BERLIN, Vt. — A weathered headstone in a cemetery near the state airport in Berlin marks one resident’s contribution to saving the Union during the Battle of the Wilderness, which began 150 years ago Monday.
The grave site commemorates the life of Cornelius Nye, who was 32 when he died May 5, 1864, during the Civil War battle in Virginia.
To honor the sacrifices of Nye and the 1,234 Vermonters killed, wounded or captured during the two-day battle, church bells will ring across the state at 4 p.m. Monday, the hour the First Vermont Brigade was ordered into action. A wreath bearing the Freedom and Unit seal of Vermont will also be laid at a monument to the Vermont Brigade on the battlefield in Virginia.
Last month, the Vermont House passed a resolution commemorating the state’s role in the battle and urging the ringing of the bells for 10 minutes.
“I became convinced that the Wilderness is the most important moment for Vermont in the Civil War. It’s certainly the costliest by far,” said Vermont Civil War historian and author Howard Coffin, who has written a book about the state’s role in the battle.
The Vermont brigade had been ordered to prevent the Confederates from crossing a key road. As the Vermonters moved into a thickly wooded area that Coffin likened to a jungle, Confederate gunfire erupted.
“They were just mowed down,” Coffin said. Their commander later said Vermont lost hundreds of men in the first volley.
About 3,000 Vermonters, part of a Union force of about twice that size, held off a Confederate force of about 14,000 for four hours, until it got dark. That first day Vermont lost 1,000 men, including Nye, the man whose life is remembered by the Berlin headstone.
“This was the first great battle of the campaign that won the Civil War. It might well have been a Union defeat but for the Vermonters,” Coffin said.
It was common during the Civil War for church bells to ring in Vermont to commemorate battlefield victories. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the bells tolled to mark his death.
Coffin said he hopes many of the church bells that ring Monday are the same ones that sounded during the Civil War.