Coffin: The Cost Of Freedom

Jul 1, 2016

There’s a certain Montpelier bar of which I am particularly fond. And from the front window the view is across Elm Street to State Street and the Washington County Court House.

I seldom look at that handsome old building without thinking that Stephen Douglas spoke there in 1860 running for president against Abraham Lincoln. Douglas, a Vermont native, was campaigning on a platform of allowing the westward expansion of slavery, something Lincoln opposed. I’m proud to say that Vermonters went for Lincoln over Douglas about six to one.

One late afternoon, while sitting by the window, a horde of runners rounded the corner from State Street onto Elm. It was a road race and runners filled the road for about 40 minutes as the race went on and on.

Next day the local paper reported that some 6,000 people had competed in that race. And it instantly struck me that that was about the number of Vermonters who died in the Civil War. The official records say 5,224, but the total is probably closer to 6,000, since many wounded men, and victims of Confederate prisons, who died in the care of loved ones back here in Vermont, weren’t counted.

Never before had the reality of that astonishing total hit me as it did then. That was the price this small state of 315,000 - half of today’s population - paid for winning freedom for four million enslaved people, giving this nation what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom.

Recently, I was privileged to speak on the Cedar Creek Battlefield, in Virginia, at ceremonies held to rededicate the Eighth Vermont Regiment monument. On Oct. 19, 1864, the Eighth had lost two-thirds of its men engaged in a desperate stand as they tried to slow an overwhelming Rebel dawn attack that had surged up from the Shenandoah River.

Twenty years after the battle, veterans of the Eighth returned to honor themselves with a monument. The National Park Service has now restored the Vermont stone, and its woodland setting.

In my speech, I used that image of the Montpelier marathon runners to represent all the Vermonters who had died in the Civil War. As the ceremony ended on that once-bloodied hilltop, 600 miles from Montpelier, a singer strummed his guitar and softly sang “Home Sweet Home.”