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1st Vermont Infantry

Regimental History

Ex-Governor Roswell Farnham
Lieutenant First Regiment
Lieutenant-Colonel Twelfth Regiment

The First Regiment Vermont volunteer Infantry comprised militia companies from Bradford, Brandon, Burlington, Cavendish, Middlebury, Northfield, Rutland, St. Albans, Swanton and Woodstock. They were selected from the uniformed militia of the State, by Adj.-Gen. H. H. Baxter, in conference with Brigadier-General Jackman of the state militia, and the field and line officers of the several regiments of the State, at Burlington, April 19, 1861. The designated companies began at once to enlist recruits, and to discharge such men as were unwilling or unable to leave home, and in a few days they were each filled to the requisite number of eighty-one officers and privates. On the 27th of April, the Adjutant-General issued an order designating the ten companies above names as the ones comprising the First Regiment, adding the words, "The foregoing companies will hold themselves in readiness to march to the place of rendezvous, to be hereafter designated, on twenty-four hours' notice." This was soon followed by an order directing the companies to report to the Adjutant-General at Rutland on the 2d day of May then next. They all arrived there on that day, or the day previous, and went into camp on the fair ground on the third. They had evidently come prepared for a campaign away from home, for they had more baggage than would have sufficed a corps two years later. The first night in camp was very cold, and the men just from warm homes suffered severely in their tents, and some of them contracted colds from which they did not recover for several weeks. But the sight of their new Colonel, performing his morning ablutions outside his tent in his shirt-sleeves, somewhat reconciled them to the temporary discomfort. The few days in camp at Rutland were occupied in learning the duties of camp, the mysteries of guard-mounting, dress parade, battalion drill and the meaning of the term, police duty.

Col. John Wolcott Phelps, late a captain in the regular army, had been put in command of the First Regiment by Governor Fairbanks. He was not only a trained soldier, but a man of most humane sympathies. The affection he so frequently expressed for the men of this regiment, they soon realized to be perfectly sincere, and after two months service under him, there was not a man of them who would not have risked his own life to save that of Colonel Phelps.

Lieut.-Col. Peter T. Washburn, of Woodstock, an efficient and successful lawyer at home, was a faithful officer, and when the command of the post at Newport News devolved upon Colonel Phelps, Lieutenant Colonel Washburn proved to be an excellent commander of the regiment. Maj. Harry N. Worthen, of Chelsea, had just been admitted to the Orange County Bar and had received such military training as Norwich University afforded, and by this appointment in the First Regiment was given one of the best opportunities in the State for a young man to make his mark.

While some of the officers were men of mature years, the rank and file were made up of young men in the very bloom of youth and early manhood, full to over-flowing of the patriotic and self-sacrificing spirit that makes heroes. The average age was twenty-four years.

The regiment was mustered into the United States service on the 8th day of May, by Lieutenant Colonel Rains of the Regular Army, and under orders from General Scott took its departure the next morning for Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Its route during the hours of daylight was almost a continuous line of cheering, flag-waving and cannonading. At Troy the Vermonters were received in a royal manner and were addressed by General Wool of the regular army. The march from the railroad depot in New York city down Broadway, was an event never to be forgotten by those who took part in it. The sidewalks were lined with citizens while the regiment, in column of company front, swept the street from curbstone to curbstone. The tall and somber Colonel, the evergreen sprigs that every man wore, and the magnificent physique of these giants of the hills, struck the hearts of the loyal New Yorkers and the cheer that commenced at the railroad station rolled down Broadway with one continuous roar to City Hall Park, where the men went into camp.

The regiment left New York at five o'clock p. m., May 11th, on board the steamer "Alabama" and landed at Fortress Monroe on the 13th, the delay being occasioned by the fact that the rebels had extinguished the lights at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay.

The men at first encamped in their tents outside the main fort, but within the water battery. The change from the chilly winds of the mountains to the delightful breezes of this army of the sea was most grateful. Lieut.-Col. Justin Dimick was in command of the fortress at this time, and the arrival of the Vermont Regiment relieved him of a good deal of anxiety. In a few days some arrangements were made with the proprietors of the Hygea Hotel, and the regiment was quartered in that immense caravansary. This was satisfactory to everybody but Colonel Phelps. To the men it seemed a little more like civilization to be under a roof, but the Colonel expressed the fear that the health of the men would suffer from the extreme coolness of so large a building, after drilling in the hot sun. For a time dress parade was held every night within the walls of the fortress, and the regiment furnished men to aid in mounting the guns that were lying within the fortifications and putting the fortress in a better condition for defense.

