BRATTLEBORO – At the end of Vermont Governor Frederick Holbrook’s first inaugural address in October 1861, he spoke about the ongoing Civil War. He saw the war as “a struggle for national existence”. He commended Vermonters for their willingness to use their “blood and treasures to help the national government put down this baseless rebellion.”
Holbrook went on to say that the apologists and defenders of slavery were the ones who brought about the war, and he offered that the aftermath of this bloody conflict would include the “erasure of the institution of slavery.” He considered this a “natural consequence of her madness and her guilt”.
Holbrook ended his speech with a quote from the poem “A Hymn on the Seasons” by Scottish writer James Thomson. In the poem, the author praises God’s arrangement of the seasons. He focuses on how the end of one season brings the beginning of another; in an endless progression that makes the world prosper. Holbrook suggested that the present ills of war might soon give way to the end of slavery and “a purer and more earnest love of country, and a clearer and more emphatic nationality of views and sentiments”.
In some ways, Brattleboro has changed a lot since Holbrook’s time. As governor of Vermont during the war years, he chose to remain in the city while serving his state. Holbrook lived on the north side of Walnut Street and walked downtown to the governor’s office he had set up in Brattleboro House on the west side of Main Street. If he wanted to communicate with Montpelier or Washington, DC, he continued south down Main Street and crossed the street to the telegraph office at American House. Frederick Holbrook served his two years as state governor while still living and working in Brattleboro’s East Village.
Holbrook was just over 6 feet tall, had broad shoulders and weighed about 185 pounds. He lived in the residential area of North Main Street for most of his adult life. His family home was long ago replaced by commercial interests. Where the house once stood is now part of the Dead River Company property on the corner of Main and Walnut Streets.
On his way to the governor’s office, Holbrook walked through a stately, tree-lined residential area that became a business district as he crossed the intersection of Main and High Streets. On the west side of Main Street he would pass a couple of multi-story frame houses on his way to the Brattleboro House. The large hotel and restaurant was built in 1795 and remained a prominent feature on Main Street until a fire destroyed the building a few years after the end of the Civil War. Vermont Artisan Designs currently occupies the land where the Brattleboro House stood.
The telegraph office at American House was Holbrook’s primary point of communication. President Lincoln’s telegrams got there, and Holbrook relied on the service to keep him informed of the war and state government activities. The American House was located where the first Brattleboro store opened in 1771. Over time, the building has undergone many changes and renovations. It served as a village shop, diner, saloon, boarding house and telegraph office. In 1906 the building was replaced with a larger brick building called the American Building. The Shin La Restaurant is located where the American House once stood. During the war, Governor Holbrook sent and received messages from the American House offices and used the space in the building to conduct official business. The building was near the train station, which more than a third of Vermont’s soldiers passed by during the Civil War.
Holbrook would live to be 96. Long after the Civil War ended, he wrote about his days as governor. He said he made three key decisions that had a positive impact on Vermont’s wartime efforts.
1. Vermont levied taxes and paid half of its war expenses during the course of the war. The other half of Vermont’s debt was met through the issuance of Vermont War Bonds, to be paid at a later date. As a result, Vermont became the first state to pay off its war debts after the war ended.
2. In 1862, Holbrook wrote to President Lincoln, encouraging him to greatly increase the call for more soldiers to put down the rebellion. Holbrook argued that state governors would supply more soldiers if Lincoln requested them. Holbrook then worked with federal government officials to introduce a request for more troops and helped enlist the support of the other governors of loyal states. Holbrook felt instrumental in organizing a Union army of 600,000 troops.
3. Holbrook advocated the construction of a US military hospital in Brattleboro on the site of the military camp. This helped treat and heal sick and wounded Vermont soldiers, and soon hospitals were established in other northern states, resulting in the saving of many soldiers’ lives.
Here is what Holbrook wrote of Abraham Lincoln: “President Lincoln was a unique and wonderful man, of great wisdom, common sense and shrewdness, and with a very big heart… (He) invited me to write to him frankly and freely, when.” whenever I thought of anything I thought important to propose… He always said to me, “What I particularly wish is to know what the Plain People want to think and do, and to be able to implement their views and wishes as much as possible. Amid the conflicting opinions and advice I’m surrounded by in Washington, I sometimes don’t know how to act. But when I hear directly from the Plain People, I feel renewed vigor for the war ahead.” President Lincoln was an unusual combination of simple everydayness and mental power, forecast and ability.”
Holbrook also said that while Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton had very different personalities, their differences often complemented each other. For example, Lincoln was very intelligent and cautious while Stanton was impulsive and demanding. Holbrook wrote: “Both temperaments together were sometimes more effective than either would have been alone. Both were equally in intense, unflagging loyalty to the Union.”
Holbrook said more than 13,000 Vermont soldiers joined their regiments at the military camp in Brattleboro before marching down South Main Street to the train station and an unknown fate. Almost 5,000 soldiers were later treated in the military hospital, which was also located in the military camp. The city garage and public school complex for grades 7 through 12 now occupies a site that served as a military camp and hospital during the Civil War.
Holbrook is buried at the north end of Prospect Hill Cemetery along the road that so many soldiers traveled on their way to war. The bodies of the soldiers who died in the military hospital and were not claimed by family are also buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery at the south end.