Gen. McMahon's Famous TributeHe Called it the Best Brigade
in the Army of the Potomac.
"We reprint, by request, the following tribute to the old First Vermont brigade. It was first printed soon after the close of the Civil War, and was entitled "The First Vermont Brigade--by one who did not belong to it, and who was never in Vermont." Its authorship was not known for some time, but finally was discovered and acknowledged by its author. This was General Martin T. McMahon, who was chief of staff of the sixth army corps, under "Uncle John" Sedgwick, and had ample opportunity to see the Vermonters in camp, on the march, and in battle. He has been United States marshal in New York, United States minister to Paraguay, and held other important offices. He is now judge of the court of general sessions in New York city, and he takes back nothing of his old high opinion of the Vermont troops.
"They were honest farmers turned vagabonds. They were simple countrymen changed into heroes. They were quiet townsmen that had become rovers. They stole ancient horses and bony cows on the march. They pillaged moderately in other things. They swept the dairies and stripped the orchards for miles where they traveled. They chased rabbits when they went into camp after long marches, and they yelled like wild Indians when neighboring camps were silent through fatigue. They were ill-disciplined and familiar with their officers. They swaggered in a cool, impudent way, and looked down with a patronizing Yankee coolness upon all regiment that were better drilled, and upon that part of the army generally that did not belong to the Vermont brigade. They were strangely proud, not of themselves individually, but of the brigade collectively, for they knew perfectly well they were the best fighters in the known world. They were long of limb and could outmarch the army. They were individually self-reliant and skilful in the use of arms, and they honestly believed that the Vermont brigade could not be beaten by the combined armies of the rebellion.
"They were veterans in fighting qualities almost from their first skirmish. This was at Lee's Mills. They crossed a narrow dam under a hot fire, made the attack they were instructed to make, and came back, wading deep in the water with a steadiness that surprised the army. They were an incorrigible, irregular, noisy set of rascals. They were much sworn at during their four years of service, yet they were at all times a pet brigade. There were but two things they could do--march and fight; and these they did in a manner peculiarly their own. They had a long, slow, swinging stride on the march, which distanced everything that followed them. They had a quiet, attentive, earnest, individual way of fighting that made them terrific in battle. Each man knew that his neighbor in the ranks was not going to run away, and he knew also, that he himself intended to remain where he was. Accordingly none of the attention of the line was directed from the important duty of loading or firing rapidly and carefully. When moving into action and while hotly engaged, they made queer, quaint jokes and enjoyed them greatly. They crowed like cocks, they baa-ed like sheep, they neighed, like horses, they bellowed like bulls, they barked like dogs, and they counterfeited with excellent effect the indescribable music of the mule. When, perchance, they held a picket line in a forest, it seemed as if Noah's ark had gone to pieces there.
"In every engagement in which this brigade took part it was complimented for gallant conduct. One of the most remarkable of its performances, however, has never appeared in print, nor has it been noticed in its reports. After the battle of Gettysburg, when Lee's army was in the vicinity of Hagarstown and the Antietam, the Vermont brigade was deployed as a skirmish line covering a front of nearly three miles. the enemy were in force in front near Beaver creek. This sixth corps was held in readiness in rear of the skirmish line, anticipating a general engagement. The enemy had evidently determined to attack. At last his line of battle came forward. The batteries opened at once then the skirmishers delivered their fire. Our troops were on the alert and stood watching for the skirmishers to come in, and waiting to receive the coming assault. But the skirmishers would not come in and when the fire died away it appeared that the Vermonters thus deployed as a skirmish line had actually repulsed a full line of battle attacks. Twice afterward the enemy advanced to carry the position and were each time driven back by this perverse skirmish line. The Vermonters, it is true, were strongly posted in the woods, and each man fired from behind a tree. But then, everybody knows that etiquette in such matters is for the skirmishers to come in as soon as they are satisfied the enemy means business. These simple minded patriots from the Green Mountains, however, adopted a rule of their own on this occasion, and the enemy, disgusted with this stupidity, retired across Beaver creek.
"When the Vermonters led the column on a march their quick movements had to be regulated from corps or division headquarters to avoid gaps in the column as it followed them. If a rapid forced march were required, it was a common thing for Sedgwick to say with a quiet smile, "Put the Vermonters at the head of the column today and keep everything well closed up."
"After the riots in New York, which it was found necessary to send troops to the city to prevent recurrence of the outbreak, the Vermont brigade was especially named by the war department for this duty. Within two hours from receiving the despatch the command was en route to the city. They occupied the public squares here for some time and enjoyed themselves not wisely nor yet virtuously and returned to the army of the Potomac sadly demoralized in all but the two great essential qualities of fighting and marching. It was a fortunate thing for the New York men that it avoided conflict with New England troops at this time.
"Upon the return of the brigade to the field they quietly held to their own routine of life and maintained to the close of the war the splendid reputation they had won at the very outset.
"There were many regiments equal to the Vermont regiments in actual battle, and some that, like the 5th New York volunteers, not only equalled them in fighting qualities but surpassed them to drill, discipline and appearance on .... //to be continued//
David A. Niles contributed the above on 18 January 1997:
I'm enclosing something that might be of interest for VtCW site. It's been in with my Charles B. Putnam papers for some time. It seems, by his notes, to have been culled from a newspaper clipping of the war period, and says much about the nature of the Vermont Brigade through the eyes of one officer who served in the in the Army of the Potomac.
Note written by Charles B. Putnam, Vermont First Brigade Band, that accompanied the article:
The following I clipped from some newspaper in wartime and I have been trying ever since to find out the author, but without success. The paper stated that it was from the pen of one "who did not belong to it," and who was never in Vermont, "but who was a major general in the Army of the Potomac." I have thought of Mott and Ayers who commanded batteries which were attached to the division to which the brigade belonged and who were afterwards major generals. I have also thought of McMahon who was so long the adjutant general of the 6th Corps but I think never held a rank higher than that of colonel. I am inclined to think now that it was he, and that the editor was mistaken in saying it was written by a major general. C.B.P.