The Benefits and Bloody Cost of State-based Brigades: The Green Mountain Boys’ Case in Point
October 15, 1861. State pride figured large in the Civil War–not just in the Southern states, where states’ rights issues had long been part of the political currency, but in the North as well, where citizens rallied to calls from their governors to demonstrate their states’ commitment to the Union.
Some states could claim an identity deeply rooted in their colonial past, but Vermont traced its identity to its land-claim struggles led by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in the 1770s, its participation in the Revolution, and its fourteen-year adventure as an independent republic. When troops were raised in 1861, volunteers from Vermont adopted the Green Mountain Boy moniker as a matter of course, and many Vermonters and others nationwide saw them as the descendants of heroes.
The military contributions of the small state of Vermont (the fifth least populous state east of the Mississippi in 1860) might have been largely overlooked if not for the fact that five of its volunteer regiments (the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth–some 5,000 men) were brigaded together in the fall of 1861.
According to historian George Benedict, Army policy discouraged whole brigades composed of men from the same state, in part because high casualties in such a unit might have a concentrated
impact on a particular state. Nevertheless, Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, a Vermont native and West Point graduate, persuaded Army of the Potomac commander General George B. McClellan to approve the formation of the Vermont Brigade, and it appeared as such in McClellan’s October 15, 1861 “report of the organization of the Army of the Potomac.” (1)
The Vermont Brigade set up its tents outside of Washington at Camp Griffin among the troops of General Smith’s division, where the troops trained and waited for the day when McClellan, the Army’s charismatic young leader, would lead it to victory.
President Lincoln had appointed McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac after the disastrous rout at Bull Run in July, and McClellan soon demonstrated his organizational brilliance. By the end of the year, the troops at Camp Griffin were thoroughly trained, well-equipped, and confident of themselves and their leader. Despite the deprivations of camp life and an alarming increase in sickness, the Vermont boys were anxious to prove themselves.
Worries about the possible impact of casualties in the Vermont Brigade may have been muted that October by overconfidence, but they proved to be well-founded. By war’s end, about 30% of the state’s volunteers had served in the Vermont Brigade (including the Eleventh Infantry, which joined the brigade in May 1864), but it suffered 62% of Vermont’s 1,832 battle-related deaths.(2)
If the Vermont regiments had been brigaded with regiments from other states, there can be little doubt that the state’s casualties would have been significantly lower. And yet it was the brigade’s identity as the sons of the Green Mountain Boys that gave it an extra measure of pride. This, and the fact that the Vermont regiments were sustained with new recruits after heavy losses, rather than being disbanded to form new regiments, made the Vermont Brigade a highly effective fighting force. Hence, it would find itself in much of the hardest fighting, and it would take the brunt of casualties.
A few months before the bloody spring campaign of 1864, Major Samuel E. Pingree of the Third Vermont would write,
“We feel a peculiar joy here at seeing the proud position our state has taken and will hereafter hold in history upon the question of this great rebellion. I believe it hardly finds a rival even in the days of the bold Allens.”(3)
Few could foresee the enormity of the risk in the fall of 1861, but the legend that motivated the soldiers of the Vermont Brigade produced a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and an enduring affirmation of the Green Mountain Boy legend.
– Submitted By Jeffrey D. Marshall, Director of Research Collections, University of Vermont Libraries
2. Figures derived from Theodore S. Peck, Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers…During the War of the Rebellion, 1861-66 (Montpelier, 1892)