The first Vermonter to enlist in the war,
Union General George Stannard
helped turn the tide at Gettysburg.
By Anthony Buono
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 four children.
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-
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 the battlefield.
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 2,272.
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.