While here, Benjamin Underwood of the Bradford company, died of measles, or as Surgeon Sanborn reported it in a medical periodical, of nostalgia or home-sickness following measles from which he had begun to recover. This was the first death among the Vermont troops and caused a feeling of sadness throughout the regiment which was deepened by the impressive funeral ceremonies. His remains still lie in the little cemetery on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where his comrades discharged the last volleys over his grave.

About the hour of dress parade, on the 19th of May, there was great excitement among the troops at the fortress, occasioned by the first actual fighting that the Vermonters had seen. This was the attack on the steamer "Monticello" upon the rebel battery at Sewell's Point, directly across Hampton Roads from Fortress Monroe and about two miles distant. The sound of the firing first attracted attention, and the smoke of every discharge could be distinctly seen. Adjutant Stevens became so interested that he neglected his duty at dress parade. The reports of the Confederate officers published in the "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies" represent this to be quite an engagement. Captain Peyton H. Colquitt, who was in command at the battery, says that it lasted an hour and a half, and that "The enemy fired with great accuracy, several balls passing through the embrasures of the fort, one striking a thirty-two pounder within the battery, and one shell bursting in the fort. From three to five shots from our battery took effect, we think; others struck around the steamer." In fact, nobody was hurt on either side, and the command of the "Monticello" does not seem to have made a report.

On the 23d of May, the day after Gen. B. F. Butler assumed command at Fortress Monroe, by his direction, the first movement of Vermont troops upon rebel soil was made. Col. Phelps, himself on foot as well as the other officers, marched the regiment into the town of Hampton, Va., making the first reconnaissance upon Virginia soil by United States troops, the movement to Arlington Heights and upon Alexandria being made the next day. The marching of troops along the highway towards Hampton set the whole country about there in a ferment, and cause great excitement among the citizens and soldiers of the moss-grown village. The one hundred and thirty rebel soldiers stationed there were prudently withdrawn out of sight. Maj. J. B. Cary, of the Virginia artillery, in his report says that he had nearly perfected his arrangements for defense by making preparations for the destruction of Hampton Bridge among others. But Colonel Phelps' movement was too quick for him. The Major's report further states that he aided in extinguishing the fire which was set upon the bridge, but that does not seem to be the fact.

The men of the First Vermont set out with alacrity upon this their first movement that had anything like the semblance of war about it, (The Lieutenant-Colonel and Major and several of the men leaving sick beds), and marched the six miles that intervened between the fortress and the Virginia village in the highest spirits and apparently ready for any emergency. As the regiment approached the bridge, marching in column of platoons, Lieutenant Cutshaw of the Virginia forces rode up to Colonel Phelps on a white horse and demanded whither he was going and for what purpose. Colonel Phelps replied that he was making a reconnaissance into Hampton and that if his troops were not molested, no harm would be done the town or its inhabitants. Thereupon the Lieutenant turned and rode back to the bridge at a gallop. Immediately a dense cloud of smoke arose from near the end of the bridge which the troops were approaching. The fire could not have been set until after Lieutenant Cutshaw and his horse had passed the point at which it was set. Upon perceiving this, Colonel Phelps at once gave the command "Double quick, march," to the platoon in front, and led the way, limping as he ran. Captain Clark with the Swanton company followed close upon his heels, and before the rest of the regiment had overtaken them they had torn up the burning planks and thrust them into the river, thus extinguishing the flames. Immediately a few planks were laid across the opening and the troops crossed at single file and formed by fours and marched into Hampton without molestation. The few soldiers of the enemy that were posted about the town did not make their appearance, and after conversing with some of the citizens, whom he had known years before when stationed at Fortress Monroe, Colonel Phelps led his regiment back to its quarters.

Two day after this reconnaissance the regiment moved from the Hygea Hotel across the causeway and bridge to the mainland and took up its quarters in tents. Two New York regiments were encamped near by, and in the night-time the Vermont troops were turned out for the first time by the long roll on account of false alarms in the other regiments. The main point of interest among the men seemed to be to ascertain whether all their comrades, and especially their officers were in the line. the examination was quite satisfactory, for all were there.

