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Slayton: Trip To Fairfield

Summer flowers line the roadsides of Fairfield – daisies, purple vetch, red clover. This is farming country and at every turn in the road, the scent of curing hay mingles with the smell of freshly spread manure. I’m looking for the home of one of my ancestors, the man for whom I am named, Captain Thomas Kennedy, who fought in the Civil War.

I am using Howard Coffin’s excellent book, “Something Abides,” to guide me on my mini-quest. Coffin, Vermont’s foremost Civil War historian, has discovered and explored just about every Civil War site in Vermont, and has organized them into driving tours that cover the entire state. It’s a job that took him six years and 150,000 miles of driving to complete. His book sits on the seat beside me as I drive toward Fairfield, where Capt. Kennedy came to live after the war ended.

He must have been quite a man, Thomas Kennedy. Family legend has it that he had three horses shot out from under him before he was shot off his horse at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864. He was wounded and later rescued when the tide of battle turned and Union soldiers won the day.

I pull into Fairfield, turn right and see the field where Fairfield’s soldiers drilled before marching off to war. It’s now a ball field. I count the houses opposite the field and find the one identified as Thomas Kennedy’s, sitting amid a few other houses, all of 19th century vintage. Farm fields surround the little village, as they must have 150 years ago, and I can imagine a recovered Thomas Kennedy working in those fields, glad to be home from the war.

Driving on, I follow the directions in “Something Abides,” to other Civil War locations – veterans’ houses, an old back-road cemetery with a monument to a lad killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, an ancient brick church where anti-slavery sermons were preached.

I wind up my day at a pretty little yellow cottage nestled in the forest in North Fairfield – the supposed birthplace, or at least very early home, of President Chester A. Arthur. It’s an odd historical site, because some believe that Arthur was actually born in Canada. He was about a year old when they lived here. The little cabin is a replica, built in 1954.

Still, it’s a lovely shady spot on this hot day and an appropriate Civil War site, since Arthur spoke eloquently against slavery in his public career, and later became Quartermaster General for the Union Army.

As the book,  “Something Abides” makes very clear, the Civil War is knit tightly into our history and our countryside. Like the rest of Vermont’s long and complex history, the war is part of who we were and has become part of who we are today. And remembering that is important act, both for ourselves and for Vermont.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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