Commanding the Regiment: William Sperry’s Creative Cannoneering

William Sperry (U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Paul Smith Collection)

During the final assault on the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg, April 2, 1865, the 6th Vermont Infantry’s acting commander found himself among an artillery battery abandoned by its crew. The major cleverly devised a way to wield the cannons against the defenders as they rallied to retake the position. Having worked his way up from a non-commissioned officer rank, he displayed grim innovation to cap the wartime experience of a regiment that followed a path unlike many in the Army of the Potomac.

William Joseph Sperry was born in Cavendish, Vermont, on December 28, 1840, to John G. and Roxanna (Pratt) Sperry. He received a common school education and worked as a house painter before the Civil War. At first opportunity on May 2, 1861, Sperry enlisted as a private in the 1st Vermont Infantry. Shortly after mustering out from that three-month regiment, the twenty-year-old reenlisted on September 26 as a sergeant in Capt. Edwin W. Baker’s Company E of the 6th Vermont Infantry. Service records listed him as standing 5’5” with a light complexion, blue eyes, and light hair.[1]

Organizationally, the regiment joined the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Vermont Infantry in a rare Army of the Potomac brigade composed of units from the same state. Brigadier General William T.H. Brooks assumed command of the group, which initially received assignment to the Fourth Corps. Today, the Vermont Brigade is one of the more acclaimed units from the Civil War, but, among its number, the 6th Vermont Infantry has the fewest resources specifically devoted to it. A bit more of an introduction to its service seems warranted.[2]

Colonel Nathan Lord, Jr. led the regiment south in late October, arriving at Camp Griffin (near present-day McLean, Virginia) to spend the winter. Banded together from across the Green Mountain State and then sent into a new climate—many for the first time—the men suffered severely from illness. By the end of November, almost a third were unfit for service, and forty-seven ultimately died of disease before the spring. The full brigade shipped to the Virginia Peninsula in March 1862 for their inaugural active campaign together.[3]

Sergeant Sperry stands alone in the foreground on the right side of this zoomed-in photograph of Company E, 6th Vermont Infantry, at Camp Griffin (Library of Congress)

The Vermonters fought on their own in their first engagement on April 16 at Dam Number One. The 3rd Vermont waded the swollen Warwick River under a heavy barrage and lodged a temporary foothold in the Confederate earthworks. Colonel Lord brought his regiment to the water’s edge in support and then sent across five companies below the dam. Sperry, with those who remained in position along the riverbank, provided covering fire until Brooks suspended the operation. Their baptism of fire cost the regiment 13 killed, 10 mortally wounded, and another 57 wounded.[4]

The following month, the brigade transferred into the newly created Sixth Corps as the Army of the Potomac pressed close to the Richmond defenses. The Vermonters’ position on the south side of the Chickahominy River meant they saw less activity at the start of the Seven Days Battles. Briefly engaged at Gouldin’s Farm on June 27, their only major combat came two days later at Savage’s Station. The brigade acted as the rearguard for the Army of the Potomac’s movement toward the James River, and the 6th Vermont lost 21 killed and mortally wounded as they bought time for the evacuation of the depot and hospital. Over fifty of their own men wounded in the engagement fell prisoner when the regiment received orders to withdraw. The Vermonters remained in reserve for the rest of the campaign but again endured a wave of sickness as they camped near Harrison’s Landing.[5]

Sperry received a commission as second lieutenant in August 1862, while the armies shifted northward. Thomas R. Clark, Company E’s first lieutenant, had been detached in the Signal Corps since December 1861, leaving Sperry as the second in command behind Capt. Barker. The regiment served in a support role at South Mountain and Antietam, after which Lt. Col. Asa P. Blunt departed to help raise the 12th Vermont Infantry. The Sixth again received a minor assignment at Fredericksburg but lost another officer in the aftermath. Colonel Lord resigned on December 18 on account of poor health. The next in line, Oscar S. Tuttle, quickly bowed out for the same reason, leaving the recently promoted Col. Elisha L. Barney at the head of the regiment. They camped near White Oak Church, east of Fredericksburg, awaiting the spring campaign.

