The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg
was hot and humid. The battlefield, littered with thousands of dead and
dying, bore grim testimony to the fierce fighting of the previous two days.
The smell of decomposing corpses and gunpowder lingered in the air as the
heaviest artillery bombardment of the Civil War ended. Then, in three lines
of battle, 10,500 Confederates marched across the battlefield and surged
up the gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge toward the waiting Federal troops.
On the left of the Federal line on
the ridge, Brig. Gen. George Jerrison Stannard and three weary regiments
of his inexperienced 2nd Vermont Brigade anxiously awaited the Confederate
assault. The Rebels struck farther up the line, directly to the right of
the Vermonters. Stannard, seeing this, wheeled two of his regiments around
the Confederates' exposed flank. From their forward position, the nearly
1,500 men of the 13th and 16th Vermont regiments poured devastating point-blank
fire into the enemy ranks.
Inflicting terrible casualties and
ravaging the Confederate flank, the Vermonters helped turn the tide of
the battle and of the war itself. Stannard's performance that day was the
high point of his distinguished career.
Stannard was born October 20, 1820,
in the town of Georgia, Vermont. Educated in local schools, he worked on
the family farm and taught school during winters. He later worked as a
clerk and as manager of a local foundry before becoming joint proprietor
in 1860. On September 26, 1850, Stannard married Emily Clark. They had
Besides raising his family and working
at the foundry, Stannard was a member of the state militia. He joined when
he was only 16 and served as an orderly sergeant in 1837 when the Vermont
militia was called out during the Canadian Insurrection. In 1857, Stannard
was elected first lieutenant of a company he helped organize. A tall, bearded,
slightly balding man, Stannard was a commanding character. He possessed
a strong ability to lead, and was appointed colonel of the newly formed
4th Vermont Militia in 1858.
Stannard, the first Vermonter to volunteer
for service in the Civil War, was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 2nd
Vermont Infantry in May 1861. His regiment was sent to Washington, D.C.,
in June and was assigned to Colonel Oliver Otis Howard's brigade. At the
Battle of First Manassas, the brigade was held back until the closing stages
of the contest, when it covered the retreat of the Federal Army.
Soon after Manassas, Stannard was offered
command of the 3rd Vermont Infantry. He humbly declined the position, opting
instead to remain with his regiment. On October 10, 1861, the 2nd Vermont
was brigaded with its sister regiments, the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont
Infantry regiments, forming the famous Vermont Brigade.
Stannard and the Vermonters saw action
in the Peninsula campaign in the spring of 1862. During that time, Stannard
developed a reputation for courage and success. He was active in leading
his regiment, as well as accompanying elements of other commands on scouting
and skir- mishing forays.
On May 21, 1862,
Stannard was appointed colonel of the 9th Vermont Infantry and returned
to Vermont to supervise recruitment of the unit. On July 15, the regiment
began its trek south. The Vermonters arrived in Virginia a week later and
were assigned to Fort Siegel, near Winchester. After the Federal defeat
at the Battle of Second Manassas, the fort was threatened by a superior
Confederate force and abandoned. Stannard took his men to Harpers Ferry,
where they, along with 11,000 other Federal troops, were cut off when the
Confederate army crossed the Potomac on September 5.
Stannard repeatedly urged the post
commander, Colonel Dixon Miles, to move the garrison to a more defensible
position or else attempt a breakout, but his requests were to no avail.
On September 15, after two days of shelling, Miles ingloriously surrendered
to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. Upon receiving word of Miles' capitulation,
Stannard attempted a breakout of his own with the 9th Vermont. He surrendered
only when he was cut off as he tried to cross into Maryland. The 9th Vermont
was among the last Federal troops to surrender.
The captured garrison was paroled immediately
by Jackson, who was in a rush to link up with the Confederate main body.
However, Stannard wished to slow down the Rebels and refused to sign his
parole or that of his regiment. He made his Vermonters individually sign
their paroles, thus delaying the Confederates for hours. Stannard and his
men were sent to parole camp in Chicago, and were not formally exchanged
until January 10, 1863. They were then assigned to guard Confederate prisoners
at Camp Douglas, Ill.
On March 11, 1863,
Stannard was appointed to the rank of brigadier general and given command
of the 2nd Vermont Brigade, which consisted of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th
and 16th Vermont regiments--all nine-month volunteers. Mustered into service
in the fall of 1862, the brigade had seen no action except for a minor
skirmish in December.
