In This State: Veteran Gilbert Lucier embodied Vermont’s deep passion for the Civil War

After the Civil War, war memorabilia began to take over the Statehouse. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Vermont artist Julian Scott's magnificent painting "The Battle of Cedar Creek." Purchased by the state in 1874, the painting originally hung in the Executive Room, the only room in the building with a wall large enough to accommodate the 10-by-20-foot piece of art. Later, in the 1880s, when the Statehouse was remodeled, the painting was moved to the Reception Room, eventually called the Cedar Creek Room, where it remains the most spectacular work of art in the building. Photo courtesy of Vermont State Curator's Office.

After the Civil War, war memorabilia began to take over the Statehouse. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Vermont artist Julian Scott’s magnificent painting “The Battle of Cedar Creek.” Purchased by the state in 1874, the painting originally hung in the Executive Room, the only room in the building with a wall large enough to accommodate the 10-by-20-foot piece of art. Later, in the 1880s, when the Statehouse was remodeled, the painting was moved to the Reception Room, eventually called the Cedar Creek Room, where it remains the most spectacular work of art in the building. Photo courtesy of Vermont State Curator’s Office.

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. This week’s column is by Nancy Price Graff.

Gilbert Lucier spent almost all of his remarkably long life in Jay, a small, gritty town in northern Vermont stitched like a seam to the Canadian border. Today Jay boasts waterslides and skiing, but Lucier didn’t live long enough to see that. The Jay he lived in had one intersection, a school, small farms, thick stands of trees, and mud deep enough to swallow a horse. When his birthday came around each spring on April 8, the world would have looked pretty much as it did back in February, except the snow would be looking dull and exhausted.

Gilbert Lucier: After the Civil War, a teamster, carpenter and farmer, who served on the select board and in the Legislature.

Gilbert Lucier: After the Civil War, a teamster, carpenter and farmer, who served on the select board and in the Legislature.

Once in his 97 years he had the chance to see spring on his birthday — a real spring, with mountain laurel billowing out of the woods, dogwood blossoms half the size of his hand, and forsythia as blinding as sunshine. During the fall of 1863, Lucier was a boy recently enlisted in the Union Army, sent south to build and man the fortifications being erected to protect Washington, D.C., from the Confederates. Six months later he marched with his unit into the Shenandoah Valley in all its springtime glory to fight first at the Wilderness, then at Spotsylvania, and later still at Cold Harbor, where a rebel minie ball caught him in the leg. Lucier was 17. He would limp for the rest of his life.

His wound became infected. He had developed rheumatism on the picket line and caught typhoid. Before he’d been gone one year he was back in Vermont this time at the Civil War hospital in Montpelier. On Oct. 19, 1864, when his unit, Company F, 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery, and other Vermont units achieved glory for turning back Confederate troops at the battle of Cedar Creek, Lucier had not been well enough to return to his unit.

However, according to Lucier’s obituary in the Newport Daily Express, he was called up as a member of the Invalid Corps on that same day to rush to protect St. Albans, where 25 Confederates had staged “the famous and fantastic raid … on the banks and other institutions of that city.” This was the northernmost battle of the Civil War, and the only one launched from Canada.

In 1865 Lucier returned home to Jay, where he lived another 80 years, except for two years spent in Barton. He married, had five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood, and listed himself in census records as a teamster, carpenter and farmer. He could read and write, and owned his home and farm. But he had pretty much seen all of the world he was ever going to see.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Lucier’s death. When he succumbed to apoplexy in the Orleans County Memorial Hospital in 1944, he was the last of Vermont’s 34,238 Civil War soldiers to die. At his death, the Vermont branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a once-vibrant national, state, and local organization formed in the wake of the Civil War to support veterans and their families and to organize annual fraternal reunions, lost its purpose and succumbed, too.

Duane Lucier was 10 when his great uncle Gilbert died.

“It’s hard to remember him clearly,” says Duane, now 80, and also a resident of Jay. “I was pretty young.”

Still, he remembers certain things. Lucier was of medium height and private, but he liked children. Every year he would hire Duane’s older brother, Norman, and one of Norman’s friends to chop and stack wood burned in his small blue house.

Gilbert Lucier, Vermont's last Civil War soldier to die, lived in this small house in Jay. Today it is the only vintage building left at the town's main intersection. Lucier's funeral was held on the small glassed-in porch visible on the side of the building. Photo by Nancy Graff

Gilbert Lucier, Vermont’s last Civil War soldier to die, lived in this small house in Jay. Today it is the only vintage building left at the town’s main intersection. Lucier’s funeral was held on the small glassed-in porch visible on the side of the building. Photo by Nancy Graff

“We had a little store. The old man would come over and sit on the porch and pass the time of day,” Duane says.

