Coffin: Jeffords At Cedar Creek
02/14/12 5:55PM By Howard Coffin  Download MP3
(Host) One hundred and fifty years ago, America was torn apart by Civil War before the union was finally restored in 1865. Since that time, preservation of the many historical sites associated with that struggle has been a challenge. Historian and commentator Howard Coffin reflects on how one Vermonter in particular contributed to that effort.
(Coffin) Vermont's former U. S. Sen. James Jeffords was honored last week on the Cedar Creek battlefield in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Jim isn't well and doesn't get out much anymore. But his daughter Laura ably represented him.
Cedar Creek was the right place to thank Jim Jeffords. During his storied congressional career he became a great friend of Civil War battlefields. And Cedar Creek was the first Civil War battlefield he ever saw.
Years ago, when I was on his staff, he asked me to take him on a battlefield tour. We spent a weekend in the Shenandoah Valley, walking the Cedar Creek and Third Winchester battlefields, where the Vermonters had played such a vital role. Then with Virginia historian Bob Krick, we went to the summit of Bull Pasture Mountain where Stonewall Jackson won the first victory of his famed Valley Campaign.
Incidentally, as a result of our battlefield trip, Jim began reading book after book about the Civil War. His first hero, to my chagrin, was the Confederate Jackson.
At Cedar Creek, Jeffords saw the Eighth Vermont monument, erected by members of the regiment, where they made a suicidal early morning stand on Oct. 19, 1864. He immediately thought it should be part of a park and he saw to it that it was. The ceremony last week took place there.
A quarter century ago, before I worked for Jim, some friends in Virginia who were desperately trying to protect the battlefields from unregulated development sought my assistance. They needed federal money. I went to Jim, an old friend, and over lunch in Burlington I outlined the problem and asked if he could help . He said he thought he could. Just what might he do? I asked. "Save ‘em," he said. "Save which ones?" I asked. "Save ‘em all," he said. He almost did.
Among his triumphs was the preservation of 500 acres of Virginia's Wilderness battlefield where Vermont's greatest Civil War moment occurred on a May afternoon in 1864. There, 1,000 Vermonters fell to keep intact the Army of the Potomac, fighting the first battle of the campaign that won the Civil War. Plans were afoot to put a housing development there. But again I asked Jim for help and he secured almost six million federal dollars and made that hallowed ground part of a national park.
The day the Vermont monument at the Wilderness was dedicated, Jim and I spoke. As we did, out of a clear blue sky, raindrops mysteriously fell like silver tears. Jim said that day was one of the happiest of his life. It was the last battlefield he ever visited.