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Slayton: State House Art

History, like water, flows downhill over time, and gathers in certain places. Places such as the Vermont State House in Montpelier, our exquisitely restored state capitol.

The building is a storehouse of Vermont history, especially the Civil War era. It’s also an art museum, and last week those two functions came together for a moment that showed just how connected to Vermont’s past we all are.

Vermont historian Howard Coffin was there to generously donate to the State House art collection a painting of Vermont troops at the Battle of Bull Run by 19th century Castleton artist James Hope. Coffin acquired the painting years ago, and had decided that the Vermont State House was the most fitting place for it to be. He donated the painting in memory of his late wife, Sue, who died last year.

The painting shows Vermont troops firing toward Confederate positions during the first Battle of Bull Run – the first major engagement of the Civil War, fought in July of 1861.

Hope knew what the battle looked like, because he was there, commanding a company of Castleton volunteers. And he put into the painting many details he had observed, precious, curious details: Just behind the line of Union troops, one man is depicted, walking stiffly away from the battle, holding to his face a blood-stained handkerchief. He is one of the first Vermonters wounded in the long war that was just beginning to get serious that hot July day.

It was not a great day for either the Vermonters or the Union cause. Despite early Federal successes, Confederate reinforcements and the stern defense of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson turned a near-Union victory into a crazed rout. Most of the Union troops scampered pell-mell for Washington, and the Confederacy won the field and a great psychological victory.

The deeper message of First Bull Run was that the war would not be the grand adventure that either side had expected. It would be long, bloody, and miserable, and would leave the Union preserved, but thousands of men dead or maimed. Vermonters would fight heroically through later battles, establishing a record of hard-won honor.

And all this now comes into the Vermont State House, woven throughout our state capitol in battle flags, memorabilia, and art. And that history continues very intimately in the building today.

Coffin pointed out that several of Vermont’s Civil War commanders later became state senators. The audience listening to his presentation was sitting in some of the very seats that those leaders had occupied.

Vermont’s history isn’t forgotten, or dead, or even past. In certain old, important, historic places, it lingers and can be seen and touched even today.

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