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Shots fired at Fort Sumter ignited Vermont

From the Bennington Banner, June 8, 2011
 
The Green, Blue and Gray 
 

An occasional series about the Bennington area and the Civil War, focusing both on soliders and units from the Green Mountain State and on life at the home front.

 

MARK E. RONDEAU

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON —When I volunteered to do a series of articles on the Civil War from the Bennington area perspective, the first thing I wanted to look at was microfilm of this newspaper from a few

months before the war started on April 12, 1861 on forward.

 

Newspapers have been called the rough “first draft of history,” and my experience over the years is that old newspapers contain vast amounts of fascinating and revealing details. The Banners from that era did not disappoint.

 

In the months leading up to the start of the war, the Banner, then a weekly, was loaded with items about the impending conflict between North and South, including editorials lamenting the innefectiveness of outgoing President James Buchanan and hailing the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

 

When the war started, the April 25, 1861 paper was unequivocal in an editorial titled, “Down with the traitors.” 

 

“We say we had never expected this. But it has come with the

swiftness of the eagle and the blood thirstyness of the vultures! We are in a war — a war which will not only be DECISIVE but BLOODY!”

 

In a subsequent editorial, the paper wonders at the presence of a very few, but also very outspoken, seccessionists in Bennington.

“When we see these individuals stand boldly out and declare themselves uncomprimising Secessionists, we are amazed,” the editorial reads. “We cannnot conceive how an intelligent man at the North, most especially in our own Vermont, can so far forget himself, his country, his loyalty to the Constitution, as to sanction the Jeff Davis brigands.”

 

A week after the war started, people from Bennington and the area packed Apollo Hall “to consider and determine on the present condition and necessities of our government, and the duty of American Citizens in this perilous emergency,” according to the Banner.

 

Preceding the meeting, “the Stars and Stripes were swung over our principal street and greeted by cheering freemen, ringing bells and booming guns.”

 

The legacy of the heroes of the Battle of Bennington and the Revolutionary War provided much of the background for the local rhetoric about the insurrection and the war. “The fires of the Revolution re-opened on the Field of Bennington!” reads one of three loud headlines announcing the meeting story.

 

Besides meetings, enthusiam for the war effort expressed itself in a variety of ways in the early days.

 

• On the front page of the same issue is a rousing poem titled “The Union,” by one L.P.R. from North Bennington. The second stanza reads:

 

“Come all ye brave hearted for warriors prepare/Let your hurrahs for the Union swell out on the air/Till the echoes repeat them in the Seceders’ ears/And blast their vain hopes, and waken now feers/And joyfully cheerfully we’ll swell the song, God save the Union.”

 

• A small item tells of a uniform manufacturing operation springing up in the Bennington Armory, with “all the tailors, ex-tailors, tailoresses, and the ladies in general in this vicinity...plying the needle to the best of their ability.”

 

However, the next item down in the column, received from the state military command after the one above it was set in type, declares that “No uniforms for new companies should be made until a general pattern is prescribed by the State.”

 

• Patriotic demonstrations featuring flags, cannons and songs proliferated, and safety at times became an issue.

 

The item  “Almost a Casualty,” in the May 30 Banner describes what happened during a flagpole raising at Dennis Burke’s house on Pottery Street in Bennington.

 

“Quite a crowd were present, with a cannon on the ground, guns being fired, when the Stars and Stripes were thrown to the breeze, and afterwards,” the paper states. “But with all their patriotism there appears to have been a great degree of carelessness, as is too often the case.”

 

The cannon was being fired as fast as it could be loaded, without “swabbing” or cleaning the bore between shots. In addition, the keg of powder was set under the mouth of the cannon. In a final insult to safe procedures, “the man who was loading was coolly smoking a pipe, with the lighted tobacco protruding above the bowl!”

 

The revelers received a warning about their unsafe procedures but ignored it “until at length the powder in the keg was ignited by some means, when the cannon went off, burning one man in the face, and just singing another’s hair.”

 

“It seems almost a miracle that more disastrous consequences did not follow such a careless course.”

 

Of course, the main way of showing enthusiasm for the war, at least for males, was to become part of an organized unit. 

 

The May 30 Banner carries a letter to his father from one Theodore Kellogg, age 16, from Bennington, who enlisted in Chicago. His father, Henry Kellogg, 66, had telegraphed an acquaintance in Chicago in an effort to stop Theodore from doing so.

 

“I was surprised at seeing that dispatch. I thought you had more patriotism. I thought you loved  your country enough to sacrafice something for her,” Theodore writes to his father. “I am young and ablebodied, and shall I stay at home and see the glorious flag of my country dishonored and trampled under foot?”

 

In the same issue of the Banner is an account of the formation by John E. Pratt of a company of Zouaves in Bennington. Such units were formed in various states at the start of the war, featuring the colorful, exotic uniforms and strict discipline, patterned on elite units in the French Army.

 

“The organization is wholly independent of the present militia regulations of the State, and receives for its ranks or membership no person over 5 feet 8 inches high, while it takes those measuring as low as 5 feet.”

 

When the first two regiments formed in Vermont in May 1861, 56 organized companies offered their services but only 20 were accepted. The Bennington Zouaves apparently did not make the cut. However, Pratt kept trying and his Zouave unit eventually became Company A of the Fourth Regiment of Vermont Volunteers. The Zouave identity quickly fell away, however; those who served in the company are identified by ensuing records as regular officers and soldiers. 

 

Pratt served with distinction, rose to Lt. Colonel in the Fourth Regiment, died in 1882, and is buried in the Village Cemetery in Bennington.

 

The main unit formed at Bennington at the beginning of the war, the “Bennington Union Guards,” were made part of the Second Vermont Regiment. We will tell their story, and that of one of their most heroic officers, Newton Stone, of Readsboro and Bennington, in our next column.

 

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Civil War Series

Mark Rondeau - Writer, Editor, Photographer


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Detail of the Civil War monument, erected in 1930, at the Bennington Museum. The engraving features a quote by Abraham Lincoln: “United by a purpose to perpetuate the union and liberty of the people.”

 

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John E. Pratt