Sixth Vermont Field and Staff Officers, Camp Griffin, October 1861 (Ed Italo Collection, Vermont in the Civil War)

Captain Barker resigned in February and Lieut. Clark, still detached, nominally took over that rank. Sperry received a promotion of his own to first lieutenant and took on the actual responsibility of leading Company E. One of his soldiers described him at the time as “a fine little fellow who looks as though he was about 17 years old.” Brigade leadership also experienced a transitory period. Brooks had moved up to division command prior to Fredericksburg and Col. Henry Whiting, who had led the five Vermont regiments that December, resigned in February. The command structure finally stabilized with the appointment of Col. Lewis A. Grant, who retained that position at the head of the brigade through the end of the war.[6]

The Sixth Corps acquitted itself well during the Chancellorsville campaign as it fought independently in the vicinity of Fredericksburg. On May 3, 1863, the 6th Vermont participated in the storming of the imposing, though lightly defended, positions on Marye’s Heights and Telegraph Hill. When the Confederates launched an offensive the following day, the regiment counterattacked along Salem Heights and took 200 prisoners by themselves before the whole corps ultimately received orders to withdraw across Banks’s Ford. The following month—right as the Confederates began their march north into Pennsylvania—the corps once more commenced an independent movement across the Rappahannock River.

The field strength of Company E at that time had reduced to a mere two sergeants, five corporals, and sixteen privates. Its commanding lieutenant missed the June skirmishing below Fredericksburg. Sperry had somehow made it home to Cavendish to marry Percy E. Bridges on June 9. He was reported present in the ranks on the next muster roll and was presumably at Gettysburg, though Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, recently installed to lead the Army of the Potomac, held most of the Sixth Corps back in reserve. Their most notable contribution in the campaign occurred on July 10 outside Funkstown, Maryland. The brigade deployed as skirmishers along a two-mile front—the 6th Vermont accounting for nearly a mile of the line themselves—and repulsed three determined infantry assaults.[7]

Entering its third year of service that October, only 322 of the 971 men who departed Vermont remained active with the regiment. Of those, 191 reenlisted for another term. Periodic additions of new recruits kept the aggregate number above 500. Despite the official record crediting them with having fought up to that point at Williamsburg, Glendale, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, the regiment had only suffered a combined one killed and twelve wounded in those six battles. Combat on isolated fronts and rampant illness in camp accounted for their steadily reducing strength. The coming year would earn them a spot among “The Three Hundred Fighting Regiments” of the Union army.[8]

Colonel Barney led 441 men across the Rapidan River at the start of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign. On the first day in the Wilderness, May 5, 1864, the regiment notably fought alongside the rest of the Army of the Potomac for the first time in the war. It proved to be their bloodiest battle. Barney suffered a mortal wound as the regiment defended the crucial Orange Plank Road intersection with the Brock Road. Captain Albert A. Crane, the commander of Company A and a frequent correspondent of the Rutland Herald, also fell killed, depriving the 6th Vermont of its most prolific voice for the rest of the war. In total, the regiment lost 69 killed and 127 wounded before Lt. Col. Oscar A. Hale took over for the move to Spotsylvania. On May 10, Col. Emory Upton selected the regiment as one of twelve for his frontal assault on the Mule Shoe Salient and positioned them in the last wave of his innovative, though ultimately unsuccessful, attack.[9]

Hale’s battered regiment received two new companies of drafted men on May 15. The brigade also welcomed the addition of the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery, who had been serving in the Washington defenses since September 1862. The newcomers transitioned into infantry to significantly increase the fighting strength of the brigade as it continued onward to Cold Harbor. There, on June 7, a rebel marksman shot Maj. Richard B. Crandall through the lungs, mortally wounding the 6th Vermont’s popular second-in-command. A week later the Army of the Potomac began shifting further south toward Petersburg. The Sixth Corps’ experience in the trenches was short-lived, as they detached in July to race to the national capital to protect it from Jubal Early’s northern invasion.

William Sperry (John Gibson Collection, Vermont in the Civil War)

Lieutenant Sperry led Company E throughout the summer and finally received promotion to captain of Company C in August. The Sixth Corps temporarily joined Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah and saw heavy combat on August 21 in between Charles Town and Summit Point, West Virginia. They suffered the greatest number of casualties in the brigade during the engagement, including Lt. Col. Hale and Capt. Frank G. Butterfield, severely wounded, and Maj. Carlos W. Dwinell, mortally wounded. The resulting void at the top of the regiment elevated Capt. Martin Warner Davis into active command at Third Winchester (Opequon) on September 19.

The following month, Davis, with all those with three-year terms who did not reenlist, mustered out of the service. The 320 effective men who remained in the field consolidated into six companies. Captain Butterfield was slated to take charge, with Sumner H. Lincoln serving below him, but the former had to resign due to setbacks in his recovery, while the latter had yet to return from his own wounds received at Opequon. Thus, Capt. Edwin R. Kinney led the 6th Vermont at Cedar Creek on October 19. He too fell wounded in that engagement, briefly propelling Capt. Sperry into regimental command for the first time.