After the war Lucier became active in the GAR and in various local affairs. In the eight decades remaining to him, he served on the board of selectmen for Jay, eight of those years as chairman; he also served two terms in the Legislature, one starting in 1882, the other 40 years later. For 20 years he was Jay’s road commissioner.

“He was always pro-North,” Duane says, and that meant he was a Republican. In a short biography put together after Lucier’s death, another great-grand nephew recounts the story of driving Gilbert to the 75th reunion of Union and Confederate veterans at Gettysburg. One evening the nephew wandered off to find some company, and when he returned to his tent, his great-grand-uncle asked him where he had been. “I’ve been across the road talking with Confederate veterans.”

The U.S. Postal Commission authorized this commemorative stamp in 1948 to mark the final national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. Too few Civil War veterans were still living to attend these annual reunions, which had at one time attracted tens of thousands of veterans and their families, and of those still living, most were too elderly or frail to make the trips. Gilbert Lucier attended his last -- and probably his first -- national encampment at Gettysburg in 1938, when he was 91. It was the 75th anniversary of that critical battle.

The U.S. Postal Commission authorized this commemorative stamp in 1948 to mark the final national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. Too few Civil War veterans were still living to attend these annual reunions, which had at one time attracted tens of thousands of veterans and their families, and of those still living, most were too elderly or frail to make the trips. Gilbert Lucier attended his last — and probably his first — national encampment at Gettysburg in 1938, when he was 91. It was the 75th anniversary of that critical battle.

According to the story, Lucier replied: “Start packing. We’re going home.”

Lucier treasured his Union uniform and had it hanging beside his bed in the hospital when he died. Later, according to Duane, when relatives auctioned off the contents of Lucier’s house, a collector swept into town and bought the uniform and an assortment of other Civil War relics.

“That shouldn’t have happened,” Duane says today. “We should have done something better with them.”

Montages of tintype portraits of Vermont's Civil War officers lined the major corridor of the Statehouse for more than 80 years. These poignant portraits of the state's husbands, fathers, and sons who went to war willing to sacrifice their lives to save the Union kept feelings close to the surface. The portraits were removed in 1945. Photo courtesy of Vermont Historical Society.

Montages of tintype portraits of Vermont’s Civil War officers lined the major corridor of the Statehouse for more than 80 years. These poignant portraits of the state’s husbands, fathers, and sons who went to war willing to sacrifice their lives to save the Union kept feelings close to the surface. The portraits were removed in 1945. Photo courtesy of Vermont Historical Society.

News of the death of Gilbert Lucier reverberated around Vermont, appearing in newspapers around the state, but nowhere was the news received as it was at the Statehouse in Montpelier. The third Vermont Statehouse had opened in 1859, two years before Confederate soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter. Vermonters believed passionately in the war. The state contributed more soldiers per capita than any other Northern state but Michigan. It sacrificed its sons and husbands at a higher rate per capita than any other state. It beggared itself to donate toward the Union cause, and Vermonters looked upon the new Statehouse as a blank canvas on which it could celebrate, mourn, and write its history.

The House vestibule became a collecting point for the flags representing every Vermont regiment. The flags were torn and worn, but this only made them more precious. Bronze tablets appeared on the walls listing where each regiment had fought. In a grand gesture, the state purchased Julian Scott’s “The Battle of Cedar Creek,” a 10-by-20 foot painting showing Vermonters at one of their most valiant hours of the war.

And downstairs, lining the hallway facing the massive front doors were montages of tintype portraits of Vermont Civil War officers donated by their families. Those montages graced that hallway decade after decade until well into the 20th century, even as the Spanish American War, and two world wars occupied Vermont soldiers in new battles.

Finally, Gilbert Lucier died. Having lost its last member, the Vermont branch of the GAR ceased to exist, and the war’s hold on Vermonters was no longer inviolate. A year later, in 1945, Gov. Mortimer Proctor appointed a committee to consider ways to brighten the Statehouse, which had been in perpetual mourning for 80 years. A first order of business was to take down the montages of Civil War officers, which had kept the war personal through the decades. In their place appeared inspirational quotations about Vermont and its culture. The corridor became the Hall of Inscriptions.

“The Statehouse is a Civil War era building,” says David Schutz, its curator. “It became a repository for Vermont’s feelings about the war. Taking down the composites altered the theme of the Statehouse. It was a big change. It was a way to move on.”

Nancy Price Graff of Montpelier is a freelance writer and editor.

