Monday, July 18, 2011

* A Thundering Host


Before commenting about The First Vermont Cavalry in the Civil War: A History, by Joseph D. Collea, Jr., I need to make two full disclosures before you, dear reader, read on : First, Mr. Collea is Principal at a Vermont high school where I teach  (retired, 2012) and therefore everything I say can be suspect of attempting to curry favor with him! (lol); and, second, although I attended the Civil War Institute (CWI) at Gettysburg College for a week every summer from 1998 – 2003, my interest in the Civil War is primarily poetic and anecdotal, not military and strategic: To wit, I ignored all of the maps in the book handsomely prepared by the author’s son,  and riveted my attention to passages about the human heart in conflict with itself. (a famous definition of literature by William Faulkner, I think)

 "A Thundering Host"

a review
Paul Keane

Talk about stick-to-it-iveness: This Fulbright Scholar took fifteen years  to research his topic.  In the meantime, he retired as principal of an Ilion, New York high school and as mayor of that town,  and began a second career as principal of a Vermont high school in White River Junction six years ago.

 Scholars and military strategists will find something on every page to satisfy their needs. The bibliography has 417 entries, 167 of which are original manuscripts.  The chapters are compact and focused, twenty-nine in 285 pages, plus a preface and epilogue.  Citations abound:  If there is a Vermont soldier whose diary or letters Mr. Collea has not scoured, I’d like to know his name. I picture the author behind his desk with mountains of notes arranged in chronological order by chapter title, just praying that an inadvertent sneeze by a visitor or spontaneous pounce of the cat doesn’t scatter them - - - and his chronology - - -  to kingdom-come.

I ignored the maps (all 22 of them), but I was transfixed by the photographs and drawings of individual soldiers --- especially the “dashing” Dartmouth student Oliver Cushman before-and-after, “dramatically aged by war and disfigured by a bullet taken in the face,"(p.179+) by photos of campsites, battle sites (many of which I have visited with the CWI), etc., and drawings of troops.

Captain Oliver Cushman as Dartmouth student and after his facial wound in the Civil War.

After all, those soldiers lived in the mountains I have called home for the last 25 years, and 1861 isn’t that long ago:  I can hear their faint footsteps even now. And Oliver Cushman’s Dartmouth is but six miles from me, a campus I traverse every week.

Neither a militant nor a pacifist, Collea lets the reader see both extremes of war (the glory and the gory) and come to a decision him/herself about such matters. My own conclusion  is a question.   Was war really necessary?

Necessary or not, this volume is a Herculean undertaking to record every aspect of one Cavalry unit in that War: The Vermont First, which the author’s great uncle, Sgt. Mark Rogers of Company B,  proudly served along with “fellow trooper,” the author’s great, great grandfather, Sgt. William Rogers. (p.1) 

For the glory, hear the words of General William Armstrong Custer addressed to the men who he commanded (including the First Vermont) in the decisive Tom’s Brook and Cedar Creek battles six months before the end of the four-year long War in 1864: ‘You have surrounded the name of the 3rd. Cav. Div. with a halo of glory as enduring as time.”         (p. 268); or of Abraham Lincoln to General Sheridan under whose command the First Vermont routed the enemy in those engagements: “With great pleasure I tender to you and your brave army, the thanks of the Nation, and my own personal admiration and gratitude, for the month’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley, and especially for the work of October 19, 1864.”(p.268) Or hear the poetic words of the preacher at Ludlow, Vermont, thirty miles down-road from me,  as he conducted the funeral for Sergeant Charles Bishop in 1863: “ It is nevertheless true that another Green Mountain Boy, as gentle as a lamb in peace, but as fierce as a tiger in battle, has passed away. Although his years were few, yet his life was long, for it answered life’s great end.” (p.248). As the author remarks, the preacher “effectively characterized a generation of citizen soldiers.”(p. 248)

Corporal John Chase’s dying words in 1862 Mt. Jackson endeavor were “I took my man, Captain. I took my man. Tell them I tried to do my duty. I believe that it is a just cause. I have tried to do my duty.” (p.48)

Thus the glory of the tiger.

Yet the gore.

The details of the tiger’s fight are subjects from which this author does not shield the reader with the perfume of generalities and euphemisms. A bullet does not merely hit a soldier in the arm in this volume; instead, “The lead projectile struck his arm halfway between his elbow and his shoulder, shattering the bone, tearing up the muscles, and severing the medial nerve as it plowed through the extremity,”(p.176)  descriptive details which are repeated dozens of times in these pages, conjuring an image of the author pouring over endless medical and military records and discharge papers.