Lincoln returned after the battle, receiving a promotion to lieutenant colonel on January 7, 1865. That same day, Sperry officially joined the regimental command structure with the rank of major. Over the course of three years and three months he had slowly moved his way up from sergeant, though it took the gradual departure of eight regimental officers to bring him the opportunity. Except for his marriage in June 1863, Sperry consistently appeared as present in the muster roll during active campaigning. He additionally received a granted furlough home in January 1864, fifteen days leave that March, and another fifteen in December to take care of his mother who was ill at home.

While the Sixth Corps was busy in the Shenandoah Valley, the rest of the Army of the Potomac had gained ground south of Petersburg with offensives in August, September, and October 1864. Continued extensions of the military railroad linking back to the City Point supply hub allowed the Union army to remain in place after each movement bogged down. After taking care of Jubal Early at Cedar Creek, the Sixth Corps rejoined the Army of the Potomac and settled into place in the newly gained position. Engineers laid out impressive earthen fortifications for these entrenched camps, and the infantrymen rotated through fatigue detail to improve the forts along the line.

Colonel Lincoln reported, “It being understood that this was to be our winter quarters, the men, with that rare constructive ability which is possessed only by old soldiers, soon made themselves very comfortable by building houses of boards split from pine logs.” Chaplain Harvey Webster soon joined the command. “The Sixth regiment retains its well earned reputation” he observed, praising Lincoln, Sperry, and Surgeon Edwin Phillips for the unit’s “excellent appearance on inspection and cleanliness in camp.” Records show the regiment’s aggregate strength on March 6, 1865, at 550 officers and men, with 372 of that number present on duty.[10]

The men frequently served as pickets out in front of the earthworks. Throughout February and March, one tenth of the regiment occupied the trenches each night. Many suspected that once spring arrived, the campaign would follow its trend of shifting the fighting further west and south—past the extent of both armies’ fixed fortifications—to resume targeting the Confederate supply lines. Nevertheless, they kept vigilant to their front. A smaller engagement over the positioning of the rifle pits in the Sixth Corps sector indeed proved to have big repercussions on the campaign’s outcome.

Lieutenant General Grant drafted orders for the next offensive to begin in the last week of March, but the Army of Northern Virginia struck first east of Petersburg. Early in the morning on March 25, Confederate storming parties overran Fort Stedman. This daring attack threatened to unravel the supply network that enabled the multiple Union corps south of Petersburg to always remain in a threatening position. The Ninth Corps counterattacked and drove the Confederates back out of their lines. As the fighting died down, Meade instructed the other corps commanders to probe the lines opposite them to detect if the Confederates had weakened themselves on the western front to contribute more men for the assault.

Wright dragged his feet and only sent a few regiments forward at 1 p.m. This half-hearted attempt tumbled back shortly thereafter. Two hours later, the Sixth Corps commander tried again with a full six brigades. Lewis Grant’s Vermonters charged up Church Road—the 6th Vermont on the left side of the second line—and overran the Confederate picket line. Substantial artillery fire from the batteries in the main line of defenses half a mile beyond prevented them from continuing further, but the Union soldiers hunkered down in the captured rifle pits and started refacing them for their own use.

Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive began four days later. Sheridan’s recently returned cavalry and two infantry corps sliced further into Dinwiddie County, southeast of Petersburg. Wright meanwhile surveilled the Confederate lines in front of him and possessed standing orders this time to attack should he detect any troop transfers in response to the Union movement. Since the combat on March 25, Lewis Grant had scanned the enemy defenses up close, using the position gained that day to get a better look.

The Vermont brigadier spotted a flaw—a ravine containing the headwaters of Arthur’s Swamp as it flowed out of the Confederate lines. Thick woods covered the marshy ground throughout the winter, but the reshuffling of the picket lines opened this area to deforestation. Furthermore, the Confederates carelessly left gaps in the abatis obstructions to facilitate the movement of timber gathering wagons as well as easy passage for the pickets, who now manned a new line just a quarter mile in front of their main defenses. With the Union rifle pits now advanced half a mile in front of their own permanent entrenchments, the entire Sixth Corps now had ample room in between the two lines to form for a frontal assault. Grant spotted these vulnerabilities from the ground and earnestly beseeched his superiors to direct an attack against this weak spot.

