Mel Huff | Contributor
Dan Cole is well known in Charlotte. During his working years, he carried the mail in town. In retirement, he has acquired another identity: author.
Upon Us Rests the Burden, Cole’s history of Charlotte as it experienced the years of the Civil War, was nominated by the Vermont Historical Society for its Richard O. Hathaway Award, given for “making an outstanding contribution to the field of Vermont history.” This vivid recreation of the reality of the war seen through the lens of one small and distant town deserves a wide readership.
Reflecting on the war at the beginning of the fall legislative session in 1862, the Speaker of the Vermont House told legislators, “Imperiled as [our country] is by the ambitious designs of traitorous demagogues, and involved in a most disastrous and needless war, let us not forget that upon us … rests the burden … of this tremendous struggle.”
It was a burden that Vermonters readily took up. “The state sent more than 34,000 to serve, out of a total population of about 350,000 citizens,” according to Wikipedia. “Vermonters suffered a total of 1,832 men killed or mortally wounded in battle, and another 3,362 died of disease, in prison or from other causes, for a total loss of 5,194. More than 2,200 Vermonters were taken prisoner during the war, and 615 of them died in or as a result of their imprisonment.”
When Cole began working on his family’s genealogy, he discovered he had ancestors who had fought in the Civil War. One was killed at the age of 16 in his first engagement with the enemy. The boy’s brother, wounded in the same battle, was sent to the notorious prison at Andersonville, released in a prisoner exchange and died on the way home. Perhaps because of them Cole is emotionally attuned to the events he relates.
Cole has organized his book around the experiences of some of the hundred Charlotte men who volunteered for what they believed would be a brief war. The narrative weaves together letters, excerpts from diaries, articles from the Burlington Daily Free Press, officers’ reports, pension records and other primary sources to recreate the immediacy of the soldiers’ lives and the struggles of the families they left behind.
Cole makes it clear that the burden of war was borne not only by the young men—and they were young—who slogged through knee-deep mud, suffered from diarrhea (disease caused three out of five deaths), and on one occasion marched for three days with nothing to eat but ground coffee beans. The burden was also borne by their families, many struggling to avoid financial ruin. When Cassius Newell went off to war, the next oldest brother left to run the farm was 12 years old. The heavily mortgaged farm was ultimately foreclosed on and the proceeds used to pay the family’s debts.
“I felt that the people who have become anonymous over the years should have recognition,” Cole said, explaining why he undertook this nearly decade-long project. “They were just average people, but I thought their stories needed to be told … They deserved to be remembered.”
Charlotte residents will recognize many family names in the book: Spear, Varney, Williams. Cole notes that we walk in the same places the soldiers and their families walked: the Old Brick Store, the Charlotte Congregational Church and the Town House (as the original Town Hall, now the Charlotte Historical Museum, was called). Homes of soldiers’ families still stand and are lived in. The war’s dead are buried in our cemeteries.
But for all this, Cole’s story is not parochial. Like The Red Badge of Courage, the iconic Civil War novel about a soldier in a fictional New York regiment, Upon Us Rests the Burden speaks to all Americans. By grounding his book in the deeply felt particular, Cole has written a book that transcends its subject matter.
Upon Us Rests the Burden, the first of two volumes, is available locally at The Flying Pig in Shelburne and in digital and print versions from most online booksellers.