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Coffin: Last Full Measure

05/25/12 7:55AM By Howard Coffin
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(Host) Commentator Howard Coffin is an author and historian who says that this Memorial Day, he'll be thinking about all of those who - as Lincoln said - gave their last full measure of devotion. But given that we're observing the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, he can't help but think of those who lost their lives in that conflict - and the Vermont family that suffered the greatest losses - north or south.

(Coffin) In early summer 1864, 16 year old Mary Fairman wrote in her diary of seeing, from her front porch in Vernon, trains filled with wounded soldiers chugging north to Brattleboro and its military hospital. She was witnessing Vermont's human cost of Ulysses Grant's Overland Campaign, the war's bloodiest episode. But this state's Civil War suffering and dying had already begun two years earlier. One hundred fifty years ago this Memorial Day Vermonters had just lived through a winter during which disease claimed hundreds of Vermont Brigade members in Virginia army camps.

Then, on April 16, 1862 , 148 Vermonters became casualties at the Battle of Lee's Mill on the Virginia Peninsula . Among them was the Union army's most famous private, Groton 's William Scott, the Sleeping Sentinel. Spared death by firing squad for his offense, he died a half year later in a hail of Rebel bullets. Later in the war, two of his brothers perished.

The war decimated some Vermont families, with none hit harder, North or South, than Manchester's Cummings family. As the result of a single battle, Savage's Station, 150 years ago this coming June 29, five Cummings brothers perished and a brother-in-law and cousin were mortally wounded.

Those young men were members of the Equinox Guards, a company organized at Manchester that became part of the Fifth Vermont Regiment. After Savage's Station, only seven of its 59 members who went into battle were able to report for duty. When word of their astonishing casualties came home, a pall was cast over the Valley of Vermont.

Official records state that 5,224 Vermonters died in the Civil War. But the number is surely at least 6,000, particularly since many men who perished soon after reaching home were not counted as war dead. Indeed, recent research is escalating the total number of deaths in the war far above the long-accepted 620,000 total.

On Memorial Day 1886, former Vermont Brigade commander Lewis Addison Grant spoke to 7,000 people at Brandon 's Civil War memorial dedication. He concluded by addressing this state's Civil War toll. "Father and loving mother,' he said, "the sacrifice of your loving son has produced glorious results...The war tore the manacles of bondage from millions of people and bade them go free...We have helped guide our nation into the paths of peace. Let us labor to hasten on the glorious day when peace shall prevail and nations shall learn war no more. That day is coming. It shall be a day of rejoicing, the like of which has not been known since the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy."

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