After a few false starts and crossed wires, Wright prepared his men to assault the earthworks early in the morning on April 2. The corps commander implemented Lewis Grant’s plan with a few modifications. Confident that the men could easily reach the Confederate lines, so long as they did not give away their position in the darkness, he carefully drafted orders that took pains to preserve the element of surprise. Furthermore aware of the distinction between fully breaking the Confederate lines and simply breaching them temporarily, Wright provided clear secondary objectives for each brigade and solicited volunteers for a unique assignment. Captain George W. Adams led seventeen members of Battery G, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, who accompanied the attack with their firing implements to immediately use any captured cannons against possible counterattacks aiming to retake the position.[11]

Wright designated the Vermonters to lead the assault with the other six brigades in his corps arranged in echelon behind them. Honored by the selection, Grant called his regimental officers together to discuss the coming attack before departing camp. Sperry attended on behalf of the 6th Vermont, as an intermittent fever confined Col. Lincoln to his bed from March 28 to April 4. After reviewing the mission, Grant instructed Sperry and the other five regimental commanders to return to their men and specifically brief them on the assignment. Late in the evening on April 1, the Sixth Corps marched past Fort Fisher and slowly filed out of the entrenchments. Sperry began forming his regiment third in line between 11 p.m. and midnight. Reaching their position behind the 5th and 2nd Vermont, the men dropped to the ground and restlessly listened for hours for the signal to attack.

“We had to keep quiet to prevent any noise reaching the enemy picket not very far in our front,” recalled First Lieut. Erie L. Ditty. Nearly fourteen thousand infantrymen in the Sixth Corps carefully found their assigned place behind their own rifle pits. “While lying there the pickets commenced firing and the bullets passed close to us but over us, we were lying flat on the ground,” remembered Capt. Lyman S. Williams, Company I, of the unnerving wait. “I knew all the while that we were to charge the rebs works at day break and supposed that fully half if not more would be killed or wounded.” A spent Confederate round struck Grant in the head, forcing the brigadier to retire to the rear to seek medical care. With the architect of the attack no longer present on the field, each regimental commander bore an even greater responsibility to see it through to success.[12]

Just before 4 a.m., Ditty noticed “the sky at our right was illuminated by the light of exploding bomb shells thrown from mortar batteries near Petersburg.” The bombardment covered the final preparations of the Ninth Corps, who readied themselves for their own charge on the city’s eastern front. Major General John G. Parke’s men charged forward before Wright started his own attack and succeeded in breaching the defenses around Fort Mahone. Confederate counterattacks pinned them into place, however, leaving the Union effort reliant on the attacks along the western front. The Sixth Corps began their attempt with the loud blast of a single cannon at 4:40 a.m.[13]

The 5th Vermont tore for the Confederate earthworks in front of them. Behind them raced the other five Green Mountain regiments, guiding themselves on the Arthur’s Swamp ravine, while the rest of the corps on both flanks extended the attacking front to a full mile. Captain Williams wrote, “When the signal came our brigade, which led the charge, sprang up and rushed through ravines over stumps through mud and water for a distance of a good half mile.” Enough Confederate pickets snapped off a gunshot to alert the ten infantry regiments in the main defenses of the oncoming assault. They immediately began pouring small arms fire into the onrushing attackers.[14]

The Confederate artillerists quickly sprang to their guns as well. As the Vermonters picked their way through the rows of abatis, cannon fire quickly belched out of the numerous embrasures along the line. Privates Manville Green and Shattuck P. Peck fell killed in the attack. A minie ball struck Pvt. Nelson H. Atwood between the knee and the ankle. A friend hoped that as “the ball did not nick the bone, it is nothing but a flesh wound,” but the injury proved severe. Meanwhile, a shell burst near Private Jesse Coty, fracturing his skull. Lieutenant Ditty credited the darkness at the hour of the attack for sparing the regiment of greater casualties.[15]

Onward the attackers continued, resisting the urge to stop and return fire while exposed out in the open. Captain Charles G. Gould redirected the 5th Vermont’s Company H to the left out of the ravine and was the first to strike the enemy line, suffering ghastly wounds for his efforts but succeeding in leading his men to subdue that portion of the defenses. Sergeants Peter Begor and Pardon A. Whitney bore the 6th Vermont’s colors straight forward, as Sperry pressed them toward a Confederate battery of two guns that threatened to cut devastating swaths through the ranks of bluecoated attackers.

Having bombarded the attackers since the moment they became alert of the charge, the Confederate gunners had again loaded the piece and prepared to fire once more at point blank range. The Vermonters swarming over the wall all around them compelled the artillerists to abandon their deadly work. Brigadier General James H. Lane’s North Carolinians manned the section of the line assaulted by Grant’s brigade. They offered brief hand-to-hand resistance before scampering rearward. Small groups turned to reengage in an attempt to confine the extent of the breach.

