MIDDLEBURY — On April 12, 1861, the Confederate Army’s assault on the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina officially signaled the beginning of America’s bloody civil war. Those shots 150 years ago symbolically reverberated through Addison County towns, temporarily shaking a placid, agrarian tableau as local men left the plowed fields for the battlefields.
Some of Addison County’s peaceful images recorded before the great conflict — and some contemplative moments after — are captured in black-and-white images, text and through various artifacts at a new exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
Aptly titled “Town Treasures: Addison County before the Civil War,” the exhibit features loaned artifacts from 11 area towns, including Bridport, Bristol, Ferrisburgh, Goshen, Leicester, Lincoln, Monkton, Middlebury, Orwell, Salisbury and Shoreham.
Visitors can see a cornucopia of material — including photographs, audio presentations, clothing, medical equipment, biographical sketches, maps, timelines, original newspapers — all contributing to a better understanding of the social, economic and political climate of the county and state just prior to the Civil War.
“It gives a really important sense of identity,” Jan Albers, executive director of the Middlebury museum, said of the exhibit. “People get into it.”
It was last fall that Sue Peden, the museum’s education coordinator, began asking the individual town historical societies to loan exhibit items fitting into the pre-Civil War theme. It’s the third year in a row that the societies have been asked to contribute to what has become a “town treasures” exhibit at the Sheldon.
“They came through,” Peden said of the towns.
Some of the towns submitted artifacts that provide a simple snapshot of community life during the mid-19th century. Shoreham has loaned photos of the former Newton Academy, Newell’s sawmill and Merino sheep that once outnumbered cows — and people — in the Green Mountain State.
Bristol has provided an 1857 map that identifies the town residences of the day, including the Bristol Scientific Institute.
Other town exhibits delve into the slavery debate and the dawning of the Civil War, along with the stories of local soldiers and how town activities were affected during the conflict.
Salisbury’s display notes that townspeople voted in 1857, 1858 and 1859 to build a town hall, but could not physically take on the project until after the war in 1869.
Monkton’s exhibit centers on the story of Joseph Hoag, a resident who reported having a “Divine vision” of the Civil War while plowing a field in Charlotte in 1803. He would later dictate his remembrance of the vision to his granddaughter in 1846. That vision related to a “division” he said would permeate U.S. politics and not stop “until it produced a Civil War, and an abundance of human blood was shed in the course of combat. The Southern states lost their power and slavery was annihilated from their borders.”
Hoag’s additional forecasts of a “monarchical power” and “national religion” did not come to fruition, but his Civil War prognostication proved accurate.
Middlebury’s anti-slavery history is also on display. Among those profiled are U.S. Sen. and Vermont Gov. William Slade (Middlebury College class of 1807) and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglas. Slade left the Whig Party in 1848 because he believed it was too soft on slavery. Douglas visited Middlebury in 1843 to observe anti-slavery activities, but also noted a faction who heckled the abolitionists.
Also featured is the so-called “Quartette of Gettysburg Boys” from Goshen. The four Goshen residents — Dan Brown, Nathan Capen, John Willis Brow and James Washburn III — were born around five years of each other. All four played together as children, worked on the same farm together and, in 1862, enlisted together in Company 1, 14th Vermont Regiment. While in the Union Army they tented together and fought together in the Battle of Gettysburg. Remarkably, all four emerged unscathed from the bloody battle and remained friends through adulthood.
The exhibit is on display at the Sheldon through April 30.
Organizers said they hope people not only enjoy the show, but also find a deeper appreciation for their own local roots.
“One of the things we hope to come out of this is to have more community awareness in their own individual communities, that they have a historical society and that it is very interesting,” Peden said. “There are great stories from every town here.”
Albers agreed, adding she is pleased the Sheldon can play a role in showcase the towns’ historical artifacts.
“We take very seriously our mission to be kind of a clearing house for local history,” Albers said. “We want all the surrounding towns to know their objects and their histories are their own, but we are also happy to give a place for them to share with a broader audience. It is hard for local historical societies to have much ‘open’ time, certainly in the winter time. It is another venue for them to show off the things they have.”
For more information, log on to www.henrysheldonmuseum.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]