Author Tom Fontaine teaches youngsters about Civil War in 'Grafton's Medical Men'

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GRAFTON — In his new book "Grafton's Medical Men," author Tom Fontaine takes young readers on an imaginative field trip across the battlefields of the Civil War, to the canvas medical tents and surgical tables where two Grafton doctors struggle to keep the wounded alive during the historic Battle of Gettysburg, and shed tears in the face of the horrific loss of life.

"I like to bring whatever I am teaching about to life," Fontaine said, adding that it's important for the young readers to picture what's going on in the book. "To see it, feel it, hear it. You care ... you have a connection with these characters."

"Grafton's Medical Men" is Fontaine's third in a series, sometimes fictionalized, on the role the men and boys from this small southern Vermont town played in the Civil War. The first, "The Messenger Boy of Grafton, Vermont," features a 14-year-old who joined the 16th Vermont Volunteers in 1862. The second, "The Grafton Cavaliers," recounts the experience of the only cavalry unit in the war comprised entirely of college students, and the lifelong friendship of two soldiers from Grafton. All three were published by the Grafton Historical Society.

Fontaine said his love of the Civil War was stoked by the late Francis Coyne, his social studies teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School. The two would sit together, even on snow days, and talk about the Civil War and Vermont's role in the battles. Over time, those conversations began to take shape in Fontaine's mind.

"I wanted write a story to read to my students after lunch," said Fontaine, who taught fifth and sixth grade at the Grafton Elementary School at that time. But that story grew into a book "written for kids to give the students a real insight into how a 14-year-old soldier saw the Civil War ... through the eyes of a young character."

"The Messenger Boy of Grafton, Vermont" was published in 2016, although it was written 20 years earlier. Fontaine considered publishing the work earlier, but found the expense too high. It wasn't until the Grafton Historical Society took an interest in the book and agreed to take on the project that he fine-tuned the work for publication.

The story is based on a real character, Henry Spring, who enlisted in 1862 as a private in the 16th Vermont Volunteers with other Grafton men. Fontaine fictionalized Spring's experience, making him a messenger boy, to make the story more appealing to younger readers.

"I decided I would go up to a local graveyard in Grafton and find a person who was part of the Civil War and use him as my character," Fontaine said in an interview at the time. So, he began "walking around this vastness of graves and reading each one, and I come upon Henry Spring, age 15, died in the Battle of Gettysburg. It caught me. Age 14 when he signed up. I teach kids ... they'd be able to relate to a person their age."

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Just as the real Henry Spring did, the boy in Fontaine's book dies on the battlefield at Gettysburg, considered the turning point of the war for the Union Army.

The second book, "The Grafton Cavaliers," featured two young men from Grafton who were best friends throughout their lives, and served together in the only Civil War cavalry unit composed entirely of college students. One of the men, Samuel B. Pettengill, was featured in the first book; the other was Wilder Luke Burnap, who became a Burlington attorney after the war. "They were friends until the day they died," Fontaine said.

Last week, "Grafton's Medical Men" was released, this one also using characters featured in the previous books. Edward Pettengill (Samuel's brother) and Dr. Castanus B. Park Jr. served as medics in the Battle of Gettysburg. The book is graphic, describing amputations and men burned by searing pieces of cannon-blasted metal.

Fontaine researched his books using old family journals, letters and other existing documents from the era, much of it found online through the Vermont Historical Society. Most of the characters were real, even if their stories were fictionalized, and often the chapters feature historic photographs to draw the reader into the scene.

Fontaine admits to being a little obsessed with the Civil War. A carpenter during the summer months, he chuckled as he recalled doing remodeling work some years ago on the home of a friend, Tim Clark, on Maple Street in Saxtons River. The two decided to walk the local streets in search of Edward Pettengill's home, using an old photograph of the place. Fontaine knew Samuel Pattengill had also lived in that house with his brother.

Unable to find the house, Clark suggested it must have burned at some point, just as Clark's home had done many years before he bought it. That gave Fontaine an idea, and the two looked up Clark's deed - to discover that the house Fontaine had just spent six weeks remodeling once belonged to Edward Pettengill.

"It's been an honor to be able to bring these names to life," he said. And, he added, "I've met a lot of cool people along the way."

The books are available for purchase at the Grafton Historical Society and Museum at 147 Main St., which can be reached at 802-843-2584 and at grafhist@vermontel.net.


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