Sperry espied the rallying Confederates and urgently beckoned his men to spin the two artillery pieces in the direction of the Tar Heels. The Vermonters frantically searched for the implements used to fire a loaded cannon—priming wire, friction primer, and lanyard—but could not locate the necessary pieces of equipment. Refusing to concede, the major realized another way to ignite the charge by firing a musket into the vent at the back of the bore. The risky solution succeeded, and a round screamed toward the startled North Carolinians. Sperry bounded over to the second cannon and repeated the novel idea.[16]

First Lieutenant George A. Bailey meanwhile led a contingent of the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery into the battery. Still serving as infantry, they welcomed an opportunity to utilize the training they had perfected in the Washington defenses. Bailey immediately put them to work reloading the two cannons. Still unable to track down the proper tools, the Vermonters once more loaded two muskets just with powder and pointed them at the vents. A second pair of discharges convinced the nearby Confederates of the futility in attempting to retake the battery. Sperry kept at the work for twelve total rounds until Capt. Adams’s Rhode Island gunners reached the battery. The fully equipped contingent relieved the Vermonters and continued a steady fire at any North Carolinians who dared linger.[17]

The only chance the Confederates had to successfully defend their position was if their heavy fire stalled the momentum of the attack while it was fighting its way through the abatis. Should the Union infantry have attempted to engage in a firefight, the plethora of Confederate artillery ensconced behind the earthworks stood a decent chance of winning that type of engagement. Wright had recognized this possibility and incorporated into his attack orders directives that would keep the men from pausing while out in the open. Still, the compliance with those orders in defiance of the human instinct to seek safety remained up to the men on the ground. Moreover, both the attack’s success and the wellbeing of the soldiers involved depended that they never stay in place on that ground or throw themselves upon it to take cover. Sperry’s leadership in the charge meant that the end of the engagement saw the artillery instead operated by Union attackers against the retreating defenders.

“It was a sharp and short conflict,” recalled First Lieut. Erie L. Ditty. “The brigade soon had possession of the works in our front and guns captured were turned upon them.” Learning of the Sixth Corps breakthrough, Gen. Robert E. Lee informed Richmond authorities that he could no longer remain in Petersburg. His withdrawal meant the Confederates would have to abandon their capital as well. The Sixth Corps meanwhile swept down the line and back up toward Petersburg, ending the day in a position blocking Lee’s direct path westward. The Army of Northern Virginia hastily evacuated overnight and began following a longer path of retreat. They never found an opportunity to outpace their pursuers throughout the following week leading up to their surrender at Appomattox. Thus, Pvt. Payson A. Pierce of the 6th Vermont had a fair point when he regarded the Petersburg Breakthrough as “the most glorious victory that has been achieved since the war commenced.”[18]

That momentous result came at the cost of over a thousand casualties in the Sixth Corps—123 killed and 899 wounded. In addition to the deaths of privates Green and Peck within the 6th Vermont, one additional member of the regiment lost his life in the aftermath of the attack. Surgeons amputated Pvt. Atwood’s leg and the Woodstock native died in a Washington hospital on May 23. Private Coty, on the other hand, survived his gruesome head injury and lived until 1912. Overall, the regiment had eighteen other enlisted men wounded in that final major battle of its service.[19]

Sperry mustered out of the army on June 26, 1865, and returned to Cavendish. He resumed his work as a house painter as well as paper hanger and occasional constable in the village of roughly 1,500 residents nestled along the Black River in south central Vermont. He additionally belonged to his local Masonic lodge, for which he frequently held leadership positions. Personal tragedy struck on March 26, 1877, when his wife Percy died undergoing surgery to remove an ovarian tumor.

The Sperry house is in the top right corner of this 1869 map of Cavendish, Vermont (F.W. Beers Atlas of Windsor County)

A decade later, William married Lucy M. Perry on August 1, 1888. The couple’s son Fred Child Sperry was born exactly nine months afterward on May 1, 1889. I don’t speak fluent Victorian, but I think I can parse through the announcement of their marriage: “Ah there! Did you know that on Wednesday evening of this week, and about 9 o’clock thereon, the Rev. Mr. Wight called at the residence of Henry C. Perry of this place, and there found Col. William J. Sperry evidently spending the evening with Miss Lucy M. Perry. Everything being in order and readiness, and the pair being in a condescending mood, they at once stood up, and by a few words spoken and a few promises made the Col. and Lucy were made one. The congratulations and best wishes of the community are extended to the newly-married couple.”[20]

