Howard Coffin


Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.


Coffin: Before Snow

Nov 12, 2014

Norwich University men’s soccer, a first place battle, game tied. From the stands as the sun lowered I watched autumn’s colors intensify along the Northfield hills. I hoped for overtime, that this splendor and excitement would never end.

North of Maple Corners I entered a tunnel of golden leaves, while from the car radio a Sibelius symphony gathered strength and beauty. Would that this moment of pure joy last forever.

The Confederates struck before sunrise out of a chill Shenandoah Valley fog, the rebel yell proclaiming their fury. The Eighth Vermont Regiment made a desperate stand, losing two-thirds of its men, but the momentum of Jubal Early’s surprise attack was barely slowed.

Two hundred years ago this autumn, as chilly winds announced winter’s advance down the Green Mountain's spine, farmers at many Vermont hearth sides were surely telling stories of soldiering along the Saranac River where they defeated the redcoats in what has become known as the Battle of Plattsburgh. To steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, it was one of Vermont’s finest hours.

The Whitehill farmhouse stands in high fields above the Peacham/Groton road, actually located in a corner of Ryegate. James Whitehill came from Scotland late in the 1700s with brothers John and Abraham. James built the place in 1798 and according to a Vermont historic roadside marker, it resembles a Scottish stone croft house, or farmhouse.

Coffin: The Catch

Sep 8, 2014

With the world’s champion Red Sox in the cellar, my thoughts go to other baseball times, like my first visit to Fenway Park. That day I saw two of possibly the greatest catches ever, made by perhaps the greatest outfielder who ever lived.

The year was 1952 when father, despite my lack of baseball interest, took me to a doubleheader with the Washington Senators. Of course, my first view that cloudless day of Fenway’s beautiful importance has stayed in my mind six decades.

Coffin: Summer Chores

Aug 22, 2014

My maternal grandparents, Hal and Anna Jillson, had a house and barn on two acres just outside South Pomfret. Years before, they’d farmed nearly 200 acres, but sold them to a Boston doctor as they aged. Gramp was now caretaker of the old place.

Some boyhood summer evenings I went to South Pomfret, often joining gramp listening to a Red Sox game. But he turned in about the fifth inning. “Call you at five,” he’d say as he went upstairs, his white hair softly glowing in the stair light.

He was a formidable specimen, a crew-cut Tarzan, all tanned and muscular. Ace Kruger was his name -like someone holding a glass of ale in one hand the high card in the other. And he was a mighty contrast to skinny little me that morning in 1949 when we met as I shivered knee deep in the chill waters of Barnard’s Silver Lake, at 7:30 with the fog not yet burned away.

Coffin: Reunion

Jun 11, 2014

This Saturday my wife Sue and I will go back to my home town of Woodstock for Alumni Day and my 54th class reunion. Woodstock does things different than most towns, holding reunions every year. It diminishes, I suppose, the shock of change, just a bit.

I began high school in 1956, at old Woodstock High School, tall, stately and brick, overlooking South Street. I graduated in 1960 from the new Woodstock Union High School, all flat and institutional, every classroom about the same.

Coffin: Cold Harbor

May 30, 2014

As June began 150 years ago, the Overland Campaign of 1864 had been grinding its bloody way south through Virginia for nearly a month when May ended, with the battered armies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant now heading for another collision just six miles north of Richmond.

Coffin: Fort Cassin

May 13, 2014
Vermont Historical Society

Two hundred years ago this spring in Vermont, there was no busier place than Vergennes, where boatbuilding for the United States Navy was feverishly underway. The U.S. was at war with Great Britain, in what history would record as the War of 1812, and one of the key battlefronts was 120 mile long Lake Champlain.

In the two years previous to 1814, minor clashes had already occurred along the lake as British ships prowled south from the Richelieu River. Thus, in December, 1813, the Navy Department ordered the strengthening of the America’s Champlain fleet.

In a 1966 Rutland Herald, I wrote on the following strange subject. Joe Citro resurrected it not long ago, in a commentary.

Glendon, Gordon, Marjorie and Marian Pierce, brothers and sisters, operated Pierces Store in the mountain hamlet of North Shrewsbury when I lived there in the sixties and seventies.

Most of my days began at the store, stopping on my way to work at the Rutland Herald, for a few minutes of chatter, a cup of coffee, a few laughs. Glendon presided, kept the wood stove going, and went out front when somebody needed gas.

One chill winter night, my girlfriend and I were parked on a farm lane in the hills north of Woodstock. It was well after midnight as we admired the curtains of green-gold light of the Northern Lights sweeping across a star-flung sky. The radio of the Coffin family's 54 Chevy was tuned to WKBW Buffalo, playing the top forty tunes.

One autumn day in 1954, when I was 12, we kids were playing football in a back yard off Woodstock’s Pleasant Street. Somebody fumbled, I dove for the ball, and a big guy from down the street stepped on my right hand. Ouch! A sharp pain, which promptly turned into a mighty throbbing ache. But when I grabbed my hand, things got worse. My thumb had disappeared. I stared at my hand in disbelief, then in terror. My thumb simply wasn’t there.

A hazy autumn sun was approaching South Mountain's rim when the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication keynote speaker neared the end of his two-hour oration 150 years ago this November 19. Former Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett concluded an eloquent account of the three day battle, as the 20,000 gathered on Cemetery Hill listened.

In my early years, a four room back apartment on Woodstock’s Pleasant Street housed my parents, myself, twin brothers, and later a younger sister.

Behind the house a lawn sloped down to a level area with vegetable and flower gardens. We skied and slid on the gentle hill in winter, and in spring, summer and fall we often picnicked beneath a soaring butternut and pines. My mother read to us the adventure stories we loved. We helped Poppa in the garden, and he taught us to play ball. Many evenings we watched the moon rise and the stars emerge.

Coffin: Milkweeds

Nov 20, 2012

Coffin: The King

Nov 8, 2012 The King_110912_Howard Coffin_the Lone Star Night.mp3

  Why climb Mount Everest, George Leigh Mallory was asked? Because it's there, he supposedly replied.

Those haunting words have been with me since my mother read me an account of the British Everest expedition of 1924 that nearly succeeded in climbing, for the first time, the world's highest mountain. On June 8, 1924, Mallory and Andrew Sandy Irvine had been spotted less than 1,000 feet from Everest's 29,000 foot summit. Then clouds rolled in and the two were never again seen alive. Had they reached the top? Nobody, apparently, will ever know for certain.