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Bennington (Vt.) rededicates a remarkable Civil War memorial

The Civil War memorial in Bennington summons us to oppose these malevolent forces in American society and the political leaders who inflame and abet them.

Bennington, Vt. — It took the town of Bennington a long time to erect a Civil War monument: not until 1930, 65 years after Appomattox, was a memorial created, when only a few of the more than 400 Bennington men who served in the war were still alive to witness its unveiling. Those veterans must have seen themselves in the sculpted soldiers of William Gordon Huff’s striking bas-relief, and witnessed their lives passing into public art.

Huff’s three by six-foot bronze tablet, set into a five-ton piece of Vermont granite on the grounds of the Bennington Museum, depicts four mounted Union officers (Civil War buffs will recognize Stannard, Ripley, Veazey, and Walbridge) reviewing a phalanx of troops with shouldered rifles like those who marched off to war from Bennington in 1861. The illusion of depth in the scene and the life-likeness in the modelling of the men and horses are, to my eye, astonishing, all the more so given that Huff was only 27 years old when he executed the commission. A fringe of laurel leaves decorates the frame of the tablet, and on each leaf is etched the name of a soldier from Bennington. Eighteen leaves bear a star, for those who died in the course of the war.

Members of the Bennington, Vt., American Legion Post 13 rededicated the monument to honor the 400 soldiers from Bennington who had served in the Civil War.

The tablet and the granite had been suffering from the effects of time. They received professional cleaning and preservation this past summer, and the memorial was rededicated at a ceremony at the Museum this past weekend. The event was put on jointly by the Museum and by Bennington Post 13 of the American Legion, which had sponsored the original memorial in 1930, when it was dedicated on Bennington Battle Day during a Legion state convention. The Legion and the Museum shared the costs of the restoration, the latter aided by a grant from the Robert Fleming & Jane Howe Patrick Foundation.

Dan Lyle, Director of the Post 13 Legion Riders, who had arrived with his fellow riders on a rumbling motorbike, spoke wise words on a fraught subject as he presented a check to the Museum: “History, good or bad, is something we can learn from to make a better future.” None of the speakers – a Chaplain from the Vermont Veterans Home, the Curator of the Bennington Museum, or the Legion representatives, mentioned the bad history that we are living through in America right now. The ceremony, held in honor of all veterans, played it safe, and not everybody may have made the connection. Pastor McSherry evoked the figure of Abraham Lincoln as the man who saved the Union and freed the nation from “the shame of slavery.” Words from an address Lincoln made to the New Jersey Senate in early 1861, before the war began, appear on the memorial itself: “United by a purpose to perpetuate the Union and liberties of the people.” There is no suggestion of liberating slaves in those words, but within two years it was (partially) done.

In July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early saw an opportunity to capture the U.S. capital and perhaps Lincoln himself. He got close enough to see the recently completed dome of the Capitol building gleaming in the distance, but his army of 15,000 had arrived a day too late. On July 9, Early had attacked the Union forces blocking his way at the Monocacy River, 35 miles from Washington. He won the battle, but the stiff resistance of the outnumbered Union troops cost him a day on his advance. The Union army suffered 1,500 casualties in the fight, 71 of them Vermonters. Three men from Company E of the 10th Vermont regiment, composed of men from Bennington County, were killed on July 9; six were wounded, two later dying of their wounds; three were taken prisoner. The delay in the Confederate advance enabled seasoned Union troops to arrive in Washington. Early attacked again on July 12, but this time was repulsed. In his official report, General Wallace proposed that a monument be erected over the bones of the Union dead of July 9 with the inscription, “These men died to save the national Capitol – and they did save it.”

Police officers defending the Capitol from a mob incited by former President Trump on January 6 of this year, unsupported by federal forces until it was too late, were unable to stop the attackers from breaching the building. You’ll recall the image of the man carrying a Confederate flag, that venerable symbol of white supremacy that linked the mob with Jubal Early’s army, inside the halls of the Capitol.

The Civil War memorial in Bennington summons us to oppose these malevolent forces in American society and the political leaders who inflame and abet them. Take a close look at the soldiers in the front row of Huff’s sculpture. The man who is second from the right has turned a firm and searching gaze on us as he passes by – or rather, as we pass by him. He seems to me to be asking whether we too will act to defend the institutions and principles of American democracy – or not.

Phil Holland is a writer and educator residing in Pownal, Vermont.


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