By Nathan Hill
The tradition of militaries honoring their officers has a long and rich history, from antiquity when the Emperor of Rome bestowed the corona muralis upon the first soldier to plant his standard upon the enemy battlements to the more recent Victoria Cross of the British Army and the Medal of Honor of the American military for gallantry in service. Captain Robert B. Arms of the 16th Vermont Regiment, 2nd Vermont Brigade, was one of the thousands of soldiers during the American Civil War who received decoration from their government; in his case these decorations included his rank insignia and a Veteran Medal.
But it was this watch, a very different recognition of gallantry and service—even of kinship and affection—that Captain Arms treasured. This watch was a gift from Company B of the 16th Vermont Regiment, 2nd Vermont Brigade to their beloved commander, Captain Arms. But what did it signify? Why would men bestow an honor such as this upon their officers when the government had already honored military personnel? This leads us to delve into the nature of the bond between officers and men in the Civil War.
For the Union Army in the Civil War, the traditional justifications for men to obey their officers—that those officers were aristocrats with a tradition of military service, or that they were professional soldiers—were not applicable. As a republic, the United States had no landed aristocracy with a history of military leadership—as the British did when filling their officer corps—and the number of officers in the standinrican professional army was not nearly sufficient to lead the swelling ranks of volunteers. Thus, when the war broke out, the new officers who were commissioned into the army had basically the same military experience and training as the men they commanded.
With traditional justifications unavailable for their command, some officers proclaimed that they were simply better men than their soldiers. This was unsurprisingly resented, as it flew in the face of the democratic ideals for which these men were fighting. Others officers believed that their being given command was a mere happenstance, necessary for military hierarchy, but signifying nothing more. While this fell more in line with the ideals of a democratic society, it did not easily lend itself to leading men, and thus was not prevalent.
Instead, many successful officers developed a father-son relationship with the men under their command. This familial relationship made intuitive sense, as most of these men understood obedience in the home, and this provided guidelines for both the officers and the men to follow. The officers, as the father figures, were given the power of authority, but also kept their “children’s” best interests at heart, in this case, rations, bedding, and preparedness. President Lincoln was even referred to as “Father Abraham” by some of the soldiers, showing a relationship of obedience and affection. Often the highest compliment an officer could receive was that he was “like a father to his men.” The troops, as surrogate children, owed duty to their officers, but in return received care and affection. This was a natural inclination; the soldiers were often under twenty years old, and appreciated a father figure so far from home. This relationship, based upon mutual affection and respect, created a sense of camaraderie and a strong bond between officer and soldier. The remarkable and harrowing journey that Captain Arms and his men endured in the Union Army formed this strong bond of trust and affection between his men and himself.
On August 4th, 1862, a call for help went out from the President of the United States, a call to which the future men of the 16th Vermont responded. Additional troops were needed after the disaster of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, and the 16th Vermont Regiment, among many others, was born, as a nine month regiment. The men of Company B rendezvoused at Brattleboro on October 9th. Their captain, Robert B. Arms, a young father at 28, and a fresh recruit himself from southern Vermont, joined them there. The rest of the regiment joined them on the 23rd, and they all left for Washington the next day, with 949 officers and men. Of these, 73 would never come home. These men came from Windsor and Windham counties in southeast Vermont. Most of them had barely seen the other towns in their own counties, let alone other states. Yet these men were prepared to travel hundreds of miles to battle for a cause in which they believed. A father figure, such as Captain Arms, would be sorely needed to shepherd these men to comfort them so far from home; to protect and lead them in battle.
Once in Maryland, the 16th regiment was shuffled around in various guard duty positions, as one might expect from a green unit. Yet action found these men anyway. In late December, after the Southern victory at Fredericksburg, famed cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart launched a series of devastating raids into Maryland and northern Virginia, and one of his detachments found the Vermonters at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. Despite the fearsome reputation of these Confederate cavalrymen, the Vermonters rallied under their officers and repulsed that detachment of the raid on the 29th, although the overall cavalry raid was successful. For any unit in their first action, a calm and reassuring officer was pivotal in keeping the unit together and forestalling panic; it is doubtless Captain Arms performed his duty well in repulsing the raid and the men appreciated him for it. But that was a minor action. The first big test, the trial by fire was yet to come.
