Book Review: ‘Something Abides’ Recounts Vermont’s Contribution — And Cost — in the Civil War
H oward Coffin has established himself as the leading contemporary historian of Vermont’s role in the Civil War with his books Full Duty and Nine Months to Gettysburg . But his new book, Something Abides (Countryman Press), may be his most affecting yet.
Coffin spent six years going to every town in the state to research its contribution to the Union war effort. Organized by county, and then by towns within the county, Something Abides is an invaluable reference work for people who are interested in the Civil War as a whole, or their town’s small part in it. It can be read chapter by chapter or dipped into at will.
But there’s a larger, trenchant theme here, given America’s recent, prolonged wars. And that is the juxtaposition between the 1860s, when no town in the state (or the country) was too small to be untouched by the war, and today, when there is a vast gulf between the minority of Americans serving in the Armed Services, and the majority of Americans who are not.
So, in the town of Vergennes, in Addison County, on a December morning in 1859, the body of John Brown came in to the railroad station, three days after he’d been hanged, on its way back to New York state, where he’d lived for a number of years. In Newbury, the residents turned out on May 4, 1861 to sing the Star Bangled Banner and see J.B. Brooks, who had enlisted in the 1st Vermont, raise the flag.
In Windsor, the factory that operated out of what is now the American Precision Museum manufactured 50,000 rifles for the Union Army (at $20 each). In Norwich, the Norwich Female Abolition Society, begun in 1843, occasionally met at the Burton home on Elm Street. In Hartford, 267 men went to war — 37 died.
In Bridgewater, a Private White was killed in the attack on Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg; when his body was returned home, and Sunday services were held at Woodstock’s Methodist church, the town’s two other churches closed so that people could pay their respects to the 20-year-old.
Thomas Morris Chester, an African-American from Philadelphia who’d studied at Thetford Academy, was an integral part of raising the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, the two most celebrated companies of black soldiers serving in the Union Army. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son Henry Ellis Beecher also attended Thetford Academy and went on to Dartmouth, but drowned in the Connecticut River his freshman year.
In Topsham, it’s estimated that out of a population of 1,660, 165 men served, and 41 died. Ben Robinson, a 10-year-old African-American in North Carolina living in slavery, joined the 9th Vermont when it marched past the field he was plowing; he later came to live in Randolph, where he became a watchman in local mills, dying in 1903. His funeral was held in the town’s Methodist Church.
In Vershire, 113 men went to fight, and in their absence, some farms we re abandoned and nature reclaimed the land. Of the 13 men from Vershire who died in the war, a number of them died from disease or illnesses, some before they even reached the battlefield. When news of General Lee’s surrender arrived in Strafford on April 10, 1865, the bell at the Town House rang in celebration and commemoration: 30 men from the town had died during the war.
What is apparent from these histories is just how profoundly the war impinged on life in Vermont (and if you did a history of each state’s involvement in the war the way Coffin has, it’s likely that a similar picture would emerge).
Imagine if, today, the towns of the Upper Valley had suffered equivalent losses in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: 20 men and women from Thetford, 40 women and men from Hartford. Those would be as devastating now as they were then, particularly because these are states with smaller populations.
In one sense, we’ve gotten better (in relative terms) at going to war. The number of combat deaths decrease in each succeeding American war because of better medical care and superior military technology, although civilian deaths are always appallingly high. (So many deaths in the Civil War were due to disease, and the lingering effects of wounds that weren’t properly treated or completely healed.)
Americans aren’t drafted. We have a choice to enlist, or not. Most of us are far removed from war, and the people who serve in them.
Fewer and fewer of us know first-hand what these Vermont towns experienced over four years: the high-spirited, patriotic enlistments, the drilling on town greens, people turning out to see their young men off, the soldiers returning home, physically and mentally wounded in grievous ways, the coffins arriving by train. Is this a blessing, that most of us are spared the worst losses, or a kind of moral failing, that we now contract out the fighting and dying?
It almost goes without saying that Coffin has done a marvelous job of researching the histories of Vermont’s towns, and giving specific directions on how to find the places of interest. The book is also a tribute to the state’s local historical societies, where these accounts reside, living history still.
What’s admirable about Something Abides are the details Coffin chooses to use, the sense of place he evokes, the attachment to the land that comes through, the belief in core American tenets evinced by so many of the state’s citizens during national crisis. And he carries the histories over into what happened to the era’s women and men after the war, where they went and who they became. War isn’t always an ending, it’s also a beginning.
The subtitle for the book is Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont . If you reverse that to read Discovering Today’s Vermont in the Civil War , you’ll arrive at why the Civil War, above every other American war, still holds up a mirror to the contradictions, tensions and animating principles of American life.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.