"Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today's Vermont," by Howard Coffin, is a unique and fascinating book. None other than Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James MacPherson calls it a tour de force.
Basically, "Something Abides" provides a Civil War driving tour for every town and city in Vermont. It took Coffin, a seventh-generation Vermonter who had six ancestors who served in Vermont regiments, six years and 150,000 miles of travel to complete. He went through three cars in the process. Anyone who has seen Coffin speak, and I have twice, realizes the deep passion, encyclopedic knowledge and well-honed storytelling ability this former newspaperman and press secretary to Sen. Jim Jeffords brings to the subject. This is his fourth book about the Civil War and Vermont, a Herculean effort at 528 pages. Published by The Countryman Press, Woodstock, its list price is $35.
"Nothing like 'Something Abides' exists for any other state," MacPherson writes in his foreword to the book. "It offers a cornucopia of historical riches for history tourists. It takes us to buildings where recruiting meetings were held, town squares where recruits were mustered, factories where war material was manufactured, hospitals and hospital sites where wounded soldiers convalesced, homes and home sites where soldiers of all ranks lived and some came home to die, cemeteries where thousands of Vermont veterans are buried and much else."
After a chapter on Vermont Civil War history, Coffin begins his county by county march from Addison to Windsor and also alphabetically within each county chapter. So the Bennington County chapter begins with Arlington and ends with Woodford. Among many facts about Arlington, one learns about George Blowers, whose little-known family lived in West Arlington. Some members of this family belonged to a Baptist Church, now a Grange hall, right off Route 313, and Coffin gives you directions how to get there. Then he tells the story of how George Blowers, a member of the 2nd Vermont Regiment, was shot for desertion. His brother William, also a member of the 2nd Vermont, was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor but later deserted. "Apparently, he never came home," Coffin concludes of William.
To begin the Woodford section, the author directs you up Route 9 to the Woodford Hollow School. "Part of it was built in 1809, and here, Civil War-era town meetings were held. Woodford twice voted against Lincoln for president," he writes.
I was astonished to learn this.
In fact, picking interesting tidbits from this book for a review is almost purely arbitrary - there are so many of them. Still, to illustrate this article, I took some photos of sites in the book.
Here are a few:
The Civil War veteran cemetery, behind the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, guarded by a 2,000-lb. Civil War "Napoleon" cannon.
The memorial pillar - in Coffin's words "a broken column symbolizing a life too soon ended" - in Old First Cemetery honoring Col. Newton Stone of the 2nd Vermont Regiment, a native of Readsboro who studied law in Bennington, killed while leading troops in the Wilderness.
A historic marker on Route 346 in North Pownal in front of the Congregational Church notes that as young men of college age two future presidents taught at the North Pownal Academy, which was in the basement of a previous Congregational church building on the site. The men were Chester A. Arthur and James Garfield.
"Both men played roles in the Civil War. Arthur, a New York lawyer, defended the rights of blacks in the city," Coffin writes, noting that after the war began he served admirably as inspector general and later quartermaster general of New York. Early in the war Garfield led the 42nd Ohio Regiment, then became a brigade commander, then chief of staff of the Army of the Cumberland.
After President Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Vice President Arthur succeeded him.
Next to the Pownal town office on Center Street is the Pownal Center Church, built in 1849, and once called the Union Meeting House, "the center of town life during the Civil War." There was a drill field behind the building, now cut in two by Route 7. "Pownal sent some 142 men to war and 22 died," Coffin writes. "Here in the meetinghouse, the town voted for Lincoln in 1860 117 to 10 over Douglas and in 1864 voted 198 to 98 over McClellan. A voted in 1862 approved paying 34 men bounties of $300 each."
In Shaftsbury, Coffin directs you off Route 7A and onto Airport Road, where in 2.5 miles you come to a red brick house on a hilltop, where in 1810 Jacob Merritt Howard was born. After graduating from Williams College, he became a lawyer and moved to Michigan, where he was elected to Congress as a Whig in 1840, a staunch opponent of slavery. "In 1854, Howard attended the convention in Jackson, Michigan, where the Republican Party was founded," Coffin writes. "Howard was key in writing a series of antislavery resolutions adopted by the convention. Elected to the Senate in 1861, he worked closely with Lincoln in drafting and passing the 13th Amendment."
After turning around and getting back on Route 7A, Coffin directs you down Route 67 to the unmissable stone factory building up close to the road. "Here at the Henry Burden and Sons factory, carpenters' squares were made from locally mined iron," he writes. "Burden and Sons also sent iron from their Shaftsbury furnaces to their factories in Troy, N.Y., where they made horseshoes for the Union armies."
I had been by the factory numerous times but had no idea of its history.
And so it is over and over again - discoveries waiting to be made, even if the discovery is occasionally a minor mistake.
In the preface, Coffin freely admits certainty that there are undoubtedly mistakes and omissions in the book, given that the project turned out to be "far more massive than I had anticipated, and I had to deal with daunting amounts of material."
I noticed several in just the section about Bennington County, such as a book given a publication date obviously wrong by 100 years, the Hoosic River spelled "Hoosick" like the New York Town, 1881 given both as the date Chester Arthur graduated from Union College and (correctly) as the year he succeeded James Garfield in the presidency. But Coffin urges readers to contact him with such things, so mistakes will be cleared up in future editions.
What's really important is that "Something Abides" is a monumental work of both passion and historical preservation, as much a public service as a work of literature. I can't imagine traveling to an unfamiliar place in Vermont without first consulting the book to see what Civil War sites may await me - or, better yet, taking the book along as a faithful companion, a reminder of Vermont at its best, both yesterday and today.