The following day, Sunday, May 26, the regiment was ordered to be ready to march at five o'clock the next morning with two days rations of bread and pork. To one of the company officers inquiring the destination, Colonel Phelps replied, that we were going where we were ordered if we could get there. Monday morning the men embarked on board the steamers "Cataline" and "Monticello," and moved up Hampton Roads to a point on the east side of the James river known as Newport News, the battery at Sewell's Point sending a few ineffectual shots after them. There they disembarked, and together with the Fourth Massachusetts and Seventh New York, (state militia, not the famous city Seventh), proceeded to fortify the position. The expedition was evidently sent out with the expectation of encountering the enemy, but none appeared. The lines of the proposed fortifications were drawn through luxuriant wheat and corn fields by officers of the United States Engineer Corps, and work commenced the next day after landing. The works when completed, consisted of an earth parapet seven feet high and a ditch of the same depth, extending about 1,800 feet in a semi-circle from the river to the river again and enclosing the three camps of the regiments named. Each regiment constructed the embankment in its front, and the portion that fell to the lot of the Vermont troops, who were encamped in the center of the line, was soon completed and much in advance of that of the other regiments. Guns were mounted upon the bastion and an angle of the parapet on the land side, while one of the heavy Columbiads -- rifles -- pointed towards the river. Two other regiments, one of which was Hawkins' Zouaves, soon joined the command, and with the "Harriet Lane" in the river, everybody felt quite secure from attack. From the time of landing at Newport News until the battle of Big Bethel, the men worked upon the fortifications, had battalion drill, dress parade and guard mount that seems to mean something for they were now facing the enemy's country. Parties were sent out for wood and timber to finish the parapet. And in this connection it will be interesting to compare a printed report of one of our friends, the enemy, with the fact.

In a report made to Col. J. B. Magruder, commanding division at Yorktown, June 12, Capt. W. H. Werth, Chatham Grays, Virginia Cavalry, says:

"Sir: I beg leave to make the following report of a reconnaissance made by men of the enemy's position at Newport News on Friday, 7th of June, 1861." He then enumerates the officers and men that he took with him, and says he saw eight men whom he tried to intercept, but that they reached camp and raised an alarm in the Massachusetts regiment, which was camped outside the works, and not more than one hundred and sixty yards from where he stood. He also saw a party of wood choppers. He then goes on to say "I at once saw that I must do quickly whatever I intended doing, so I reined my horse back, and walked him out into the clearing in plain view of the whole party (of wood choppers) and not more than twenty paces from them, picket out the commissioned officer, and shot him dead in his tracks. The whole party then yelled, 'Look out, look out for the d----d Virginia horsemen; they are down on us,' &c., and at once threw down everything they had, and commenced a retreat at a double quick. I put spurs to my horse and rode into them at full speed, (giving at the same time a loud walla-walla war-whoop)_, and then delivered my second shot which brought another man (a private) dead to the ground. (I shot the first one through the heart and the last one under the right shoulder blade.)"

"My horse by this time became totally unmanageable, and my third fire missed its aim, but killed a sorrel mule. I fired only these three shots. The party consisted of twenty-seven privates of infantry, two privates of artillery, one commissioned officer and one non-commissioned officer of infantry -- in all, thirty one. * * * * The party of thirty-one had their arms stacked against a tree, whilst four of them were on guard with their muskets."

A letter written from the Vermont regiment makes the following statement in regard to what is undoubtedly the same occurrence. The letter was written Sunday, June 9, and where its says, "last Thursday" should without doubt say, "last Friday," for the 7th of June would be on Friday, unless Captain Werth, whose report was made on the 12th, is mistaken in his dates. The letters says: "Last Thursday we had an alarm and the troops were kept under arms an hour or more. It turned out that four horsemen were seen down in the woods and that one of them fired at a Massachusetts man but hit the mule in his cart. The men, (Massachusetts men), only two of them, took to their heels and got into camp in safety. Since then no chopping parties have been allowed to go out without a guard. The next day Captain Andross took out most of his company to act as a guard. He was out half of the day but met with no adventure."

The event of the three months' campaign was the battle of Big Bethel.

Sunday, June 9, Colonel Phelps received orders from General Butler, in compliance with which he detailed the Woodstock, Bradford, Northfield, Burlington and Rutland companies of the Vermont regiment, to march at twelve o'clock midnight, together with five companies of the Massachusetts Fourth regiment and three companies of the New York Seventh, all under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, to act in concert with a force from Fortress Monroe, in the capture of an outpost of the enemy at a place called Little Bethel, a rustic church said to be six miles from Camp Butler at Newport News. Soon after twelve the column started, taking with it a brass twelve pounder drawn by mules, and a six pounder drawn by hand by the Germans of the New York regiment. This night movement was altogether in opposition to the expressed opinion of Colonel Phelps, who predicted disaster.

