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High school student leading charge to bring Civil War artifacts back to Vermont

A Civil War officer poses for a portrait.
Colonel Addison Preston was a member of the First Vermont Cavalry.

Editor's note: Vermont Public incorrectly stated that U32 High School is in Montpelier, instead of East Montpelier. We regret the error.

Turns out Tik Tok and SnapChat aren’t the only places that Gen Zer’s are spending their time on the internet these days.

Colby Tuller, 15, is a freshman at East Montpelier’s U32 High School. He’s also an avowed history buff who, while browsing an online auction catalog, recently discovered a trove of artifacts that belonged to a Civil War officer with Vermont ties.

Colonel Addison Preston was a member of the First Vermont Cavalry, who’s buried in Danville.

Now, Tuller is part of an effort to raise the roughly $27,000 needed to bring Preston’s auction collection — including a full uniform — back to Caledonia County.

That’s alongside the Danville Historical Society and Vermont’s Civil War Hemlocks, a group that celebrates that era through demonstrations and battle reenactments.

Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki caught up with Tuller to learn how the effort’s going. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: To start, can you walk us through how you stumbled upon a host of items for auction that once belonged to Col. Preston?

A teenager poses in Civil War regalia.
Colby Tuller

Colby Tuller: I'm an avid Civil War artifact collector myself. And I was looking through the website Horse Soldier in Gettysburg, which is a military artifact store, and I came up across the uniform of Col. Preston.

And I had searched the word "Vermont" just to see, because they update their "What's New" page every so often. I clicked on it, and I sent it to my group, the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks. And it was immediately obvious that these items needed to be returned to Danville, and Vermont itself. I mean, this is a big addition to Vermont Civil War history.

How did it feel to realize that you found these artifacts that have such a strong Vermont tie?

Like I'm bringing a piece of Vermont history home. I mean, this project is pretty personal to me as well, because my third great uncle served in the First Vermont Cavalry during the Civil War.

So your uncle potentially served alongside Col. Preston?

Yes, Col. Preston commanded Company D. So my great uncle was in Company M of the First Vermont Cavalry. And he was wounded at Gettysburg. Preston also took part in Elon Farnsworth's fatal charge, where Preston was a hero.

The collection includes a full Civil War uniform. How rare is it to discover a full uniform?

Pretty rare, especially because it's his dress uniform. So he would have worn it at gatherings with officers and whatnot. We do have one of his other field uniforms in the Danville Historical Society's collection already. So his dress uniform and dress sword and other items will be a great addition.

Colby, how did this collection of Col. Preston's belongings leave Vermont to begin with?

When Addison Preston was killed in the Battle of Cold Harbor in June of 1864, his daughter lived in Danville. His house is still standing today, right up the road from the Historical Society. All of his items were passed down through the family to his daughter, who brought them out to California.

And somehow they were purchased by a private collector out there, and Steve Wakefield, one of the members of the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks, he stumbled upon these back in the '90s. But they were in a personal collection. They were then sent to a museum in Fort Worth, Texas, which recently closed. And the museum apparently had sold them to the Horse Soldier in Gettysburg.

I want to turn to you for just a moment, and I wonder what drew you to become a history buff?

A lot of it was hearing family stories. Like my great grandfather was in World War II; my grandfather was in Vietnam. But it really got me started when I saw the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks as my younger self, when they did reenactments in Cambridge. And it really got me interested, with the cannons and muskets and whatnot. And then I went on to search my family military history and found that I had three ancestors in the Civil War — one being in the First Vermont Cavalry.

Can you describe how the community has responded since you all started fundraising to bring these artifacts back to Danville?

So we started fundraising back in November, December. And our goal is $27,000. We're over halfway since then, just through donations. And Col. Preston's great grandnephew, even out in California, donated some money. It amazes me how quick we've been able to raise funds.

Colby, why do you think the story is resonating with the Danville community and beyond?

I mean, Preston was an influential person in the Vermont community, in the Union Army itself during the Civil War. When he was killed, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who was of course famous for Custer's Last Stand, he voiced the opinion of many fellow officers of Preston. And he said "There lies the best fighting colonel of the entire cavalry corps."

And I believe that the history public in Vermont, with people who are most interested, are just seeing that this is an important person. This is an important collection to be brought back to Vermont, and bringing these artifacts home will help teach the younger generation about America's most defining conflict, the Civil War, and Vermont's service in the Civil War.

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