This Place in History: General William Wells

BURLINGTON, Vt.

At 'This Place in History,' we return with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins, to the big, reddish-brown brick house on South Willard Street in Burlington to learn about Dr. H. N. Jackson's father-in-law, a decorated Civil War Major General.

"His name was William Wells and he was a very wealthy, influential Vermonter later in life. But as a young man, he was one of the most decorated Vermont soldiers in the American Civil War. He enlisted as a Private and by the time he mustered out in 1865, he was a Major General," introduced Perkins.

In Battery Park, you'll find a statue of William Wells. If it seems odd to find the statue of a Civil War General in Burlington, there's good reason.

"This is a copy of a statue erected in Military Park in Gettysburg. The statue in Gettysburg is at the base of the Big Round Top near Plum Creek. It's commemorating his valor, he won the Medal of Honor, and that of his troops of the First Vermont Calvary. He was the last Commander of the Calvary of the Army of the Potomac," explained Perkins.

"A couple of things about William Wells. One, he is the most decorated Civil War soldier from Vermont. He enlisted as a Private in 1861 and in 1865 he left the war as Major General. The First Vermont Calvary was in 78 engagements throughout the length of the Civil War. He was in 70 of those. So it's not like he was sitting behind the desk or anything. He was a combat officer for the entire war and he was a Medal of Honor recipient."

"So this is the sculpture that shows the charge of the First Vermont Calvary on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Now the Union wasn't really winning this battle. The Confederacy got most of their armies there first, so it was really a holding action by the Union Army, so that the rest of their troops could get to Gettysburg. But how do we hold these troops? The Vermont troops were asked to charge the Confederate lines at Plum Creek at the base of the Big Round Top. It was really considered a suicide charge. But it was to stop the southern troops and really slow them down," said Perkins.

"A General Farnsworth was in charge of leading this Calvary action, but he was shot very early on and he's depicted on the left hand side. He's slumped over his horse. So he was killed and so Wells, who was the Major at the time, took over the charge. There he is right at the front of the charge, leading it. They charged across the field. They were being shot by Confederate soldiers from both sides and from the front, but they charged in. They went through the Confederate lines. He wheeled them around and then they extracted his troops. They lost a bunch, but he was able to pull them out so it wasn't a complete suicide mission. He made it out. That action helped slow down that southern advance and so ultimately the Union won this battle. He died fairly young I believe he was 54 years old. When he died of a heart attack, he was commemorated with this statue and a Medal of Honor."

Back in the studio, Perkins shared a few Civil War artifacts.

"This is a Calvary guidon, and that's a pennant. It's a flag that the Calvary troop would have carried into battle. They got shot up, they got torn up. This one you can see right on it, it says US Company C 1st Regiment Vermont Calvary. So this was the Vermont Calvary and this was the unit of William Wells. This flew in battle throughout the American Civil War and most famously during the Charge at Gettysburg," said Perkins. 

"This was actually his service weapon. This is what he would have used in battle. It's just a regular, plain Calvary sword. Every Cavalryman had one of these; Calvary saber if you want to use the right term for it. But what's fascinating about this item is he talked about this charge at Gettysburg that he won the Medal of Honor for, and this intense combat to get off the field. And he described being hit in the guard by an enemy sword. There's a mark right here by your knuckles where an enemy sword really cut in and dented this guard," explained Perkins.

At 'This Place in History'!

For more from our 'This Place in History' series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historical markers, click here.


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