Stannard assumed command on April 20
and was warmly received by the men and officers of the brigade, all of
whom were aware of his outstanding reputation. They had been very dissatisfied
with their last commander, Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Stoughton, who had been
captured in a daring midnight raid on his headquarters by John S. Mosby
and his Confederate raiders. During the spring of 1863, Stannard's Vermonters
protected the supply lines below Washington as well as the Orange &
Alexandria Railroad from Bull Run to the Rappahannock River, maintaining
20 miles of picket lines and 30 miles of railroads.
On June 20, 1863, Stannard was ordered
to take his brigade and join the northward-marching Army of the Potomac.
Three days later, with less than a month remaining in their term of service,
the Vermonters were assigned to the 3rd Division of I Corps. Stannard's
footsore men covered 120 miles in just six days, and gained a day's march
on the rest of the corps.
When the Battle of Gettysburg began
on July 1, Stannard was ordered to rush his brigade to reinforce the embattled
I Corps, leaving behind the 12th and 15th Vermont to guard supply trains.
The three remaining regiments of Stannard's brigade arrived at Gettysburg
in the evening, too late to see any action that day. The brigade was posted
on Cemetery Ridge, with the 16th Vermont deployed as pickets and Stannard
appointed as general field officer of the Federal left wing for the night.
The next morning Stannard was placed
in command of the infantry support for the Union artillery batteries on
the left of Cemetery Ridge. During an ensuing artillery duel, a shell burst
knocked him down, but he was uninjured.
Stannard and his 2,200 men did little
until late in the day, when III Corps was driven from the peach orchard
by repeated Confederate assaults. The Vermonters were called upon to fill
a major gap in the Union line and, with a determined charge, helped re-establish
the line. The 13th Vermont then handily drove back a regiment of Confederates,
saved the guns of the 5th U.S. Artillery and captured 80 Rebels. As night
came, Stannard consolidated his brigade's position on Cemetery Ridge and
again placed the 16th Vermont on the picket line. The Vermonters, who had
performed gallantly in their first major engagement, spent the night on
At 4 a.m. on July 3, the picket line
of the 16th Vermont was probed by Confederate infantry, and heavy skirmishing
continued throughout the morning. Later, a brief exchange of artillery
fire inflicted a few casualties among the Vermonters, and enemy snipers
took an interest in Stannard. Bullets pierced his coat and took off a piece
of his hat. At about 11 a.m., almost all firing stopped. The Confederate
attack on the Federal right had failed, and for two hours an uneasy lull
settled over the field. Then, at 1:07 p.m., two enemy guns fired, signaling
the opening of the greatest artillery bombardment of the war. For the next
hour and 45 minutes, the Vermonters clung to the ground behind their crude
breastworks as Stannard paced up and down their lines. Shot and shell whizzed
over their ranks, but most of the rounds harmlessly overshot the Vermonters.
The artillery then stopped, and on a front almost a mile wide, 10,500 Confederate
infantrymen advanced toward the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
In three lines of battle, with parade-ground order, the ensuing attack
known as Pickett's Charge was an awesome sight.
The skirmishers of the 16th Vermont
fired a few shots, then hastily fell back and re-formed behind the 13th
Vermont. As the Confederates advanced farther toward the Federal lines,
their right wing appeared to be aimed at the 14th Vermont. But as the Vermonters
rose to fire, the Confederates changed direction and moved across the regiment's
front to close a gap that had appeared in their line. The 14th Vermont
opened fire at about 300 yards. The 13th Vermont soon added its rifles
to the fire.
The Confederates advanced to within
20 yards of II Corps on Cemetery Ridge. After exchanging a few volleys,
they charged with a Rebel yell. Striking the Union center hard, they charged
and drove a Pennsylvania regiment from the soon-to-be-famous "Angle."
The Rebels were now concentrated to
the right of the Vermonters' position. Stannard saw the tremendous opportunity
presented by the situation. Despite the risk of exposing his brigade's
left flank, he launched a flanking attack on the Confederates. Ordering
the 13th Vermont to march right, closer to the point of the enemy attack,
he directed the men to "change front forward on first company." Swinging
out at an oblique angle to the Union line, the regiment opened fire at
"half pistol range" on the exposed flank of the Confederates.
As the 13th Vermont moved into position,
Stannard ordered the 16th Vermont to join the 13th. After the 16th Vermont
was in line next to the 13th, the two regiments advanced toward the Confederates
while continuing to pour deadly fire into the now-shattered butternut ranks.
The enfilading cross-fire ravaged the densely packed Rebels, driving them
back and crowding them toward their center.
