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Book Fair Letter

05/29/07 12:00AM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, and it was first observed on May 30th, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Recently commentator Howard Coffin came across a letter that reminded him of those origins.

(COFFIN) Another Vermont antiquarian book fair is history and once again I have felt like a child, back in Slackies store in Woodstock, with a nickel to spend on a pack of baseball cards. Maybe this time a Mickey Mantle, a Stan Musial, an Enos Slaughter, perhaps? Or, dare I hope, a Ted Williams? Well, at the 2007 book fair I got something comparable. For a very fair price, a Vermont dealer sold me a first rate Vermont Civil War letter.

The book fair holds forth every year, for a day, in Burlington. My wife Sue and I are there when the doors open and we go in opposite directions hoping to beat our fellow bibliophiles and seekers of history to the true gems. She found this one.

The Civil War letter was in a thick loose-leaf folder of Vermont items, each protected in plastic. Dated June 12, 1864, it was written in the trenches at Cold Harbor, Virginia, nine days after the suicidal Union attack ordered there by Ulysses Grant, and hours before his Army moved south to Petersburg. A Vermonter with the first name of Zacheus wrote to his cousin Jarusha French, (whom he called Roush) in Cavendish. He told her about being in the trenches and the danger of sharpshooters. Then he wrote:
br>"Two men in the 11th Vermont were killed this morning. I went to the burial of one of them. One of the line officers made a prayer by the grave, which is more than is done by most of them. When a soldier is killed, a grave is dug by his comrades - and he is buried without any ceremony. It seems sad to see them buried so far from home and friends but such is the fate of war. Probably the men at the north that have not been out here will say "well, he died for his country and could not die in a better cause. Wish they could come and try it awhile."

It took some research to identify Zacheus. But through his mentions of others in his Fourth Vermont company, and because of his unique name, I discovered that he was Pvt. Zacheus Blood, also from Cavendish. Peck's Roster of Vermonters in the Civil War told me that, but also this. When Zacheus wrote that letter he had little more than four months to live. He would be killed on Sept. 19, 1864 in Phil Sheridan's assault at Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley. I know the first hint of autumn's colors would have been showing then along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. And when he wrote Cousin Roush, Zacheus also would have known that back home a high summer was emerging from a Vermont spring. It was the time that would, because of his war and its losses, bring forth a holiday known as Memorial Day.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who's specialty is the civil war.

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