Vermont gunmakers armed the Union

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The seventh article in an occasional series about the Bennington area and the Civil War, focusing on soldiers and units from the Green Mountain State and on life at the home front. MARK E. RONDEAU

Staff Writer

WINDSOR -- This small Vermont town played an instrumental part in arming the Union during the Civil War, recent research by a scholar preparing an exhibition for the American Precision Museum has revealed.

An armory complex in town during the war centered on the three-story brick building on Main Street that now houses the Precision Museum, which is dedicated to telling the story of the mechanical arts and precision manufacturing in America.

"Altogether, the North produced more than 1.5 million rifles in the span of about three years, along with tens of thousands of pistols and carbines," states a flyer for the exhibition "Arming the Union: Gunmakers in Windsor, Vermont," currently on display at the museum. "The majority of those weapons were made using machinery designed and produced in Windsor."

Arming for war at the site pre-dated the Civil War, as the brick building housed a firm named Robbins & Lawrence, which built machines to make guns for the U.S. war with Mexico in the 1840s and for Britain’s Crimean War in the 1850s, according to a booklet by Carrie Brown, curator of "Arming the Union."

After these wars ended, the factory shifted to building sewing machines and other peacetime products.

By 1861, Robbins & Lawrence had failed. The new owner of the mill, Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, was based in Shelburne, Mass. "These manufacturers of scythes and cutlery had developed an interest in machine tools, purchased the armory at a bargain price, and then added sewing machines to their product line," Brown writes. "Ebenezer Lamson, who was responsible for the firm’s operations in Windsor, happened also to be a fervent abolitionist."

With the secession of the Southern states in 1861 and the start of the Civil War, the facility returned to making guns, gun parts, and gun-making machines. Lamson went to Washington, D.C., and secured a contract to manufacture 50,000 rifles. However, it was as a maker and supplier of precision machine tools that the firm made its greatest contribution.

"Sales records for the Windsor armory -- recently uncovered at the American Precision Museum -- make it possible to assess what effect this small firm, in a small town in Vermont, had on the war at large," Brown writes. "The impact would be enormous."

By the fall of 1862, manufacturing of arms for the Union was spread out among the Springfield (Mass.) Armory and 24 private contractors, which freely shared parts and information. Lamson, Goodnow & Yale made many of the machine tools used at these factories. "Altogether, as many as one-third of the Model 1861 rifle-muskets were made at factories with a large number of LG&Y machines, and the vast majority were made at facilities that had one or more," Brown writes. "Add to that, tens of thousands of carbines, pistols, and bayonets made on LG&Y machines, and the impact of the Windsor firm becomes clear."

The American Precision Museum on June 1 held an opening celebration for both "Arming the Union" and for another exhibition sharing the same display space, "Full Duty: The Civil War Collection of Howard Coffin" -- also curated by Brown.

"Full Duty" is the title of the 1993 book about Vermont and the Civil War by Coffin, probably the foremost modern author on the Green Mountain State and that conflict.

Interviewed during the celebration, Coffin said that he has been collecting Civil War memorabilia for 40 years, and what’s in "Full Duty" is about one-third of his collection, which has never been exhibited before. He recently submitted to his publisher a book about Civil War-related sites in Vermont, he said.

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What did he think about the relationship between the two exhibitions in the same space, "Arming the Union" and "Full Duty"?

"I thought it’s kind of a tenuous link up in the beginning, although there were 50,000 rifle muskets made in this building during the Civil War," Coffin said. "Now we know through Carrie Brown’s research that maybe half of the rifles and pistols made for the Union Army had a connection to this building, so it becomes a tremendously important historic site.

"So having a Civil War exhibit here is absolutely correct; it’s exciting," he added. "This is a very important American Civil War site, and we didn’t know that until months ago."

"Arming the Union" features many heavy machine tools arrayed mostly along the walls of the first floor exhibition space. One of these is an 1853 rifling machine made by Robbins & Lawrence, a gift of the Smith & Wesson Co. "Rifling" is the spiral grooving in rifle barrels that makes the bullet spin, aiding accuracy, an innovation adopted around the time of the Civil War. Above this machine at the exhibition is a computer-generated video showing how it worked. Among a whole group of machine tools behind a waist-high partition is a milling machine made by Robbins & Lawrence used to shape the lock plates of rifles. Elsewhere sits a huge iron planer, circa 1864, made in Windsor by E.G. Lamson and sold to the Springfield Armory, among other gun manufacturers.

Adding flavor to the exhibition are such permanent features as an enclosed area in the center of the exhibition space with working machine tools. During the opening celebration, two young craftsmen and one older man were demonstrating the use of a couple of machine tools.

"Full Duty" includes documents ranging from one signed by president Lincoln to the Aug. 31, 1864, enlistment paper of Coffin’s great grandfather Elba Jillson, of Pomfret, who served in the 9th Vermont Regiment.

Items from individual soldiers include several items from Captain Ora Paul of Woodstock, who served in both the 1st and 12th Vermont regiments, including a pistol, a copybook listing supplies, candlestick holders, and photos of him and his wife.

At the heart of "Full Duty" is a cabinet of items from William D. Munson, of Colchester, a 1854 graduate of Norwich University, Vermont’s military academy. As a Lt. Colonel, second in command of the 13th Vermont Regiment, he participated in breaking Pickett’s famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Coffin said that one of his favorite items in the exhibition was a small Bible in the pocket of Cpl. Wesley C. Sturtevant, of Weybridge, who with the 14th Vermont Regiment was killed at Gettysburg right before Pickett’s Charge.

"If you open up the Bible, it’s not open there, you’ll see the bullet hole and the blood; the bullet smashed through the Bible and killed him," Coffin said. "Just before that incident, his cousin was talking with him and Wesley Sturtevant said, ‘I’m going to die today.’ He predicted his own death, and indeed he did."

One of the most unusual items in "Full Duty," is a Ku Klux Klan outfit given to Coffin recently by a Connecticut woman who found it in the attic of her family home in Plainfield in 1970. It dated from 1928 when the Klan came to Vermont in an attempt to stir up anti-Catholic feeling with the candidacy for U.S. President of Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for the office.

During his remarks to more than 100 people packing the exhibition space, Coffin spoke with what one person attending later called "the power of a Southern Baptist minister."

Brown’s research shows, "believe it or not, that probably half of the rifle muskets and pistols used by the Union Armies can somehow be tied in their manufacture to this building," Coffin said. "That makes this an incredibly important Civil War site.

"And personally I don’t like wars very much, though they fascinate me, and I’m not crazy about guns. But the Civil War had to be won, and it could not have been done without this place and the weapons it produced," he said. "It had to be won because America was a myth until 1860-61 or 1865, because we talked about equal rights for everyone, a ‘land of the free,’ and (yet) four million people were enslaved.

"The Civil War changed all that," Coffin said. "The Civil War had to be won to make Abraham Lincoln’s promise come true that this was ‘the best hope of earth.’ And what was made here gave this nation a new birth of freedom."


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