Arms’ letter to his son Robert contains several statements which highlight the long process of remembrance for many Civil War veterans. In the immediate aftermath of the War, many veterans on both sides desired nothing more than to be left alone with their own thoughts. However, as decades passed, the further veterans were separated from the trauma of combat the more willing many became to share their experiences with relatives and the general public. The ebb and flow of Civil War remembrance among Union veterans is apparent in the membership levels of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Founded in 1866 as a fraternal organization, the GAR became the largest, most prominent group lobbying for benefits for aged Union veterans. During the 1870s, GAR membership dwindled and some chapters nearly went out if existence. The low numbers may be due to several factors: raising families, starting careers and a general disinterest in reliving the agonies of war all played a role in the near collapse of the organization.
Nevertheless, the GAR rolls were swelled in the 1880s and 1890s by an upsurge in interest in the Civil War amongst both the veterans and the public at large. Many veterans were now aging and in need of financial assistance. Federal pensions awarded to Union veterans on the basis of their honorable service both lessened the economic burdens they encountered and acted as vehicle for many ex-soldiers to enter into discussions of what they did a quarter century earlier. In light of the reawakened interest in recollecting the Civil War experience, it is not surprising that Arms and the Vermont delegation would be in Gettysburg in October 1889 dedicating monuments to commemorate their proudest moment. For the 16th V.V.I., the repulse of the Confederate charge led by General George Pickett on July 3, 1863 was their unit’s crowning achievement. During the assault, the 16th and her sister regiments from Vermont flanked General Pickett’s men and leveled withering volleys of musket fire into their ranks, hastening the collapse of the Confederate effort. Colonel Veazey was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct in aiding the repulse of General Pickett. His citation read: “Rapidly assembled his regiment and charged the enemy’s flank; changed front under heavy fire, and charged and destroyed a Confederate brigade, all this with new troops in their first battle.”
Rather than write of the carnage and privations associated with soldier life, Arms, like many veterans, chose instead to reflect on the heroism of soldiers in combat. While the Vermonters no doubt reflected on the deaths of their comrades during the ceremony, they were also interested in seeing that the survivors were memorialized in granite. Each veteran seems to place his unit at the center the fighting and is thus entitled to a monument which is the “tallest and best of any on the field.” Did soldiers believe that constructing monuments would help to ensure that their deeds would be remembered? They may have been successful in this endeavor, for two years after the dedication of the Vermont monuments Colonel Veazey received his Medal of Honor. The awarding of medals and writing of official statements and regimental histories are clear indicators that the veterans realized they were nearing death and wanted “the credit due [them] for the part [they] performed.”
To see the Robert B. Arms Collection and other Civil War letters at the Musselman Library, visit Special Collections’ Civil War Era collection at http://www.gettysburg.edu/library/gettdigital/civil_war/index.html
For more information on the 16th Vermont Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, see:
Howard Coffin, Nine Months to Gettysburg: Stannard’s Vermonters and the Repulse of Pickett’s Charge, (Countryman Press, 1997).