In late June 1863 the regiment moved north as part of the larger pursuit of Lee’s invasion. The 16th Vermonters, together with their fellow units in the 2nd Vermont Brigade, arrived after dark on the first day of battle and camped in a wheat field to the south of Cemetery Hill. What a fearsome sight it would have been: thousands of troops, more than these men had ever seen, were gathered, facing an enormous concentration of the enemy. The stories these Vermonters must have heard around the night campfires were tales of woe, of the Union Army being forced back over Seminary Ridge, through the town proper, to Cemetery Hill and its ridge, suffering many casualties in the fighting withdrawal. Much hope would have been placed on these men, as the fighting withdrawal was intended to buy time for more reinforcements to appear, reinforcements like the 16th Vermont. Whether these men would prove themselves worthy, if their captain could lead them through the fire of battle and out the other side intact, was a question only the coming battle could answer.
On July 2nd, these men were moved into a line of battle. Stationed on Cemetery Ridge, the 16th VT suffered from repeated cannon bombardments and sharpshooters, which wreaked havoc on the men. Company B, Robert Arms’ company, volunteered to advance and plug a gap in the picket line despite this hail of metal from the enemy, displaying the trust these men and their officer had in one another to face the danger. Advancing, Company B encountered some skirmishing along the Emmitsburg Road and guarded the front throughout the night, protecting their brothers in the other units. But it was on July 3rd, the third day of battle at Gettysburg, these men would get their true trial by fire.
On that day a massive assault was launched by the Confederate forces on the center of the Union line. The Vermonters witnessed an incredible artillery battle that day, with hundreds of cannon dueling, followed by the advance of near twelve thousand Confederate soldiers in infantry brigades. Other green units might have cracked just at the sight of this advance, but these officers held their men firm. When the enemy approached, the 16th Vermont witnessed its finest hour. The 16th and 13th Vermont regiments sprung out and hit General Kemper’s Virginia brigade with a withering flanking fire, severely damaging it. Fresh from this success and still in the thick of battle, the 16th wheeled about and, together with the 14th Vermont, slammed right into Colonel Lang’s Floridians and routed them, capturing hundreds of prisoners. An aide witnessed the reaction of Union General Doubleday: “he waved his hat and shouted, ‘Glory to God, glory to God! See the Vermonters go [for] it!’” The bond that had formed between the officers and men of the 16th Vermont held firm, and true, allowing them to perform admirably in battle.
Gettysburg was the high-water mark of the Confederacy, and for the 16th Vermont as well; never would either be so successful again. The Vermonters participated in the pursuit of Lee’s army into Maryland, and were released from the Army of the Potomac on July 18th. Going home by train, the men had to fight a very different enemy in New York when they assisted with security in that riot-torn city. Arriving back at Brattleboro on July 21st, the regiment mustered out July 30th, 1864.
These men would never forget their wartime service, nor the bond that formed between themselves and their beloved captain, Robert B. Arms. The men honored him with a silver pocket-watch, a gift both manly and popular at the time; an action worthy of sons honoring their father. The watch bears an inscription: “Presented to Capt. R. B Arms by Co. B 16th Regt. Vt. Vols.” Captain Arms himself returned the favor, and spent his post-war career honoring and ensuring care for veterans, men he himself so greatly appreciated, spending many years helping veterans with their pension claims, even becoming Deputy Collector. Arms also became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s association; his cufflinks demonstrate his pride in the time he spent with his Company B of the 16th Vermont. In 1889, he traveled with some of his comrades from his company back to Gettysburg for the 16th’s monument dedication, the ultimate signal of pride in their actions that day.
Relations between men and officers in the Civil War ranged from resentful to mere toleration to proud camaraderie. Captain Arms and his men saw the latter bond form, as a father and his adult children form a bond, and it served them through the chaos of battle, allowing them to survive, earn glory, and serve the country they so loved.
Further reading on Vermont regiments in the Civil War:
Coffin, Howard. Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 1993
Coffin, Howard. Nine Months to Gettysburg: Stannard’s Vermonters and the Repulse of Pickett’s Charge. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 1997.