When Alexis Snow’s horse (all 1000 pounds of it) falls on him, Collea does not shy away from the details and lets the soldier’s own words speak them plain: “‘The horse which I rode was shot and killed by the rebels’ and ‘when he fell, he fell upon me and I was partly under him as I could not release myself and fell in such a way as to severely injure one of my testicles’ ”. Two Confederates took him prisoner: “‘. . . instead of raising the horse . . . took hold of and dragged me from under the horse and that pulled the cords in my testicles all apart.’ ” (p.214)

Something addressed in these pages is an issue I had never pondered: What about the horses ?(approximately 900 Morgans)   From my CWI days I knew that between three and five thousand horses were killed at Gettysburg and had to be burned after the battle, creating a scene from Dante’s Inferno as wounded soldiers still moaned in the bushes and a drizzle fell on them and the smoldering carcasses.

We learn in these pages  from one soldier’s account that “ ‘three days frequently pass without unsaddling the horses, and the backs of the poor emaciated brutes are first sore, then burst rotten; still they are kept at work.’ ” (p.87) and that on one march at the time of Gettysburg, “sadly the route of march became easy to follow by the trail of expired horses by the roadside.” (p.156)  Further in another instance of animal cruelty, General Kirkpatrick “Tossing abandon to the wind . . . covered the mile [ to Hanover ] with such speed that he rode his horse to death.”(p.160) In April of 1865 in the pursuit of Lee’s army by Sheridan’s forces, we learn from William Rogers (the author’s great great grandfather) sharing with his father, “‘You ‘haint know [sic] idea what marching it was, a raining most of the time. Mud is the name for it. You can judge something about it if it was [as] it would be through Fairfax [VT] to have 15 thousand cavalry march over the road. There was any number of horses left mired in the mud. What don’t drop dead by riding are shot by the rear guard.’ ” (p.278)

Another soldier tells us that in effecting the Kirkpatrick-Dahlgren raid, the men rode “‘all day and all of the night in the rain pouring all of  time . . . and we hadn’t had a wink of sleep, only what we got on our horses in that time and it was mighty hard work to keep our eyes open I tell you.’ ” (p.215) We learn too that a cavalry traveling blindly in darkness found that “Often ‘the sound of hoofs in front was the only guide as to the direction to be taken.’” (p.213)

There is one heartwarming story about a horse in these pages: Abe, aka  “The First Vermont Straggler” (p.180). Shot in the neck, the horse had to be left behind by his rider, Bugler Joe Allen, because he could not arise from weakness due to loss of blood at 4:00 AM when soldiers began their march.  From that day on, soldiers could be heard cheering and shouting when Abe (now Old Abe) would straggle into their latest camp a day late as he made his way alone to rejoin his comrades. Ultimately, when stronger, he and Bugler Allen rode together again until the end of the war in 1865.
The Morgan Horse of Vermont used in the Civil War.

It is interesting that Col. John Singleton Mosby personally pardoned  Captain John Woodward, from the Vermont 1st, after he was captured;  even “though Confederate policy forbade paroling officers, Mosby was so impressed with Woodward’s heroism in the face of overwhelming odds that he had come personally to release him.”(p.121) That was 1863 and the contest sounded more like a sport of honor among gentlemen than a war.  Woodward’s father, a minister and chaplain, was known as “the fighting preacher,” and “at fifty-two . . . was one of the regiment’s elders. But this man of the cloth never looked at age as an impediment, for he was often found in the thick of action” (p.42). One of the author’s virtues is that he often telescopes time and reflects on our epoch: “In a later era, the constrictions of the Geneva Convention would have frowned  upon men of the cloth actively trying to save souls clad in blue one moment while in the next just as passionately trying to take those dressed in gray.” (p. 42).

Later in the War, the gentlemanly honor of Col. Mosby pardoning the young Woodward had given way to “The Burning” (p.255) of the Shenandoah Valley by Yankees under General Sheridan and accusations of Yankee plundering of household goods, even the family silver, instead of foraging for food for horse and man.  And when young Woodward was killed his father, the “‘fighting preacher’ lost heart for war. Eleven days after the engagement, he resigned his commission and returned home to Westford and his congregation.” (p.190)

One of the endearing traits of this history, is that it moves into the present, often visiting the gravesite of a fallen Vermonter and describing the scenic impact of the tombstone against the mountains. Further, it delves into non-military biographical information, and so we learn that Captain Woodward, who had not served a full year when he was killed, had been grieving the death of his 18-year old fiancĂ©e, Hattie Chadwick, when he engaged in his last battle, and that “his body was later recovered and interred next to Hattie’s ‘These two fondly united in life are not divided in death’ was the poignant inscription on their common tombstone, proclaiming for future generations that here lay  star-crossed lovers.” (p.190)  One can imagine the author at the cemetery transcribing the epitaph, to add to the thousands of footnotes piled on his desk.

