Vermont Reads: The Legacy Of War

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Today we conclude our 2012 collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council’s statewide reading program, Vermont Reads. This morning, we take a look at the legacy of the Civil War, and the impact of war in general on Vermont and the nation.

Paul Fleischman’s book, Bull Run, ends with the thoughts of a young woman who has just learned of her brother’s death in the first battle of the Civil War. In this excerpt, she speaks of love, loss and finding the strength to go on in the face of inescapable and devastating change.

"I felt a great hatred for the stream called Bull Run.

I thought back to walking through the wheat when it had been shorter, weeks before.

How I yearned to be that girl again, back before Patrick had been killed!

I begged for us both to be returned to that time, over and over again, until the sky began to darken.

Then I climbed to my knees, then my feet, stood for a while, wobble-legged, and slowly headed back.

I’d talked to Patrick in the fields that summer.

I’d fancied he heard me, far as he was.

He was now ever more distant still.

I wondered whether he could hear me now.

I spoke to him all the long walk home."

Indeed, the United States was a changed place after the Civil War. In Vermont, many of those who had marched away never came home. They had seen the world, and according to historian Howard Coffin, many of those who did come home didn’t stay very long.

"A lot of them went west. They had seen that there was easier country out there to farm, not so many stones. Level country, warmer weather. And they had grown up. They wanted to be their own boss. They weren’t going to spend their whole lives on their father’s farm. There was a whole world out there they might never had seen had it not been for the war. And a lot of them left," Coffin said.  

And the role of women in the Vermont, and other parts of the country was changed after the war.

"What Vermont women did during the war was amazing. The able bodied men were gone. The women had to run the farms, they were in the factories. But yet, they met in the evenings to make clothing, to make things, bandages for the hospitals, things to send to the soldiers at the front. After the war, well I mean, there’s agitation for the right to vote among women. They don’t get it for a long time, but they’re much less contented in their role. There’s a rally here at the Statehouse not long after the Civil War, here in Montpelier, women’s suffrage, and among the participants are Julia Ward Howe, and Mary Livermore, who was one of the great figures in caring for the soldiers," Coffin explains.

If attitudes about women were fundamentally changed by the war, so, too, was the way Americans thought about race, especially the practice of slavery.

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer maintains that underlying Lincoln’s public emphasis on saving the Union was the understanding that in order to secure the future of the Union, slavery would have to end.

"He knew that slavery caused the war. And I think all of the statements that are quoted suggesting that he cared only about the Union, failed to take into account the very crucial fact that he said them at a time when he thought that the vast majority of the American people would not accept the abolition of slavery, and the arrival of 4 million free blacks into American society, without Lincoln finding another rationale for it other than philanthropy and good works. The white population of America was not ready for emancipation unless it can be couched in nation saving," Holzer said.

Bull Run author Paul Fleischman thinks that one lesson we can take from the Civil War is that it is possible to solve what look like insurmountable problems and make fundamental changes in the way we live for the sake of national security and our collective future.

"Getting off fossil fuels seems impossible, even though it’s clearly what we need to do. They permeate every aspect of our lives and the only time we’ve actually tackled such a thing is when we got rid of slavery. It also permeated life. It seemed for the Southerners impossible, it propped up an entire way of life. But we did get rid of it. And in fact a time traveler from the antebellum world, would be absolutely astounded to find that today we don’t even notice it’s gone," Fleischman said.

And there are other ways in which the war continues to resonate in our lives today. Gun fire and drumming impress a group of students at St. Johnsbury Academy recently. Civil War re-enactments are popular. Participants take their history seriously, and onlookers are entertained by the colorful nostalgia. But student Raymond Couture sees modern parallels in Vermont to the Civil War that are more than just pageantry.

"I think in some cases we were the first to fight, which is interesting, considering how small the state is and I know that we’ve really been in a lot of wars the first to fight," Couture said.

In the Iraq war, Vermont suffered more deaths per capita than any other state.

And war, especially the Civil War even 150 years after the fact, lives on in performance art, literature, music, history – and family memories.

Jane Schlossberg of St. George married a man from Rutland whose great grandfather fought in the Civil War. As did many others, Elmer Dwayne Keyes of the 16th Vermont Regiment wrote letters home. And in one letter that the family has saved, there was a detailed description  of doing picket duty at Bull Run, not long after the actual battle.

"I posted my men at ten o’clock that night.  The first six at Bull Run bridge where so many were killed as the first battle of Bull Run commenced. I scattered the men along beside that stream for about a mile. I passed over the ground where the Black Horse Cavalry was cut up so, and lots of places of interest, which I will not mention now. I got off duty the next morning at 8 o’clock.  

"There is now men laying there now partially buried. Their heads and arms lying out of
ground.  It made me feel a little skittish as I passed up and down that stream that night all alone thinking of the events that had transpired,"

John Brooks of Franconia, New Hampshire, saw the play "Shenandoah" on Broadway, and he credits that experience with influencing his attitudes about war. He says that art reflecting the experience of war makes it possible for those of us not directly involved to participate in a meaningful way – and makes it possible for contemporary Americans, "to truly understand what’s the period and the Civil War was, and the strife and the issues and to fully understand the consequences of war and what it truly means in terms of getting involved in the loss."

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War altered our national identity and transformed how we define ourselves, as Vermonters, as Americans.

And while the clamor of battle has long been over, many aspects of the struggle are still not resolved – and may never be. The guns are silent, but we still hear their echo.

Perhaps that’s why novels like Bull Run and The Red Badge of Courage continue to command our attention today.

Vermont Reads was written and produced by Betty Smith and Melody Bodette, and edited by Ross Sneyd. Our technical director was Chris Albertine, and our webpage was edited by Tim Johnson. Music for the series was performed by Pete Sutherland.

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