The plan, which seemed well enough conceived, was to surround and capture the small force at Little Bethel, but the very misfortune that Colonel Phelps feared might befall these raw troops moving in the night time, did happen, and the Germans posted at a fork in the roads in the rear of the main column, a few miles out from Newport News, fired into Colonel Townshend's regiment advancing from Hampton. This blunder should have ended the expedition, for if there were any troops at Little Bethel they had fled, or, what is more probable, had already been withdrawn when the movement was begun. But Brigadier-General Pierce, of Massachusetts, who was in command of all the forces, understanding that his instructions required him to move upon Big Bethel, gave the order to advance. Upon hearing the firing in their rear the five Vermont companies, by order of Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn, had fallen back to the place where the three German companies had been stationed, and formed in line of battle in their front, expecting to hear from the enemy, but there was no enemy there. Soon Duryea's Zouaves came running back, and after a while Townshend's regiment was brought up and the line of march taken for Big Bethel. The unfortunate conflict of friendly troops occurred before sunrise and while it was still dark or so foggy that objects were not distinctly seen. The line was formed at Big Bethel, a little after nine o'clock in the forenoon. The Vermont and Massachusetts troops were near the center with the Zouaves, and two pieces of artillery and two howitzers on the right and Townshend's regiment on the left. Two of the Vermont companies -- the Rutland and the Burlington -- were detached and moved further to the left to cover the flank of Townshend's regiment and to act as skirmishers. The battle begun with artillery, which, upon the Union side, was stationed in the road in front of the rebel battery of four guns, across the creek. In the meantime the Zouaves pushed forward towards the bridge, doing little harm to the enemy by their firing. When the artillery, which was manned by regulars under command of Lieutenant Greble, had nearly expended its ammunition, an order came to Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn to attempt to outflank the enemy on their left. He at once gave the command t march by the right flank, and the three companies of his regiment then with him, and the five Massachusetts companies field in the rear of the artillery, and after making a long detour to the right through the woods, came out in open land, crossed the marsh and creek that were before them and formed in line parallel to an out-work on the flank of the rebel battery, but with a low ridge between. The men immediately charged up the acclivity by order of their commander and commenced a rapid fire of musketry. Captain Andross was the first man upon the embankment. The fire was returned to some extent and several men were killed and wounded at this point, but soon the first of the rebels nearly ceased, and suggestions were made of an advance, but just then a bugle in the rear, across the creek, sounded the retreat, and Lieutenant-Colonel Washburn withdrew his men by the same route that they went in, across the creek and marsh. The enemy brought their artillery to bear upon the retreating forces and for a time made it lively for them. When the Vermont troops, who were with Washburn, came upon the road near where they had held their first position, they found everything in full retreat in front of them; even the two companies that had been detached upon the left, were in advance, thinking the Lieutenant-Colonel was still farther down the road. The march back to Newport News was hot, dusty and tedious, but soon after sun-set, weary and footsore, the tired men field slowly into camp, if not with much glory, yet with a good deal of experience and with the consciousness that the Vermonters had done their duty. From this time forward the history of the regiment was uneventful. On the 22d of June, Priv. D. H. Whitney of the Woodstock company, was killed by bushwhackers.

On the 4th of August the regiment embarked upon the two steamers, "Ben de Ford" and the "S. R. Spaulding," and sailed directly to New Haven, where it took the cars for Brattleboro, arriving there late at night on the 7th. The men were paid off by Maj. Thomas H. Halsey on the 15th and 16th, and left for home that afternoon and the next day. Their term of three months service had stretched out to four months, wanting four days. To realize the quality of the men who made up the regiment, we have but to remember that two hundred and fifty of its members held commissions later in the war, and of the seven hundred and fifty-three of the rank and file, over six hundred re-enlisted for three years. So say General Washburn and State Historian Benedict.

A three month campaign of raw troops would hardly seem to warrant so much space, but it must be remembers that this was the beginning of a great war, and after almost fifty years of peace within our borders, for during the Mexican War no hostile foot stood upon our soil. These men stepped out from the peaceful walks of life, into the duties of soldiers and here received a training that had its influence upon all of the Vermont regiments during the war.

Source: Theodore S. Peck, compiler, Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers and lists of Vermonters Who Served in the Army and Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1866, Montpelier, Vt.: Press of the Watchman Publishing Co., 1892, pp. 5-9.