George Stannard, Citizen-Soldier from Vermont

George Stannard

He had been a school teacher, farmer, and foundry operator before the war, nothing to show any promise out of the ordinary. But when war came, George Jerrison Stannard was one of the first Vermonters to sign up for the army. Originally appointed Lt. Col. of the 2nd Vermont Infantry Regiment, in May 1862 he was promoted to Colonel of the 9th Vermont. He fought at Harper’s Ferry in September 1862, reluctantly surrendering with the remainder of Col. Dixon Miles’ command. Exchanged in January 1863, he was subsequently promoted to brigadier general. In March he was assigned command of the 2nd Vermont Brigade.

Stannard began to make his mark at Gettysburg. On the 3rd, as Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett began his attack, three of Stannard’s regiments were posted on Brig. Gen. John Gibbons’ left. James Kemper’s Virginians began marching towards them. When Kemper made an oblique to Stannard’s right, it offered an opportunity. He ordered one of his regiments to move forward and turn, firing down Kemper’s line and causing serious damage. When Col. David Lang’s Floridians advanced, Stannard found himself on Lang’s left, and again moved troops forward, firing down Lang’s flank. During this action Stannard was hit by a piece of shrapnel. After recovering from his wound, Stannard was assigned to Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps, part of the Army of the James. He was given command of the so-called “Star Brigade” when its commander, Charles Heckman, was captured at the battle of Second Drewry’s Bluff in May 1864.

As the Union army advanced on Richmond during its Overland Campaign, General Grant ordered the XVIII corps up from its ineffectual position on Bermuda Hundred. He planned to assign them a more active role…  they were to join the Army of the Potomac outside of the Confederate Capital. On June 3rd Stannard’s brigade was ordered to attack with the rest of Baldy Smith’s corps. He lined his regiments up, front to back, in the order of the 27th Mass., 25th Mass., 23rd Mass., and the 55th Pa. One of his soldiers remembered, “We calculated the chances, and we felt they were terribly against us.” As they advanced, “double-shotted rebel guns hurled grape, canister and shrapnel, and the earth quivered under the mighty shock of battle.” So intense was the Confederate fire that a solider said the ground “seemed like a boiling cauldron” from the shot and shell. The Confederate line was in the shape of a “V”, and his men advanced toward the base, suffering an effect some historians have accurately likened to being in a pencil sharpener. Gaining nothing and seeing his men being slaughtered, Stannard pulled them back, and once again he was wounded.[1]

Stannard was sent to recover, but he returned later in the month, this time as division commander. His troops were placed on the Federal right outside Petersburg, when on June 24 they fought off an attack by Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke. Stannard was wounded yet again. As a stalemate settled in, in Grant launched several offensives, each combining drives north and south of the James, in an effort to stretch Lee’s army to the breaking point. In September he agreed to Maj. Gen. Ben Butler’s plan to take most of his Army of the James and launch a powerful, sudden attack on the Confederate fortifications north of the James. The object would be to “surprise and capture Richmond.” The Army of the Potomac would also launch a corresponding attack south of the James. Perhaps Butler would succeed and capture the Confederate capital. If not, Lee would have to react and it might open the door to the Federals around Petersburg.[2]

This would prove to be the most important and successful moment of George Stannard’s military career. He was ordered to take his division and attack the strongest point in the Confederate defensive line… Fort Harrison. His division was still part of the XVIII Corps, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord. The brigades that. comprised Stannard’s division were led by Cols. Samuel Roberts and Aaron Stevens, as well as Brig. Gen. Hiram Burnham. Although his division heavily outnumbered the Confederate defenders, the men in the ranks didn’t know that. All they saw in front of them were fortifications that appeared to be at least as strong as those they faced at Cold Harbor, yet they did not hesitate to attack. The men advanced under shot and shell, and a soldier described the scene: “the enemy’s fire is so terrific that the wasted and shattered column wavers a little – the task seems impossible.” General Burnham was killed during the advance, and Col. Stevens suffered a career-ending injury, but the men kept on and captured the fort.[3]

Ord and Stannard took some of the troops and marched towards the river in an attempt to cut the pontoon bridge the Confederates would use to send reinforcements. On the way Ord was wounded, but Stannard kept on. The Confederate defenses at the river were too strong, so Stannard pulled back to the fort. Realizing that Lee would certainly counterattack as soon as it was practicable, Stannard began constructing new walls at Fort Harrison (remanded Fort Burnham in honor of the slain general). The next day Lee indeed counterattacked. Stannard mounted the “Great Traverse” in order to lead he defense. The line held, but Stannard’s right arm was shattered and had to be amputated. His career with the division had ended. He was breveted as Maj. Gen. of Volunteers, and resigned his commission in 1866. After the war he worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and from 1881-1886 was the doorkeeper of the U. S. House of Representatives. George Stannard passed away in 1886 and is buried in the Laker View Cemetery in Burlington, Vermont.

References:

 The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, D. C. 1880-1901, Series 1, Volume 42, Part II.

Crenshaw, Douglas, Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm:” To Surprise and Capture Richmond, Charleston: The History Press, 2013.

Rhea, Gordon C., Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee May 26-June 3, 1864, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Longacre, Edward G., Army of Amateurs: General Benjamin E. Butler and the Army of the James, 1863-1864, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Stackpole Books, 1997.

Sommers, Richard J., Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981.

Thompson, S. Millett, History of the Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888

[1]Rhea, 354-355.

[2] OR, Grant to Butler. Sept. 27, 1864, 1058.

[3]Thompson, 461.

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