By Gary Farrow, Danville Vermont Historical Society
The Vermont Brigade joins McClellan’s sleepy Peninsular Campaign, while sound and fury rages in the West.
North Star April 12, 1862
The news from the Potomac Army is of much interest…and the future movements will be watched with anxiety, as the whole Vermont Brigade is in the column which marched from Fortress Monroe to Yorktown. The latter piece is besieged and our troops are now engaged in that operation.
Fortress Monroe, located in Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay was a Federal outpost in a Confederate state, thanks to the presence of the US Navy. It had been the site of an extraordinary coincidence almost a year before. Back in 1619 the first Africans had been brought there by a Dutch ship to be used as slaves at the colony in Jamestown. Almost 250 years later, the fort was the first to receive fugitive slaves who escaped the Confederate Army by rowing across the James River.
In the spring of 1862, prodded by a frustrated US Congress, Gen McClellan had designated Fort Monroe as the jumping off point for his Peninsular Campaign to take Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy. The General’s land force numbered well over 100,000. Water transports had brought many troops to the Fortress, including Vermont’s 5000. It’s likely this was the first time that many of these farm boys had ever seen a black man.
The Vermont Brigade had been formed the last fall at the suggestion of Brigadier General William “Baldy” Smith, who was born in St. Albans and had graduated as an engineer from West Point in 1845. According to George Parson’s book, Put the Vermonters Ahead: The First Vermont Brigade in the Civil War, “They would eventually be known as some of the best fighters and would have the highest loss of life among the more than 200 brigades in the Federal Army.”
The first commander of the state’s unit was Brigadier General William T. H. Brooks, a tough old veteran of the Seminole Indian War back in the 1840’s; he also subsequently served in the War with Mexico. A firm disciplinarian, his custom was to be at the front with his troops during battle. The Vermonters were lucky to have a strong and experienced leader at the beginning of the war “because there were few well trained officers to lead those citizen soldiers.” Many of these officers throughout the army were merely political appointments.
When the Federal troops arrived at Yorktown, General McClellan chose to do one of the things that he did best. He waited.
North Star April 19, 1862
The Battle of Pittsburg
…It has been called the greatest battle ever fought on this continent. In some respects, this is undoubtedly true. Never were two large and well appointed armies brought into conflict on American soil. Seventy five or a hundred [thousands of] troops on each side, is the estimated aggregate number engaged, both commanded by the best Generals. On the Federal side was Grant, Buell, Prentiss… The rebels were commanded by … Beauregard, Sidney A Johnston, Bragg and Polk who assembled with their forces in Southwest Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, to there fight a great battle for the valley of the lower Mississippi.
After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, Gen Albert Sidney Johnston, himself a West Point graduate, had to give up the Confederate occupation of Kentucky and portions of West and Central Tennessee. The encounter, which is better known today as the battle of Shiloh named after a small chapel at the site of the conflict, was a strategic counterattack by Johnston against Grant for control of the lower Mississippi Valley.
One part of the confrontation at Shiloh would become an iconic symbol of Civil War fighting, much like Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. It was a 600 yard battle line, defended by Northern forces, called the Hornet’s Nest; so named by the Confederates because the number of bullets whistling through the area sounded like angry swarms of those vicious insects. However, before Hornet’s Nest began, General Johnston successfully attacked the battle line’s right flank. After he returned from the front, while surveying the hostilities from a small peach orchard not far from Shiloh chapel, a bullet tore through one of his femoral arteries. Having sent his personal physician to care for some captured Federal troops, no one on his staff knew how to apply a tourniquet. Johnston quickly bled out and was gone.
General Beauregard assumed command and launched no less than eight separate attacks into the Hornet’s Nest. Some historians suggest that the Confederates amassed the largest concentration of artillery ever on the North American continent against this entrenched position. However, ultimately suffering yet another defeat, the Southern army at Shiloh was repelled all the way back to Corinth, Mississippi. When the carnage was totaled for both sides, the two day total was over 23,000 men, almost the number of American military lost throughout the entire American Revolutionary War.
North Star April 19, 1862
Gen Halleck in Command
Special despatches from Washington state that General Halleck had taken command of Pittsburg Landing,
This was after the actual battle and the victory was seen as Grant’s. No doubt this created more tension between Halleck and his underling, the one nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender.”
North Star April 19, 1862
Walton’s Montpelier Journal says a private letter received in that place from a member of the 2d Vermont Battery, dated March 20, states they arrived at Ship Island, after a voyage of thirty two days, from Boston. The Island is low and sandy, seven miles long and one mile wide, no grass and but a few trees. The weather was fine and warm as a September day in Vermont.
The Confederates had evacuated before Federal forces arrived. Occupation of the island helped to secure strategic control over the Louisiana’s mouth of the Mississippi River and Alabama’s Mobile Bay.
North Star April 26, 1862
Vermonters in Battle
The Vermont troops have had a severe skirmish at a place called Warwick Creek. We publish in full the detailed account furnished by the N.Y. Herald. From this, it will be seen, that the soldiers who forded the creek were mistaken as to the depth of water, and from this mistake, they experienced great trouble. But even this obstacle did not daunt their courage – They pushed boldly on, gained the opposite shore and charged upon the enemy with fearful effect, and retreating when met by a large superior force… Throughout the whole engagement they showed indomitable pluck and courage. Give the Vermont troops anything like an equal chance, and they will win the day.
We regret the loss of life, and still the larger number who were wounded on this occasion…Already we notice quite a number had arrived at the New England Soldiers Aid Association in New York City, where they are properly cared for; and from there they will be taken to the Marine Hospital, in Burlington, which is being made ready for their reception.
This incident was collateral to Gen McClellan’s initial stand-off at Yorktown.
The New England Soldiers Aid Association was a private philanthropic institution that provided hospital care to servicemen. Later in 1862, the government assumed responsibility for taking care of active duty soldiers and forbade private organizations from doing so. The Association went on take care of patients discharged from the service.