As the Vermonters began their flanking
movement, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock rode up to Stannard. He, too, saw
the opportunity for a flank assault, but Stannard's men already were in
motion when he arrived. Moments later, Hancock was shot in the groin and
caught by two of Stannard's staff as he fell from his horse. Stannard used
his handkerchief and revolver to make a tourniquet for the stricken general.
Meanwhile, the fighting in front of
the Vermonters ended. They had devastated the Confederate right, inflicting
heavy casualties and taking hundreds of prisoners as well as the colors
of the 8th Virginia Infantry. Two additional Confederate brigades, sent
to support Maj. Gen. George Pickett's assault, now belatedly advanced directly
toward the 14th Vermont.
Again the Vermonters promptly opened
fire as the Rebels came into range. Stannard, waving his sword and hat,
promptly sent the 16th Vermont and four companies of the 14th charging
into the Rebels, capturing many additional prisoners as well as the colors
of the 2nd Florida Infantry.
The Vermonters fell back to their original
positions as Confederate artillery resumed fire, covering the retreat of
the defeated infantry. During the final artillery barrage, a piece of shrapnel
struck Stannard in the right thigh and passed down three inches into the
muscle. Though the wound was extremely painful, Stannard refused to leave
the field until his wounded men had been cared for and his brigade relieved.
The 2nd Vermont Brigade performed as
well as veteran troops at Gettysburg, but not without loss. Of its nearly
2,400 men engaged, 342 were killed, wounded or missing.
Stannard's superiors realized the significance
of his actions. Major General George Meade said, "There was no individual
body of men who rendered a greater service at a critical moment then the
comparatively raw troops commanded by General Stannard." Major General
Abner Doubleday said: "It is to General Stannard...that the country is
mainly indebted for the repulse of the enemy's charge and the final victory
of July 3. [His] brilliant flank movement... greatly contributed to if
it did not completely insure our final success."
The 2nd Vermont Brigade mustered out
of service after Gettysburg. Stannard convalesced for a short while, and
in September he was placed in charge of the defenses of New York Harbor.
In May 1864, he was given command of a brigade in XVIII Corps and was wounded
at Cold Harbor. Two weeks later, he led the remnants of his brigade in
the initial attack on Petersburg.
On June 20, 1864, Stannard was given
command of the 1st Division of XVII Corps. His 3,000 men participated in
the early stages of the siege of Petersburg, where he was accidentally
shot in the hand by one of his own officers.
On September 29, Stannard led his division
in a early morning assault on Fort Harrison, a formidable redan in Richmond's
outer defenses. Advancing over 1,400 yards of open terrain under murderous
artillery fire, his men sustained heavy casualties but quickly captured
the fort. Fighting for the surrounding positions continued until nightfall.
General Robert E. Lee personally supervised
the preparation of the 10 brigades that counterattacked the next day. As
the first wave was repelled, a wounded and captured Alabama colonel saw
Stannard standing on a parapet. The Rebel officer yelled to him, "Well,
you had better get out of this, General, for General Lee is over there,
and he says he will retake these works if it takes half his army." Stannard
replied that he would be happy to see Lee whenever he chose to call, and
continued to pace the parapet waving his hat and sword.
As the next wave was repelled, a Minié
bullet struck Stannard's right arm, shattering the bone and spinning him
halfway around. As a result of his wound, Stannard's right arm had to be
amputated at the shoulder. A third wave of Confederates also was repulsed,
and the fort remained in the possession of the beleaguered Federals. The
two days of fighting cost the Confederates about 2,500 men, the Federals
Stannard returned to Vermont to recover,
and received a hero's welcome. For his bravery at Fort Harrison, he was
breveted major general on October 28. In December, he was appointed commander
of the northern frontier of Vermont, and remained as such until the end
of the war. He later served in the Freedmen's Bureau and resigned from
the military on June 28, 1866.
In 1868, Stannard was appointed collector
of customs for Vermont. Later he served as a doorkeeper of the U.S. House
of Representatives. He died of pneumonia in Washington on June 1, 1886,
and was buried in Burlington, Vt., after a tremendous state funeral.
Stannard remains one of Vermont's most
distinguished soldiers of any war. The town of Stannard and Stannard Mountain
are named after him. A courageous and selfless soldier who inspired his
men with his coolness and presence, his actions at Gettysburg and Fort
Harrison were critical to those two Federal successes and remain among
the most significant contributions to the Union war effort by the brave
soldiers of Vermont.
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