
Morgan originally intended to organize a bus tour of Bennington’s Civil War history, but at the urging of Tyler Resch, research librarian at the Bennington Museum, he started to write an article for the Walloomsac Review.
"Initially, the biggest challenge was that people didn’t believe there was any Civil War history here," Morgan said." We’re so much focused on the Revolutionary War that people said, ‘Well, you won’t have enough for a bus tour,’ or ‘It won’t be interesting,’ or something like that."
Not only did he find enough information for an article, but a book. Again, at Resch’s urging, he went to The History Press and published "Bennington and the Civil War."
The Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865, making this five-year period the war’s 150th anniversary. Morgan said that is what prompted him to write the book. He has been published many times before and mainly writes about the Beat Generation, so this was something of a break for him.
Morgan is also planning a book on Civil War history as it pertains to New York City, where he used to live for many years, and is another place where many people do not believe there is much of a connection to the Civil War.
Much of Morgan’s research on Bennington’s role in the war was done by reading through editions of the Bennington Banner between 1861 and 1865. The paper, then a weekly, contained a great deal of information on how locals were responding to the war. Morgan was then able to follow up on the newspaper reports with other sources, and used the museum for most of the book’s photographs.
Gunpowder factory explosions, a flamboyantly dressed "Zouave" regiment that drilled alongside a group of equally flamboyantly dressed children, threats between pro-Union and pro-rebel Benningtonians to burn down buildings, the draft, draft bounties, and the economic boom that resulted from the war are some of the things Morgan explores in the book.
"A lot of the stories surprised me. The one I’d recommend is this Post Script story," Morgan said, in reference to Jefferson Davis’ wife and mother-in-law visiting Bennington for a brief time
Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America.
"At the end of the war he was arrested by the United States and was going to stand trial for treason," Morgan said. "They kept him in prison for two years, but then they let him out of prison on bail, and he was allowed to go to Canada, which seems remarkable to us today. He was in Canada and his wife and children were with him, but his wife’s mother came to visit someone in Bennington who lived very close to where the (Bennington Battle) monument is now. His house was knocked down for the monument, in fact."
Davis’ mother-in-law became ill during her visit, so her daughter, Davis’ wife, came to pick her up and take her to Canada. Morgan said the mother died the day she got back.
"In the Bennington Banner was an article, and that’s what tipped me off about this," Morgan said. According to the article, letters had been passed through the Bennington Post Office addressed to the "Honorable Jefferson Davis." A Banner editorial read, "Honorable, indeed! What is it this man has done -- the most infamous traitor in all the passage of time, to make him honorable?"
This may have prompted Mrs. Davis to write in her autobiography, "In Bennington I had additional proof of how far party and sectional rancor could carry people, and how pitiless they become."
The first half of Morgan’s book is an account of Bennington during the war years while the second acts as a guide to local historical sites with a Civil War connection. Morgan said the book, which is priced at around $20, will be available at local bookshops, the Bennington Museum, and other locations.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.