Addison W. Preston’s Call to Arms
By Mark R. MooreVermont Associate and archivist at the Danville VT Historical Society
How many times do we wish history would come alive for us? The sweat of bodies and horses, the ting, clink and clang of accouterments , the deep glow and scent of burnished leather, shining brass buttons, the glint of bullion gold braid on sleeves and shoulders in the bright sunlight, passing through a natural archway of fragrant lilac. Walt Whitman put observations like this into verse:…the head of my cavalry parading on spirited horses, With sabres drawn and glistening, and carbines by their thighs, (ah, my brave horsemen! My handsome tan-faced horsemen! what life, what joy and pride, With all the perils were yours.)
This was undoubtedly the spirit that then Captain Addison Webster Preston of Danville conveyed to starry-eyed new enlistees as he recruited them into Company D of the 1st Vermont Cavalry in 1862. Here at the Danville Historical Society we have Addison Preston’s blue wool dress uniform, his dress pants, his boots, cartridge box, horse’s halter, flask and McClellan saddle.
More importantly, I think, we have a photograph of him at around the age of 33 that conveys his image—his thinning hair is swept back, his mustache is fierce, his eyes are fiery and he grasps his sabre’s hilt as if ready to draw it and smite the enemy.
He was promoted to Lt. Colonel by 1863 and commanded the entire 1st Vermont Cavalry. Quoting from Joseph D. Collea, Jr’s book The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War, upon his death the Vermont Record wrote, “Colonel Preston was characterized by quickness of perception, thought and action which made him what he was as a soldier and an officer. He never found exactly his right place til he went into the army…Col. Preston might not have achieved so signal a success as he did in war. He was a born soldier, and found that out when the country sounded the call to arms.”
But this does not mean he failed to attend to the needs of his men or their families. The record is replete with letters written by him to widows and the Government Pension Board detailing a trooper’s last illness or his heroism in battle. His after-battle reports are succinct in contrast to the dramatic accounts he sent back to the papers in Vermont.
His personal letters to his younger brother, William Henry Preston (future Principal- 1867-1870- of Danville Academy), shows he also continued to be attentive to matters at home. In letters housed at the Kitchel Center, Fairbanks Museum, and transcribed by Lynn Bonfield, the reader witnesses his direct and commanding style.
“I have written to B. N Davis to day and I wish you to keep your eye out for Col Sawyer and also one Sgt Mitchel of Co D when he took home with him. Say to Esq Davis to look sharp for the Col. I fear he will try to injure me in Vt if you hear of it let me know. Are you going to teach this winter or study a profession?
“How much did you make last fall…
“Remember Energy is what can grow. I will write you often on this subject…
You expect the younger brother to stand up, salute and say, “Yes, sir.” I say this as an older brother, of course, but how could Henry have said “no” when one’s older brother is displaying heroics? Again, I quote from Collea’s book on what occurred at the Battle of Ashby’s Gap on September 26, 1862:
“Alone, Preston left the impasse on the road [Union and Confederate troops were facing each other on a narrow Virginia road] circled out into the field beyond the stone wall. Then he pointed his charger at the barrier and urged him forward at full speed. Suddenly and surprisingly to the troops on the other side, horse and rider ‘leaped the stone fence into the road in front of his men, and, waving his sabre and shouting to them to come on, dashed straight at the force in front of him.’..Not a single Vermont trooper waivered as the gallant sixty raised their sabres in unison, let out a whoop, and followed…their leaders at a gallop.”
A minie ball is not an attractive sight–gray, blunt nosed, squat and, quite frankly, ugly. It was the hand-loaded .58 caliber projectile of choice for the Civil War infantryman’s rifle. The effect of the soft lead as it entered into the body was to turn what would otherwise be a minor wound into a bone-shattering precursor to limb loss. The whole experience became an antidote to noble illusions of glory. Addison Preston’s daughter, Williametta, gave three of these bullets to the Danville Historical Society along with her father’s uniforms and equipment.
It was a bullet like these that pierced Addison Preston at the Second Battle of Hawes Shop on June 3, 1864. Recently promoted to full colonel (in fact the promotion was literally “in the mail”) a full skirmish was taking place.
Collea writes that Preston went ahead of his troops, got off his horse and crawled forward to where the most advanced skirmishers were fighting. After making his observations, he inexplicably rose to his feet and was immediately struck by rebel bullets. The minie ball entered his left breast near his heart. It took three surges by Union troops to recover his body. Taken to a nearby stream, he soon expired.
General George Armstrong Custer, who was admired by Preston, saw the body being borne by his men, stopped and commented, “There lies the best fighting colonel in the Cavalry Corps.”
The colonel was returned home to Danville with many demonstrations of honor by the people of the surrounding towns. On his casket lay the sabre and pistols he had captured in hand-to-hand fighting with the Confederates.
On September 9, 1891, William Henry Preston presided at a Grand Army of the Republic meeting of 50 members of old Company D of the 1st Vermont Cavalry. A surprise was presented to each member by Addison Preston’s widow, Juliette Preston. It was the photograph of the deceased colonel.
In February 1919, Williametta loaned Addison’s uniform to the Fairbanks Museum. These items were recently returned to Danville. In the archives and artifacts of the Civil War, we can touch not only the glory of victory but the bloody reality of personal loss.
Preston’s belongings were put on display for Joseph Collea’s presentation at the Choate-Sias House this past April. The display is still up and interested people are encouraged to visit during open hours—Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon to 7:00.