Bennington’s surprising Civil War history

Thursday May 9, 2013


County News Editor

BENNINGTON -- Bill Morgan, author and president of the Bennington Historical Society, presented a sweeping and detailed overview recently of Bennington’s role in the Civil War.

Though not specifically billed as such, his hour-long talk at the Bennington Museum on April 21 served as a preview to his 5,400-word article on the same topic set to run in the Walloomsack Review summer issue, available in mid-July. Moreover, as Jamie Franklin, Bennington Museum curator of collections, noted when introducing Morgan and his talk, the museum is planning a Southwestern Vermont in the Civil War exhibition this summer and fall.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, Morgan said.

"Although we in Bennington think of the Revolutionary War as our war and the Battle of Bennington as our battle, it wasn’t the war in which the greatest number of Bennington men fought; it was actually the Civil War, where over a thousand men from the county went off to fight," Morgan said. "But the battles that they fought weren’t the only stories during those years. There were other struggles that were taking place on the home front. The participants were the parents, wives, and children of the soldiers. They were the people who watched their boys go off to war, perhaps never to return."

This newspaper played a significant part in keeping people informed during the war and obviously in Morgan’s research as well.

"For four years people in Bennington read the pages of the Bennington Banner hoping that the names of their loved ones would not appear on the list of casualties," he said.

Background on the war

The spirit of abolition was strong in Vermont before the war. "In a census taken of the state in 1772 there were a total of 16 slaves in Vermont, and all of those actually lived in Bennington. In 1777, Vermont’s constitution ... was the first to outlaw slavery," Morgan said.

"And for comparison’s sake, remember that in 1778, the following year, the Massachusetts constitution clearly recognized slavery as a legal institution, and New York state did not abolish slavery until 1827, a whole 50 years after Vermont."

In 1828, William Lloyd Garrison "came to Bennington to edit a newspaper dedicated to the abolition of slavery. It was called ‘The Journal of the Times,’" Morgan said, noting that a monument honoring his time in town is on the green near the Old First Church.

"Garrison remained in town for less than a year, but he went on in Baltimore to heading ‘The Liberator,’ which became the most influential abolitionist newspaper in the country and that had a lot to do with the debates that led directly to the Civil War."

In the years before the war, the Underground Railroad, an informal group of anti-slavery activists who helped fleeing slaves escape to Canada, was busy in Vermont. One popular route entered Vermont on the road to Troy and passed through Bennington before it turned north to Rutland and Burlington.

"A local safehouse was operated in the 1840s in the home of stagecoach driver Charles Hicks. He had a farm near today’s Rice Lane entrance to Bennington College," Morgan said.

The Rutland Herald in 1846 estimated that 80 percent of Vermonters were opposed to slavery, he said.

Morgan presented some rounded-off statistics from around the start of the war. In 1860, the census gave Vermont’s population as 315,000 people; today it’s about 626,000. Bennington’s population was 4,400.

The whole of Bennington County numbered a little less than 20,000. During the war, nearly 35,000 men enlisted statewide throughout Vermont, probably between one third and one half of the male population that was eligible to serve in the Army.

"That’s an incredibly high percentage. Of those, over 5,000 died as a result of wounds and disease," he said. "There are no accurate records on the number of wounded, but it would have been in the range of another 10,000 men. We do know that 5,000 of the men were discharged from the Army as a result of their wounds.

"During the war, Vermont’s ratio of men killed per capita was second only to Michigan, and some accounts even give Vermont the distinction of the highest," Morgan said. "Either way, it was a very costly war for both Vermont and Bennington. By the end of the war, the town of Bennington sent over 400 soldiers into combat, and Bennington County had sent over 1,000."

Unprepared for war

In spring of 1861, the U.S. was unprepared for war. The first fear was invasion of Washington D.C. by the Confederate Army. After southern forces fired on Fort Sumter, community meetings were held on April 19 and 20, 1861, at Apollo Hall in Bennington, one of the largest halls in town and one whose exact location remains a mystery.

The second meeting was held for the purposes of forming a militia. "Before the meeting, a large American flag was hung over the Four Corners intersection. Bennington’s coronet band played patriotic songs, and everyone pledged to support the Union," Morgan said.

