The 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery and the Gettysburg Campaign

As the Army of the Potomac chased the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania during the summer of 1863, the garrison left in Washington gritted their teeth, honed their training, and considered how they might perform should the Confederate army appear on the national capital’s outskirts. If Robert E. Lee’s army proved victorious at Gettysburg they still would not have had a simple conquest. Numbers vary for the garrison, but the Union could rely on at least 10,000 soldiers and up to 36,000 possible armed defenders protecting the ring of fortifications surrounding Washington. Given the shape that Lee’s army was in during their retreat to Virginia, it is doubtful that even with a successful Pickett’s Charge they could have stormed or besieged the capital.

Among those in the district’s defenses were the members of the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery. Originally enlisting as the 11th Vermont Infantry in September 1862, this unit would eventually see service in their intended branch during the 1864 Overland Campaign. For now, they protected earthworks on the northern end of the ring—Forts Slocum, Stevens, and Totten—and wrote extensively on the assignment during the Confederate invasion.

Corporal William Charles Tallman was captured near the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad on June 23, 1864 and died of dysentery in Andersonville Prison on September 23, 1864. (Charles Tolman Collection, Vermont in the Civil War)

Corporal William C. Tallman, June 9, 1863, Fort Slocum – “I think if the rebels should attempt to get into Washington through this line of forts they would find bloody work… Our regiment is ready to take the field any time they are needed. We are ready and willing to suffer and if need be to die in defence of our national flag. All is at stake. If we cannot put down this unholy and unnatural rebellion we may as well die here. I for one had rather my bones would bleach unburied on the soil here than have this settled by the north giving the south an iota of what she has demanded. Let her throw down here arms and surrender unconditionally, return to her allegiance and submit to the constitutional authority of the United States, or fight it out.”[1]

Sergeant George Oscar French, June 15, 1863, Fort Stevens – “There is great excitement around here in regards to Lees advance into Maryland. It is reported that he has taken Harpers Ferry & is going right on into Pennsy’a. It is very evident the Rebs must make some bold push to recover their desperate fortunes before long.”[2]

Sergeant French, June 15, 1863, Fort Stevens – “We get our 5 ½ hours Artillery Drill every day… Last Friday we had more firing at targets. The Colonel said Sargent French what is the time of flight & how would you cut the fuse of a spherical case for that target (1450 y/ds) I said ‘four seconds.’ Load your gun with spherical case said he. I loaded & cut the fuse to suit myself. Major Wood was gunner & we fired. The shell burst the instant it struck directly in the center of the target. The best shot ever fired at that target. Of course I feel proud of this shot.”[3]

Private Aaron Kellogg, June 19, 1863, Fort Slocum – “The Rebels have been reported to be 6 miles from here. I would like to have them come and see what the Bloody 11th was made of.”[4]

George Oscar French was killed in action during the Petersburg Breakthrough on April 2, 1865. (Vermont Historical Society)

Sergeant French, after visiting the Capitol and Patent Office in Washington and seeing a uniform belonging to George Washington, June 23, 1863 – “… as I stood there beneath the Rotunda I tell you I felt big & said to myself Let the Rebs keep out of here while I live. A man that can look on Washington’s relics & have a disloyal thought had out to be hung & quartered.”[5]

Major George E. Chamberlin, June 24, 1863, Fort Totten – “Am well, but working very hard. We are getting ready for emergencies here. I am in charge of the completion of Fort Slocum. Take breakfast at half-past five each morning, and am over there by six. We work until six in the evening. The work goes on finely, and we hope to finish soon. The fort is in fair fighting order now ever. Yesterday my work was nineteen hours with five hour’s sleep. Had a good deal of business at my fort after getting home from Slocum. It does not seem possible they will attack the defenses, but we do not know what a day may bring fort. We are all in good trim and spirits, and would not object to firing a few guns in earnest, instead of so many at target practice.”[6]

Edward Lever Foster worked in the beer industry after the war for the hops dealers S&F Uhlmann. (Vermont Historical Society)

Commissary Sergeant Edward L. Foster, June 27, 1863, Fort Slocum – “Up to the present week target firing has taken place twice each week, and with so much care and attention on the part of officers and men, that with an allowance of ten shots to each company at a single firing, they are now enabled to fire with the greatest accuracy, at distances varying from 1300 to 1700 yards, according to the range and caliber of the different pieces, which consist of 30 pound smooth bore Siege and Barbette guns, 24 pound rifled Parrot guns, mounted on siege carriages, and including the armament of three forts garrisoned by the Regiment, 3 8-inch Mountain Howitzers, 3 10-inch Mortars, and two or three Cohorn Mortars. The largest gun on the line is at Fort Totten and is 100-pound rifled Parrot gun, whose greatest range, carrying a hollow shot and with a charge of ten pounds powder, is 8,945 yards, or a little more than five miles. This range however is scarcely ever obtained, and at this post the greatest distance required is a little more than two miles.