The commission appointed by Gov. Mortimer Proctor that decided to remove the Civil War tintype portraits lining the corridor opposite the front door of the Statehouse chose to install in their place quotations that conveyed Vermont's character and ideals. Larkin Mead, raised in Brattleboro, completed this sculpture of martyred President Abraham Lincoln as a study for a larger work. Mead's widow donated the bust to the state in 1910. It formed a perfect focal point for the new Hall of Inscriptions. Photo by Nancy Graff

The commission appointed by Gov. Mortimer Proctor that decided to remove the Civil War tintype portraits lining the corridor opposite the front door of the Statehouse chose to install in their place quotations that conveyed Vermont’s character and ideals. Larkin Mead, raised in Brattleboro, completed this sculpture of martyred President Abraham Lincoln as a study for a larger work. Mead’s widow donated the bust to the state in 1910. It formed a perfect focal point for the new Hall of Inscriptions. Photo by Nancy Graff

Comments

  1. Jonathan Weker :

    Thanks for a memorable story.

    I wonder what has happened to the regimental montages. Their fate makes me wonder whether memorials such as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, which we consider so vibrant, will become similarly overlooked and forgotten once its generation has passed.

    • Jonathan, the photographs are in the collection of the Vermont Historical Society, and are available on their website, vermonthistory.org

    • Karl Riemer :

      The easy answer is that the Vietnam Memorial (at least the wall portion), being solid stone embedded in the earth, huge and prominently sited, would be a little more difficult to put into storage out of sight than some framed photos. It’s intrinsically durable and immovable, much more so than for instance the nearby FDR and MLK Jr. memorials. Also massive and apparently indestructible is the WWII memorial at the end of the reflecting pool. But then, one might wonder, why isn’t there a memorial to WWI vets? It’s there on the Mall, but few people notice it or care what it represents. It’s still used for summer concerts and DC people know where to find it, but it often isn’t even shown on tourist maps and hides in a little stand of trees, all but ignored while millions of visitors stroll and roll past.

      So, it’s a valid question. After the generation directly engaged dies, what prevents letting a small forest and a little neglect bury monuments intended for the ages?

      • Nancy Graff :

        I find it interesting that the CW montages in the Vermont State House were so compelling to Vermonters, and wonder if it was because visitors to the capitol were looking at real faces. In this way the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is similar. When I have visited that site, I have been riveted by the individual names. There is something intensely personal and intimate about contemplating a war and its cost person by person. I hope we as a nation will never let a small forest or neglect blind us to the cost of our freedom.

  2. This is a great article about Gilbert Lucier, but unfortunately, not quite accurate. Lucier was the last soldier to die in Vermont, but not the last Vermont veteran to die. Please see my website, Vermont in the Civil War.

    • Nancy Graff :

      Thank you for correcting the detail. You have a great website for anyone interested in the CW! Lucier was the last Vermont soldier to die in Vermont, and the reaction to his death–unlike the reaction to Vermont soldiers who migrated and died elsewhere–was felt widely and did spark the changes at the State House. Sometime I might do a piece on Harriet Hinksman, a nurse and the last CW veteran to die in Vermont. She seems to be an interesting person in her own right.

  3. Grant Reynolds :

    The Overland Campaign – Wilderness to Petersburg, in May and June of 1864, was not fought in the Shenendoah Valley, but in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area, far to the east of the Valley. Lucier’s regiment, the 1st Vt Heavy Artillery, was originally the 11th Vermont Infantry. It did not fight at the Wilderness on May 6-7, 1864. It was ordered out of the Washington forts on May 11, to become infantry again and make up for the terrible losses the 1st Vermont Brigade suffered at the Wilderness. It marched to transports on the Potomac on May 12, and joined the 1st Vermont Brigade on May 16. It fought at Spottsylvania on May 18. What a change for men accustomed to the easy life in permanent fortifications! You can read all about it on Tom Ledoux’s magnificent website, vermontcivilwar.org

  4. Karl Riemer :

    That apoplexy was quite the scourge, wasn’t it?
    It almost seems “apoplexy” back then meant any sudden affliction without obvious trauma or infection, or, simply, “perplexing”.

  5. This message is for anyone interested in Vermont’s role in the Civil War. We are having a ceremony in the Cedar Creek Room on Wednesday, April 9th at 11:00am to mark the creation of a Vermont Historical Marker commemorating the Battle of Cedar Creek. The marker, along with a display describing Julian Scott’s painting, will be officially unveiled on the battlefield during the 150th anniversary of the battle later this fall. But on April 9th we will feature re-enactors and some words by Howard Coffin. This will be the first Vermont roadside marker placed out of state and, as far as we can tell, the first out of state marker placed in the State of Virginia. Come join us for a sneak preview of this marker!

  6. Alice M. Evans :

    Definitely not the first out-of-state marker placed in VA….. a few years ago I was one of about 15 Vermonters who attended the dedication of a monument at “Dam #3″ in Newport News, VA.

    • Nancy Graff :

      This has nothing to do with markers in Virginia, but I’d like to mention that Route 15 is the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Highway in Vermont, honoring all the Vermont CW veterans, regardless of where they lived or died.

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