The First Vermont Brigade, or Old Brigade was an infantry brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. It suffered the highest casualty count of any brigade in the history of the United States Army, with some 1,172 killed in action. It was the only brigade in the Army of the Potomac known by the name of its state.
Major General James Harrison Wilson:
The Vermont brigade "was composed almost entirely of native Vermont men, race of the soil, hardy, self-reliant and courageous, and always ready for the serious business of warfare."
The First Vermont Brigade was organized in October 1861, primarily through the efforts of Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith. It was composed of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont Infantry regiments, which had been individually mustered into service between June and September, for a time, it also included the 26th New Jersey Infantry. Its first commander was Brig. Gen. William T. H. Brooks. In April 1862, the brigade was incorporated into the Army of the Potomac as the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, VI Corps, and first saw action during Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in the battles of Williamsburg and Savage's Station. It later was present at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Under the command of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant, the Vermonters fought in the campaign culminating in the Chancellorsville. The Vermonters participated in VI Corps' capture of Marye's Heights in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and then were prominent in the fighting at Salem Church. They were held in reserve during the Battle of Gettysburg, holding a flank guard position behind Big Round Top, losing only one man wounded. After the Gettysburg Campaign, elements of the Vermont Brigade were sent to help quell the draft riots in New York City.
In his first annual report under date of November 1, 1862, the adjutant-general of Vermont states that the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth regiments of state troops constituted the "Vermont Brigade," under command of General W. T. H. Brooks, "and have participated in some of the severest fighting on the Peninsula, and during the recent campaign in Maryland. It is a matter of state pride that no braver troops are to be found than those from Vermont."
It was somewhat against the policy of the government to brigade together any considerable number of regiments from one state, but nevertheless the secretary of war consented to such an organization at the suggestion of General William F. Smith, in the fall of 1861. The Vermont regiments were associated together in close proximity all during the conflicts and campaign of the summer and early fall of 1861, but the brigade proper was not organized until about the time of arrival at the front of the Sixth Regiment, which arrival made a sufficient strength of troops from the state to organize the brigade for active and efficient military services. Previous to the commencement of brigade operations the regiments that comprised the command were in constant service, doing guard and picket duty, ever encamped in the vicinity of the enemy, or reconnoitering his positions, but it was not until the campaign of 1862 was determined that the brigade was actively engaged.
On the 16th of April, 1862, the brigade participated in the engagement at Lee's Mills, in which it won the commendation of its commanding officers. Again on the 5th of May, at Williamsburg, the brigade rendered efficient service. The Third crossed the dam on Fish Creek and became actively engaged. On the next day the brigade supported Hancock's brigade, but was not actively engaged. In the succeeding operations about Golding's Farm, Savage Station, and White Oak Swamp from January 26th to the 30th the brigade participated; at the first named a part of the Fifth and Sixth became engaged in support of the Fourth, which was under a heavy fire. The men will remember leaving Savage Station on the 29th for the purpose of marching to James River, the order to return and repel an attack, and the warm time that followed for the Second, Third and Sixth. General Brooks said of their behavior, that "the conduct of the troops in this action was generally very commendable."
Proceeding to the James River country the brigade next participated in the battle of Crampton's Gap on the 14th, and Antietam on the 17th of September; at the latter place being under fire for forty-eight hours. Next came Fredericksburg on the 13th of December, the brigade being then commanded by Colonel Whiting of the Second. The losses here amounted to twenty-six killed and 141 wounded, ten of the killed being men of the Fifth.
The campaign of 1863, so far as concerned the First Brigade, opened with the affair at Marye's Heights on the 3d of May, followed by that at Salem Heights on the 4th. These engagements were followed by the battle at Fredericksburg on June 5th. At Marye's Heights the brigade lost thirteen killed and 109 wounded, and at Salem Heights sixteen killed and 123 wounded. On the 5th of June the brigade crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, assaulted and carried the enemy's works, taking a number of prisoners. Then commenced the march northward to intercept the Confederate army under Lee, who was invading Pennsylvania. The brigade reached Gettysburg, but took no active part in the battle, the honors of that occasion having fallen upon their brethren of the Second Brigade of Vermonters. At the Funkstown battle on July 10th the First Brigade rendered efficient service, holding a skirmish line without support for three hours, and opposed during the time by a much larger force.
Following these events the brigade was ordered to New York city to assist in enforcing the drafts of that year. Requiring to Virginia in the fall they were stationed near Culpeper. From the 1st of October until early November the brigade was kept constantly on the move from one point to another, and occasionally having a "brush" with the enemy until the 7th of November at Rappahannock Station, where the men were under a heavy artillery fire, but did not themselves become actively engaged. Subsequently, after various movements, the brigade went into camp at Brandy Station, remaining there till late in February, 1864, when a week's reconnaissance to Orange Court-House was made. After this the troops remained in camp till May.
The operations for the year 1864 opened with the battles and movements at the Wilderness, lasting from the 5th to the 10th of May, in all of which the First Brigade had an active part, their daily positions being such as to bring them in almost constant conflict with the enemy for two days. Their hardest fighting was done on the 5th and 6th, during which time the brigade losses in killed and wounded amounted to 1, 232 men, forty-five being killed. On the 7th the brigade started for Chancellorsville, arriving on the 8th, when a part of the command were engaged. Then followed the scenes at and about Spotsylvania, covering the period of a week, from May 10th to 18th. During this time the brigade, either as a whole or in part, was constantly changing position, and therefore almost as constantly in conflict with the rebels, and the total loss in killed, wounded and missing was 1, 650 men, more than half its entire strength. On the 15th of May the arrival of the Eleventh Vermont Regiment considerably augmented the strength of the brigade, but the character of the re-enforcing command had previously been by special order changed from infantry to heavy artillery. After Spotsylvania the brigade was kept on the move almost without intermission, marching to Guinness's Station; thence to Harris's Store; to North Anna River; to Little River, where the railroad was destroyed; thence to Chesterfield Station; thence across Pamunkey River, above Hanover Town; and thence toward Hanover C.H., where two days' rest was granted. From here on the 29th they marched to a new position on Tolopotomy river, where they remained two days more.
The series of engagements at Cold Harbor commenced June 1st, and continued until the 12th. In them the brigade was frequently engaged, the front line at two important points, and on the 12th moved back to a new position in the rear, but on the 13th marched for Petersburg, where the Sixth Corps, to which it belonged, performed a variety of movements in the region of the Weldon Railroad at Washington and other points, and on the 21st of August was at Charles Town battle; on the 13th of September at Opequon; on the 19th at Winchester; on the 21st and 22d at Fisher's Hill; and on the 19th of October at Cedar Creek. For the year 1865 the brigade participated in the operations at and near Petersburg, being engaged on the 25th and 27th of March, and on the 2d of April.
Internal Sources: Lewis Cass Aldrich, "History of Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, Vermont," (D. Mason and Co., Publishers, Syracuse, N.Y., 1891).
- "Bits and Pieces". Brownington, Vermont: Northeast Kingdom Civil War Roundtable Newsletter. June 2009. pp. 3.
- Fox, William F., Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, reprinted by Morningside Bookshop, Dayton, Ohio, 1993, ISBN 0-685-72194-9.
- Gottfried, Bradley M., Brigades of Gettysburg, Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 0-306-81175-8.