Born to Command

Addi­son W. Preston’s Call to Arms

By Mark R. Moore

Ver­mont Asso­ciate and archivist at the Danville VT His­tor­i­cal Society

Pre­ston in full dress uniform

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.

Henry

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…

Addi­son”

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.

Addi­son Pre­ston grave in Danville Green cemetery–photo by Paul Chouinard

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Born to Command

  1. Tootie says:

    This was a very good article

    • Mark R. Moore says:

      Hi Tootie:

      I’m glad you liked it. We have more his­tory and mys­tery com­ing in our next arti­cle “A Uni­form Result” which tell about Addison’s uni­form and equipage in the Danville His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and how some was “lost” and spec­u­late how other items wound up in California

      Mark

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