Civil War history still breathes down the years

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 11, 2010

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WOODSTOCK — Barely scratch the surface of almost any New England city or town, and some interesting tidbit of history lurks beneath. Often it’s the story of a natural disaster, a quirky early settler, or some footnote to the American Revolution.

It turns out that Woodstock is a “Civil War museum,’’ according to historian and author Howard Coffin, who grew up in the town and has seven forebears who fought in Vermont regiments during the war. With a population of just over 3,000, the town sent 284 men to war (39 did not survive). Moreover, Coffin says, as the seat of Windsor County government, Woodstock was a magnet for civic leaders and ultimately played a key role in managing Vermont’s war effort.

The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park commissioned Coffin to develop a walking tour of the town’s Civil War history. While other national parks interpret important Civil War battlefields, Woodstock’s tour was the first to deal with life on the home front. Over the summer, National Park Service rangers lead the two-hour, two-mile walk. The tour draws on letters and other accounts Coffin discovered during his research to impart a personal touch, much as filmmaker Ken Burns used such materials in his Civil War documentary. Just before this season started, we joined Coffin for a preview.

The tour commences at a grassy pasture at the Billings Farm & Museum adjacent to the National Historical Park. In 1862 it was the site of Camp Dike, where 250 soldiers trained for a nine-month tour of duty, and a large oval depression still marks the encampment. Many of the recruits were sharpshooters, and Coffin hypothesizes that they practiced their marksmanship a few hundred yards away where an embankment could serve as a backstop for bullets.

The modern scene is a bucolic idyll of big-eyed Jersey cows grazing in thick green grass. But in 1862, the pasture was a bustling place as soldiers and civilians alike anticipated the deployment of Vermont troops. Newspaper records show that 1,500 people came out to celebrate religious services one Sunday afternoon. The aim of the walking tour is to evoke that era, lost to living memory.

The time feels closer on the stroll into town across the Elm Street Bridge. Although the covered bridge of Civil War days no longer stands, the town looks much as it did in the 1860s. Most of the handsome houses, as well as mercantile buildings along Central Street, predate the Civil War.

At 40 Elm St., the former home of US Senator Jacob Collamer was built in 1832 and purchased by Collamer in 1836. Known as “the Green Mountain Socrates,’’ Collamer opposed the expansion of slavery but struggled in the Senate in the late 1850s to make compromises to head off secession by the South. Once the battle was joined, he was a stalwart supporter of President Lincoln, and his wife led local efforts to send aid to Union soldiers.

Next door stands the First Congregational Church (36 Elm St.), whose abolitionist congregation swung quickly behind the war effort. The church was established in 1781, four years after Vermont’s constitution outlawed slavery. The current building was completed in 1808 and for generations a Revere bell hung in its belfry. Although the bell cracked in 1976, it sits on the front porch, and a light tap of the fingernails still elicits its bright tone. In 1865, it pealed joyously to celebrate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, and tolled steadily a week later to mourn the death of Lincoln. In May 1861, the church held services for the men of Company B of the First Vermont Regiment, the state’s first soldiers to go to war.

The walk continues past the home of private Dana Whitney (28 Elm St.), who was killed by Confederate bushwhackers. Whitney was the only member of that company who did not return home alive after 90 days of service. Next door, the Woodstock History Center (26 Elm St.) occupies the Dana House, an 1807 merchant’s home. Largely a period house representing 19th-century life in Woodstock, the museum has rich archives and displays a few Civil War-era artifacts, including a photo of Lieutenant Andrew Dike, a military recruiter then. Dike’s office, in fact, was on the upper level of a general store that, in 1886, became F.H. Gillingham & Sons (16 Elm St.), now more a purveyor of maple syrup, Vermont cheese, and old-timey toys than overalls and bulk seed.

Just steps away, the intersection of Central and Elm streets forms a large square where Woodstock gave a ceremonious send-off to the boys who had mustered at Camp Dike. A popular singing group of the time even serenaded them from the second-story balcony of the hotel now partly occupied by Bentley’s restaurant (3 Elm St.).

Across the square (15 Central St.), lawyer Peter Washburn could have watched over the proceedings from his office windows. As a lieutenant colonel, he was second in command of the First Vermont Regiment and, following his return in the summer of 1861, became the state’s adjutant general. He sent out calls for recruits, and received and relayed information about casualties and deaths. “All the paperwork to keep Vermont at war was handled in Woodstock,’’ Coffin says.

The tour points out other spots, including the Hutchinson House on the corner of Central and Elm streets, which oral tradition says was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the third-floor meeting room of the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR, the fraternal organization of Civil War veterans who dominated Republican politics until World War I. The Windsor County Court House (12 The Green) also held Town Hall during the war and hosted speeches by famed abolitionists and fund-raisers to aid the soldiers. The long ellipse of the adjacent green served as a drill ground.

The walking tour crosses the Ottauquechee River on Mountain Avenue, turning onto River Street at Washburn’s house (4 Mountain Ave.). The war feels most palpable at the River Street Cemetery, where rusting iron stars mark the graves of members of Post 82 of the GAR. Among them are eight members of the Massachusetts 54th, the African-American regiment memorialized in the film “Glory.’’ Woodstock had an unusually large African-American population. Initially only allowed to enlist as officers’ servants, many chose to serve as armed soldiers with the Massachusetts regiment. The cemetery is the great leveler. The dramatic column wreathed with laurel that marks adjutant general Washburn’s grave is no greater in death than the tiny marker inscribed “D.H.W.’’ that notes the resting place of private Dana Whitney.

While the graveyard might seem a fitting conclusion, the tour continues to the 1805-07 Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller mansion, where the interpretation links the Civil War era to the prescient conservationist bent of all three families associated with the property. George Perkins Marsh served as Lincoln’s envoy in Italy during the Civil War, steering Europeans away from supporting the Confederacy. His 1864 book, “Man and Nature,’’ became a foundation stone of the environmental movement. The home’s next owner, Frederick Billings, a lawyer and former railroad president, helped establish Yosemite National Park in 1864 during the last days of the war and turned the Woodstock property into a showcase of scientific farm and forest management. Billings’s granddaughter Mary French and her husband, Laurance Rockefeller, ultimately bequeathed the property that became the first national park in Vermont.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at

If You Go

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
54 Elm St.
802-457-3368, ext. 22
Park admission free. Civil War Home Front Walking Tour $8, seniors $4. Tour offered on July 17, Aug. 7 and 28, and Sept. 5, at 2 p.m. Reservations recommended.
Woodstock History Center
26 Elm St. 802-457-1822
Dana House Museum open Fri-Sun noon-4. Adults $5, children 16 and under free.