Sperry represented his hometown in 1888 with a single term in the Vermont legislature. In the years afterward he maintained a prominent appearance in Montpelier by serving as doorkeeper for the State House. The position allowed him to associate with influential Vermont politicians who would later advocate on his behalf. Redfield Proctor, an officer with the 3rd, 5th, and 15th Vermont Infantry, served as Governor of Vermont from 1878 to 1880 and continued to remain active in politics. President Benjamin Harrison appointed him as Secretary of War in 1889. Former brigade commander Lewis Grant joined the department the following year as Assistant Secretary of War, and the administrative and organizational talents of Fred C. Ainsworth—a native of Woodstock, Vermont—resulted in his own promotion to head the Records and Pension Office on May 27, 1892.

Four members of the Vermont Brigade earned and received the Medal of Honor during the war itself. Two of these resulted from Sergeant Lester G. Hack and Corporal Charles W. Dolloff capturing flags on April 2, 1865. Few medals were retroactively awarded in the decades immediately following, but that number exponentially increased in the 1890s. Proctor and Grant saw to honoring twenty-one additional veterans of the Vermont Brigade, among them Capt. Gould, First Lieut. Gardner C. Hawkins, and Sgt. Jackson Sargent for their actions at the Petersburg Breakthrough. Three members of the 6th Vermont Infantry received the medal at that time for their gallantry in other engagements:

  • Sergeant Edward A. Holton, at Dam Number One, April 16, 1862, “rescued the colors of his regiment under heavy fire, the color bearer having been shot down while the troops were in the retreat.”
  • First Lieutenant Frank G. Butterfield, at Salem Heights, May 4, 1863, “took command of the skirmish line and covered the movement of his regiment out of a precarious position.”
  • First Lieutenant John W. Clark, the regimental quartermaster, near Warrenton, July 28, 1863, “defended the division train against a vastly superior force of the enemy, he was severely wounded, but remained in the saddle for 20 hours afterward, until he had brought his train through in safety.”[21]

Lieutenant Governor Henry A. Fletcher hailed from Sperry’s hometown of Cavendish. A veteran of the 16th Vermont Infantry, he wrote to Lewis Grant on June 9, 1892: “Allow me to call your attention to the name of Lt. Col. Wm. J. Sperry, of this town, who, it seems to me is entitled to a medal of honor.” Fletcher undertook the endeavor on his own, believing Sperry “was too modest to do anything for himself.” He felt that Sperry merited consideration for his conduct at either Cedar Creek or the Petersburg Breakthrough.[22]

William Sperry (Deeds of Valor)

Grant responded that he remembered Sperry well and knew him “to be an excellent officer” who “did gallant service,” but informed Fletcher that all medal requests had to be referred to Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, commanding general of the U.S. Army, and furthermore needed to specifically identify notable gallantry in a particular battle. The lieutenant governor revealed his mission to Sperry and prodded him to elaborate on why he deserved the recognition but admitted to Grant that Sperry “says that if his record… is not sufficient to obtain a medal of honor, he shall make no farther effort to get one.”[23]

Ainsworth dove into the files and produced the Petersburg reports that both noted Sperry’s gallantry and recommended a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel. He recommended his persistent fellow Vermonters highlight Sperry’s involvement in that decisive assault. “Major Sperry’s conduct on that occasion was spoken of and highly commended,” Grant informed Schofield. “I further know that Major Sperry was an excellent and gallant officer and served with great credit and honor during the War. He is now a respected citizen of Vermont, of very quiet and retiring nature. Personally I should be pleased to see him have a medal, and I think he is deserving of it.”[24]

Schofield concurred, directing Ainsworth to solicit Sperry’s address in order to mail the medal. “I assure you that it gives me pleasure to thank you personally for the interest you have taken in this matter in my behalf,” Sperry responded to the records chief, noting he had heard Ainsworth took “great pleasure in looking after the boys of your native state.” Twenty-seven years after his quick thinking while directly inside of the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg, Sperry finally received the tangible appreciation of his notable leadership at the head of his regiment. “You may rest assured that this medal will be highly prized by me,” he thanked Ainsworth.[25]

Though he would not have sought out the medal on his own, Sperry took personal pride in his service. He displayed his accoutrements from the war at local schools, participated in veteran organizations, and was appointed to serve on the legislative committee for the Fort Stevens-Lincoln National Park Association. The veteran’s health, however, began to suffer despite these accolades.

