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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.