Sometimes we hear of the infidelity of a wife after her soldier-husband had returned home maimed (p.215), or the surviving children of a soldier, two of whom had “clubbed feet” (p.143) or of the virtues of “Trask’s Magnetic Ointment” for soldier ailments ( p.76) or a soldier writing home about washing his clothes and “ a snot-rag”  (p. 207) in a stream near camp.  Another soldier, captured, escapes by “shinnying down a lightning rod.” (p.202)  We learn too of the “infernal machines, buried in the roadway (predecessors to our modern IED’s) and how rebel “prisoners were forced to crawl ahead of the column, searching the roadway for additional booby-traps.” (p.230) We hear of strange sounding southern landmarks, Gooney Manor Run (p. 254) and Goochland. (p. 213)  We learn that fourteen Yankees became separated from their Company D comrades in Hagerstown, put on civilian clothing and “came and talked with the Rebel Army which was passing through. Antipas Curtis even saluted General Lee.” (p. 187)

When Captain Hiram Hall was killed in the Wilson-Kautz raid, Collea tells us, ‘Given that the raid was in progress, the best that could be done with the body, for the sake of Hall’s family, was to bury it in a clearly marked site. This was accomplished by carving his name and regiment on a walnut tree near the grave. . .”(p.243).

Here are sentences from the book I wish I had written myself, as an admirer of words:

  • Only a bugle call separated this motionless column from a thundering host. (p.216)
  • The sound of pounding hoofs on the roadway, the gritty taste of dust in the air, the feel of a muscled mount beneath, and the smell of gunsmoke,  combined to fill his brain with a profuse sensory montage that was intermixed with  loud gunshots, buzzing bullets, wild yelling and parched throats.” (p. 38)
  • What should have been the “Gordonsville Raid” was reduced to nothing more than the “Gordonsville Ride.”(p. 84)
  • That is how sacrifices become legacies, and soldiers do not die in vain. (p.108)
  • One of those occasions when dash gave way to drudgery was picket duty. (p. 125)
  • Next, a willingness must be embraced to move beyond the mindset* that an effort, falling short of success, is unworthy of recognition.(p.170)
  • Before the first anniversary had come to pass, the young bride had traded her wedding whites for widow's weeds. (p.234)
  • After absorbing the best blows Lee could deliver, the Army of the Potomac stood back up, dusted itself off, and continued side-stepping to the right. (p.239)
  • Conversely, in the world beyond the army, voids created by death are not so easily filled. No one can step forward and become a replacement son or brother.(p.242)
Soldiers wait outside Appomatox Courthouse.

General Lee signs surrender at Appomatox Courthouse, ending the Civil War, as General Grant looks on.

The final words of the book tell us that “upon leaving Appomatox Court House
. . .  Every mile that was ridden henceforth [by the Vermont First Cavalry] was a step away from living their generation’s war and a step closer to reading it in the history books.” (p. 287)

Thanks to Joe Collea, that history can now be read fully and, at times, eloquently.

Genral Lee followed by General Grant leave Appomatox Courthouse.

Paul D. Keane
M.A., M.Div., M.Ed.

White River Junction, Vermont
July 18, 2011

PS: As a teacher for 25 years, I have accumulated grade-books with nearly 3000 names in them.  Here are first names from Mr. Collea’s book which I have never had in class. Note: (f) stands for female and (C) stands for Confederate.  Otherwise all names are male and from Vermont.

Ptolemy, Zadock, Flavil, Avirett, Selah, Zabina, Conceader, Luvia (f), Smilie(f) {they were sisters!}, Lorento, Brittania, Eusabe, Sorel,  Alvah, Perley, Mayo, Carlastan, Amasa, Eliab, Eber, Job, Loring, Fount, Azio, Elon, Evander  (C), Lensey, Lovica, Antipas, Lafayette, Hannibal, Monroe, Eri, Morte, Roone, Asa, Almer.

*Note: One critic dislikes Collea’s use of “anachronisms.”  I believe the reference is to modern colloquialisms like “mindset,” “dad,” “the real skinny”, etc.  I find this author’s choice to speak from a modern mind, attractive.  Just when my eyes are about to glaze over with the details of a military maneuver, Collea pulls me back with a "copasetic" phrase.

Joseph D. Collea

Image of Joseph D. Collea
A native of Ilion, New York, Joe Collea taught history there for 14 years before becoming the high school vice-principal for nine years. Eventually he became principal of the school, from which he retired after 37 years in NYS public education. Prior to that, he held principalships in Afton, Rotterdam, and Oxford, New York. Currently, Joe is the principal of Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vermont.
His interest in history and government led Joe into local politics in his hometown, where he served as a village trustee for five years and mayor for six. He has traveled extensive throughout the lower 48 states and Alaska, with battlefields and related historical sites always being of a high priority. He has also visited Western Europe and Egypt, in the latter case studying for a summer at the American University in Cairo by means of a Fulbright Scholarship.
But the Civil War has… Read more
This biography was provided by the author or their representative.

Books by Joseph D. Collea (See all books)


Joe Collea describing Custer's colorful  leadership of the First Vermont Cavalry

Monument at Gettysburg to the First Vermont Cavalry
Major General William Wells, First Vermont Cavalry, mustered 1866
General Elon Farnsworth is mortally wounded  leading Major William Wells and the First Vermont Cavalry in some of the final fighting of the battle.

The Morgan Horse of Vermont
Monument at Gettysburg National Park to the First Vermont Cavalry

East side of monument