Though he never missed time in the field on account of wounds or sickness, that service nevertheless took a toll on his body. In 1895, he received an increase to his monthly pension from $12 to $30 on account of his reported feeble condition. A 1901 newspaper clipping noted a prolonged illness “with an army trouble, of which he has been sick a great deal heretofore.” When he died at the age of seventy-three on March 3, 1914, the attending physician recorded rheumatism, chronic dilations of his heart, and acute bronchitis as contributing diseases.[26]

Sperry was buried in Cavendish’s Mount Union Cemetery. A local newspaper eulogized: “Col. Sperry was about the most familiar figure upon our streets as he never failed when in good health to go to the post office three times a day, and always with a pleasant word or funny anecdote for those he met. He will be greatly missed in the community.” After her husband’s death, Lucy Sperry remained in Cavendish and eventually cared for her older widowed sister Mary.[27]

In early November 1927, the remnants of a tropical storm struck Vermont, causing torrential downpours and catastrophic flooding throughout the state. As the Black River rose it tore away the embankment supporting the structures along Cavendish’s main road. Fortunately, a quick-thinking peddler on the road late at night—who abandoned his own vehicle just before it washed away—managed to alert the nearby residents of the danger. One by one, eight buildings disappeared into the chasm, but remarkably everyone in town survived. Compassionate neighbors carried Lucy and her eighty-eight-year-old sister out of the house just before it slid into the darkness.[28]

Across the state, the disaster claimed the lives of Lieut. Gov. Hollister Jackson and eighty-three other Vermonters. It washed away 1,258 bridges, the rebuilding of which drastically reshaped the relationship between those independent communities and their state and national governments. Contemporary estimates initially placed the total damage at roughly thirty million dollars. Lucy, who only made it out of her house with the clothes she wore to bed, lost all her other personal possessions. The seventy-seven-year-old relied on the support of the Red Cross as she awaited the rebuilding of her home.

Cavendish, Vermont, after the 1927 flood (The Vermonter State Magazine)

Her missing belongings included all the cherished heirlooms of her husband’s service. The local Red Cross chairman wrote to Representative Ernest W. Gibson requesting that he take up the matter: “It has upset the widow terribly, as of course she valued these highly and wished to pass them along at her death to her son… I know of nothing that would give her greater happiness in her declining years… than some substitute for the medal.” The War Department quickly produced duplicates to replace the written citations commending Sperry’s gallantry but required a congressional joint resolution to reissue a medal to anyone except the service member being honored.[29]

Gibson felt confident he could quickly produce agreeable results. President Calvin Coolidge was born at Plymouth Notch, just sixteen miles upstream from Cavendish. However, the chief executive disappointed many in his home state by waiting nearly a year to tour the devastation for himself. Congress meanwhile authorized a new medal that March. As the bill awaited the president’s final signature, the original medal suddenly reappeared. Two workers assisting in flood damage repairs found it buried in the sand a mile below the site of the Sperry house.

Increased attention to Lucy’s plight helped her secure an increase in her monthly widow’s pension to $50 shortly thereafter. She moved into a newly constructed home that September and resided there until her death on January 17, 1930. Fred Sperry, an only child, inherited the medal and his sole offspring—the namesake of the Civil War veteran—did not survive infancy. Thus, William Sperry’s Medal of Honor is today housed in the Cavendish Town Office.

The regimental commander’s creative problem-solving has long been a staple of my talks and tours of the Petersburg Breakthrough. Digging further into his story allowed me to discover many of the aspects I had taken for granted—how unique the Vermont Brigade’s service stood out among the rest of the army, the attrition necessary for a sergeant to eventually work his way to the top of his regiment, and the seemingly arbitrary way the War Department awarded the Medal of Honor in the 1890s.

Of the thirty-five Medals of Honor earned by the Sixth Corps for gallantry on April 2, 1865, twelve soldiers received them in the immediate aftermath specifically for the capture of flags. It is probable that no single action responsible for those medals—nor the twenty-three issued later—drastically altered the outcome of the battle on its own. Indeed, it might seem like overkill when you consider that all eight of the brigades shared similar success as they reached the Confederate earthworks within minutes of each other that morning. And yet, plenty of frontal assaults floundered throughout the previous four years. Few achieved the same tactical or strategic results and arguably none produced the same triumphant combination of both. The crafty Sperry determined to do everything he could there within the battery he overran to contribute to the decisive victory in the most consequential attack of the Civil War.


[1] William J. Sperry Compiled Service Records, National Archives.