“Fort Slocum, which is now in the process of enlargement and reconstruction, mounts but few guns, although when completed here armament will be 65. There were lately introduced here seven of the 4 ½ inch rifled Rodman gun, all mounted on siege carriages. These guns throw shot or shell with the greatest accuracy, and altogether constitute a very formidable battery.

“Within the present week the work on this Fort is being prosecuted with much more than its usual vigor, and I presume by the time Gen. Lee is ready to come into Washington we shall be in readiness to give him a proper reception.”[7]

George Ephraim Chamberlin was mortally wounded at Summit Point, West Virginia on August 21, 1864. (Library of Congress)

Major Chamberlin, June 28, 1863, Fort Totten – “We are now in the midst of exciting times here. The enemy’s cavalry, to the number of two thousand, are within a few miles of us. A party has burnt one of our wagon trains within eight miles of the city to-day. The men at Fort Stevens are standing at their guns constantly. Work on our forts and batteries is going on day and night, the guards are doubled, pickets are thrown out, half of our garrison sleep inside the fort, and everything is put in readiness for a surprise or an attack. I have been out stationing pickets all the evening and have had a hard tramp. We feel quite secure under the precautions we have taken. I suppose a great battle will be fought in Maryland between Hooker and Lee in a few days. God grant us success.”[8]

Private George P. Keeler, July 1, 1863, Fort Slocum – “We have five hours of fatigue duty to do each day; but our principal occupation is keeping our guns and equipments clean and bright, and learning how to kill the greatest number of human beings to the best possible advantage. As yet we have had no chance to try our skill in that direction, but judging from present prospects we shall not long remain idle. In whatever position we are placed, I think you will hear a good report from the 11th. We have gained a reputation for skillfulness in the use of the spade and pick, and I think we can do quite as well with the sword, rifle and cannon.”[9]

Major Chamberlin, July 14, 1863, Fort Totten – “Mother, you don’t know how I ached to be at Gettysburg. To have shared in the glories of the Second Vermont Brigade that day, would have been enough. How splendidly the Green Mountain Boys fight. The achievements of both the old and nine months brigade made me almost envious. Our regiment, I am afraid, will be nowhere when the stories of the war come to be told. I am convinced it would distinguish itself if called on to fight, for I regard the material as good as anything from the State.”[10]

Judson A. Lewis served as U.S. Consul to Sierra Leone in the 1880s. (Ed Italo Collection, Vermont in the Civil War)

Corporal Judson A. Lewis, July 22, 1863, Fort Stevens – “Everything is quiet throughout the camp now;—two or three weeks ago everything was in a state of excitement. Lee with his army was in Maryland, and raids were looked for. No pains were spared to prevent any dashes upon the city. Should a force have attempted it they certainly would not have found us napping.”[11]

Who knows what would have happened had the Confederate army tested Washington’s defenses and, given the improbability of such an attack even occurring after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, such speculation is ultimately pointless. Either way, the garrison had the utmost confidence to receive them.

 

Sources:

[1] Wm. C. Tallman to “Dear Sir,” June 9, 1863, “From the Eleventh Regiment,” Orleans Independent Standard, June 19, 1863.

[2] George O. French to “Friends at home,” June 15, 1863, Vermont Historical Society.

[3] George O. French to “Friends at home,” June 15, 1863.

[4] Aaron Kellogg to “Dear Mrs. Melandy,” June 19, 1863, Ed Italo Collection, Vermont in the Civil War.

[5] French to “Folks at home,” June 23, 1863.

[6] George E. Chamberlin to “Dear Mother,” June 24, 1863, Letters of George E. Chamberlin (Springfield, IL: H.W. Rokker’s Publishing House, 1883),  271.

[7] E.L.F. to “Mr. Editor,” June 27, 1863, “From the Eleventh Regiment,” Montpelier Daily Journal, July 2, 1863.

[8] Chamberlin to “Dear Father,” June 28, 1863, Letters of George E. Chamberlin, 271-272.

[9] Geo. P. Keeler to “Mr. Editor,” July 1, 1863, “From the Eleventh Regiment.” Orleans Independent Standard, July 17, 1863.

[10] Chamberlin to “Dear Mother,” July 14, 1863, Letters of George E. Chamberlin, 273.

[11] “The 11th Vermont,” Rutland Weekly Herald, July 30, 1863.

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