"Ex-Governor (Hiland) Hall called the meeting to order and announced that four sons of Bennington had left that day to join the Army. After several patriotic speeches, the meeting was adjourned with three cheers for the Union, followed by the singing of the Star Spangled Banner."

"With President Lincoln’s call for troops, men were suddenly training everywhere," Morgan said. "By the fall of 1861, 5.000 Vermont men had responded and were enlisted in the Army."

Morgan detailed the volunteer units that formed specifically of Bennington area men, noting that some men from town were in the regular Army and that others enlisted in volunteer units in nearby New York and Massachusetts. Some men from the town and Bennington County even served in the Navy.

The 1st Vt. Regiment largely consisted of those who had militia experience and only served for 90 days at the very start of the war.

Company A of the 2nd Vt. Regiment, which served in most of the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac throughout the war, formed in Bennington and the men elected James Hicks Walbridge as their captain and Newton Stone as their First Lieutenant.

As the war dragged on, several other companies of Bennington area men formed. The 4th Vt. Regiment was formed of men from southern Vermont. Co. G. of the 1st Vt. Calvary regiment formed in Bennington. Co. E of the 10th Vt. Regiment was organized in Bennington, as was Co. A of the 14th Vermont Regiment, and Co. F of the 17th, and last, Vt. Regiment. Other units included a 30-man coronet band and colorfully uniformed Zouaves.

At one point, the Banner claimed that "Bennington County has the honor of having furnished more men in proportion to its size and the number of its able-bodied citizens than any other county in the state."

At the start of the war, "the large hall at the Gates hotel was turned into a vast tailoring establishment and made the uniforms for all the volunteers. Because there was no regulation uniform at the start of the war, many of them were made of gray cloth," Morgan said. "Later, the state issued orders that they must all be blue. Everyone in Bennington was eager to volunteer in some way. Women of the town immediately set about creating a large ceremonial flag for the troops."

Some businesses, like the Bennington Powder Company, worked overtime to fill government orders. "The factories in town had begun to expand even before the war, and they continued to grow throughout the war," Morgan said. "The town’s population actually grew nearly 35 percent during the 1860s, to become nearly 6,000 in 1870. The growth occurred in spite of the fact that so many workers had been lost to the war."

But there were major bumps in the road to prosperity. The Bennington Powder Works, whose mills were a few miles east of town, about where the bypass now meets Main Street, experienced two massive, building-destroying explosions, one in 1861, the other in 1864. Both explosions occurred early in the morning so, almost-miraculously, no one was killed in either blast.

Morgan detailed numerous other items of interest. These include the two Robinson brothers from Bennington who fought for the South and stayed in North Carolina after the war; John Winslow, born in Bennington in 1810, who became a wealthy industrialist elsewhere and personally financed the first Union ironclad, the Monitor.

Henry T. Cushman of Bennington was only 17 when he joined the Army but rose to prominence as a highly efficient quartermaster and courageous officer.

"At one point during the war he was in charge of small detachment of men. They ran into the famous Confederate guerilla, Col. John Singleton Mosby. They skirmished with Mosby briefly before they managed to get away but after the war Cushman and Mosby struck up a friendly correspondence that lasted for several years," Morgan said. "At war’s end Cushman returned to Bennington and in 1867 married Hiland Hall’s granddaughter."

Immediately after the war, Cushman entered business as a manufacturer in Bennington and North Bennington, eventually manufacturing furniture. Many people remember the company today.

Not surprisingly, Bennington marked with increasing celebration the events that indicated the end of the war. After the fall of Richmond to the Union Army, "Seth Hunt, whose home was called Maple Grove and is currently the administrative offices for the soldiers home had promised to roast an ox whenever Richmond was captured, and he kept his word," Morgan said. "He had a 1,600-pound ox butchered and packages of 10 pounds each were given away to the people of town."

After Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, "The end of the war had finally arrived. In Bennington all the church bells were rung for two hours at a time, interspersed with the firing of the canon that continued well into the night. In the evenings, a giant illumination took place in the Four Corners area and the people cheered and celebrated."


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