[2] For a longer narrative of the regiment’s service, see George G. Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War: A History of the Part Taken by the Soldiers and Sailors in the War for the Union, 1861-5, Volume 1, Burlington, VT: The Free Press Association, 1886, 208-234. For a brief summary and a full roster, see Frank G. Butterfield, “Sixth Regiment,” in Theodore S. Peck, ed., Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers, Montpelier, VT: Watchman Publishing Co., 1892, 177-213. Those interested in the Green Mountain State’s soldiers and units should also consult Tom Ledoux’s “Vermont in the Civil War” website –

[3] Only the 2nd Vermont Infantry had previously seen combat at First Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

[4] This engagement is frequently called Lee’s Mill but should not be confused with the engagement bearing the same name that took place over two miles downstream on April 5, 1862.

[5] For more on the Vermont Brigade in the spring and summer of 1862, see Paul G. Zeller, The Vermont Brigade in the Seven Days: The Battles and Their Personal Aftermath, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019.

[6] William H. Holmes to “Dear Mother,” May 27, 1863, in Shared & Spared 23,

[7] Holmes letter, May 27, 1863. “Marriages,” Rutland Weekly Herald, June 18, 1863. For more on the Vermonters at Funkstown, see Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent, One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863, El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2008, 207-234.

[8] William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War. Albany, NY: Albany Publishing Company, 1889, 151.

[9] Some of Crane’s letters are available in Donald H. Wickman, ed., Letters to Vermont: From Her Civil War Soldier Correspondents to the Home Press, Volume 1, Bennington, VT: Images from the Past, 1998. For more on the Vermont Brigade in the Overland campaign, see Howard Coffin, The Battered Stars: One State’s Civil War Ordeal During Grant’s Overland Campaign, Woodstock, Vt: The Countryman Press, 2002.

[10] Sumner H. Lincoln to Peter T. Washburn, July 31, 1865, in Report of the Adjutant & Inspector General of the State of Vermont, from Oct. 1, 1864, to Oct. 1, 1865, Montpelier, VT: Walton’s Steam Printing Establishment, 1865, Appendix C, 11. Harvey Webster to “Dear Brother,” February 9, 1865, in “From the Army,” Vermont Christian Messenger, February 23, 1865.

[11] For more on the Petersburg Breakthrough, see A. Wilson Greene, The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion, Second Edition, Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008, and Edward S. Alexander, Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg, March 25-April 2, 1865, El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2015.

[12] Erie L. Ditty, “Memoirs of a Lieutenant in the Civil War,” Stearns Family Papers, Ms-1989-013, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech. Lyman S. Williams to “Dear Sister,” April 16, 1865, Vermont Historical Society.

[13] Ditty memoirs.

[14] Williams letter, April 16, 1865.

[15] Payson A. Pierce to “My Dear Wife,” April 3, 1865, Woodstock Historical Society. Ditty memoirs.

[16] Sperry’s activity within the battery was described in Merritt Barber to Lewis A. Grant, April 15, 1865, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 46, Part 1, 970, and Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, eds., Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Volume 1, Detroit, MI: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1901, 519.

[17] The participation of the Rhode Island artillerists at the Petersburg Breakthrough is thoroughly covered in Robert Grandchamp, The Boys of Adams’ Battery G: The Civil War Through the Eyes of a Union Light Artillery Unit, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009,

[18] Ditty memoirs. Pierce letter, April 3, 1865.

[19] Pierce letter, April 3, 1865. “Vermont Wounded,” Burlington Daily Times, April 26, 1865.

[20] “Cavendish.” Vermont Tribune, August 3, 1888.

[21] Medals of Honor Issued by the War Department, Up to and Including October 31, 1897, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1897.

[22] Henry A. Fletcher to Lewis A. Grant, June 9, 1862, in William J. Sperry Medal of Honor Record, National Archives.

[23] Grant to Fletcher, June 10, 1862, and Fletcher to Grant, June 23, 1862, in Sperry medal record.

[24] Fred C. Ainsworth memo, July 14, 1892, and Grant to John M. Schofield, August 1, 1892, in Sperry medal record.

[25] William J. Sperry to Fred C. Ainsworth, August 10, 1892, in Sperry medal record.

[26] “Cavendish,” Vermont Tribune, November 1, 1901. William J. Sperry death record, Vermont Death Records, 1909-2003, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

[27] “The Passing of a Veteran,” Vermont Tribune, March 12, 1914.

[28] Vermont Journal, November 11, 1927.

[29] “Items of Interest from our Washington Correspondent.” St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record, April 23, 1928.

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