A hard-charging newspaperman becomes a preeminent Civil War historian.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
It’s likely that a few words typed out and posted on a bulletin board in 1964 saved Howard Coffin’s life; it is certain that they launched his career. The calling sparked by that fortuitous advertisement is marked with nearly fifty years of accomplishment. Coffin, a Woodstock native, first earned a reputation in Vermont as a hard-charging and respected newspaper man covering politics and the environment; he followed that up with long stints as News Director for Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont, then as Press Secretary for former United States Senator Jim Jeffords. In the last two and a half decades, he’s authored or ghost authored eight books. Over the years, he’s built what was at first a hobby-level interest in the Civil War into a broad and rich body of knowledge; now he’s recognized as a preeminent historian on Vermont’s role in that conflict.
In the coming months, Coffin will be bringing more of his brand of history to Vermont, and to Woodstock. And his kind of history is not of the sit-in-the-classroom-nose-in-a-textbook variety, Coffin’s history is of the passionate, tactile, get-out-and-see, feel-the-anguish-of-fallen-men ilk. In late May, an exhibit of parts of his collection of Civil War artifacts will open at the American Precision Museum in Windsor. Next season, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park will offer a new Civil War-oriented walking tour of Woodstock, scripted and narrated by Coffin, as a downloadable application for iPhones. And also in 2013, Coffin’s Touched by War: A Town by Town Guide to Vermont’s Civil War Sites, will be published, a book that, when complete, will be the culmination of more than eight years of research in all 251 of Vermont’s cities and towns.
It’s research that’s on-going; Coffin continues to visit town clerks, libraries, and historical societies, and update his manuscripts. He’d love to hear from anyone in the Woodstock area, he says, with diaries, letters, family memories, or anything at all related to the Civil War.
In his youth, the ebullient and now acclaimed historian had stumbled a bit as he grappled to find a calling. “I was a terrible student in high school,” he says, “I flunked algebra and short hand. When it came time for me to graduate, I was half a credit short.” Because of the beneficence of the school principal, who recognized Coffin’s political smarts and aptitude for activism, he did receive a diploma. The following fall, though, Coffin found himself lonely, isolated, and languishing in a northern Vermont classroom in the “the only school I could get into,” Lyndon State Teacher’s College.
He toughed it out for two and half years, but packed up his cardboard suitcase after a first, disastrous attempt at student teaching. While Coffin can now give a lecture on, say, Abraham Lincoln with an ease akin to chatting with and about an old friend, back then the task was formidable. “I was scared to death to be in front of a crowd, in front of those kids,” he says. His teaching instructor scowled from the rear of the classroom, glasses perched on the tip of her nose, shaking her head every time he strayed from his lesson plan. At 10 o’clock that night, an exasperated Coffin was out on the berm of Route 5, in sub-zero temperatures, thumbing for a ride home. “I never went back,” he says.
As an army draftee a year later, Coffin trained as a medic and machine gunner; that’s when he spotted the nondescript bulletin board notice that altered his life. “They needed a reporter on the newspaper,” he says, “I had done a little stringing in high school, covering sports. I called them up.”
And while Coffin may have drifted by happenstance into what became his profession, he was, even at that tender age, able to recognize and pounce on the opportunity of a lifetime. “There were staffers there from the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press Bureau, and the Philadelphia Daily News,” he says, “I was in there with all these guys from major newspapers, and they taught me journalism.”
As it turned out, it was that job that spared him from likely front line duty in Vietnam. United States combat units were first sent to the southeast Asian country in 1965, and, says Coffin, when an American soldier there was killed or wounded, a computer would pick out a properly trained and skilled replacement. Five times during his tenure as reporter, Coffin was ordered overseas, and all five times, his commanding officer vetoed his deployment, because “I was getting his name in the paper so much,” he says.
Although Coffin didn’t discover his penchant for writing until his mid-twenties, the roots of his interest in history, and particularly in the Civil War, took hold as he grew up in Woodstock. Coffin, his parents and two siblings lived in a modest four-room apartment on Pleasant Street; most of his time as a kid was spent out of doors, hiking, climbing, playing cowboys and Indians, exploring caves, chasing after birds. On rainy days, though, his step-grandmother Coffin went to the attic of her house on Lincoln Street to retrieve a yellowed copy of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated History of the Civil War. They’d thumb through profiles of smartly uniformed generals, and sketches of cavalry men on their mounts, sharp shooters on their bellies, and lines of soldiers firing on each other at near point blank range. The renderings of marching troops and battles mesmerized Coffin, as did his mother’s tales of her grandfather, Elba Jillson, who served in the war for a year. When Jillson died on a winter day in 1923, Coffin’s mother told him, the men of South Pomfret cleared three miles of snowy road so that his body could be brought to lie in state at the town’s Grange Hall. “He was just a private, and no hero,” says Coffin, “It just tells you the esteem they had for Civil War veterans.”
Those childhood moments sparked a lasting fascination. On his brief vacations from grinding out twenty-some articles a week as a young reporter for the Rutland Herald and the Christian Science Monitor, Coffin visited battlefields. He walked sites in many states, he immersed himself in books about the battles fought on them, and made the fields subjects of his own writing.
In the early 1990’s, Coffin won an appointment to the Federally-established Civil War Sites Advisory Commission through his acquaintance with Senator Jeffords. Coffin labored alongside fellow Commissioners documentarian Ken Burns, then Chief Historian of the National Park Service Edwin Bearss, and Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson to sort through the status of the nation’s 10,500 battlefields. Over the course of two and a half years, the group visited dozens of the 384 most significant sites and proposed plans to preserve them. “It was a joy, it was a tremendous break,” says Coffin, “It gave me connections and an education on the Civil War beyond imagination.” He began writing books; three of them detail the Green Mountain State’s contributions in the great conflict: Full Duty: Vermont in the Civil War, Nine Months to Gettysburg, and The Battered Stars: One State’s Civil War Ordeal During Grant’s Overland Campaign.
The Civil War history in Woodstock is one of richest in Vermont, Coffin says. The war effort for the entire state, for example, was administered from an office in the village, which still stands today. Through painstaking review of 1860-era Town Meeting records, newspapers, and sheaves of letters, diaries, and other historical documents, Coffin has identified about twenty-five important sites in the village and town. Fourteen of those will be included in the re-vamped National Park walking tour that Coffin is scripting; the history, significance, and location of all of the sites are described in his forthcoming book.
Coffin loves ferreting out the unusual or heretofore unheralded. Research is for him, pure rapture. “You never know when you turn a page what you are going to find,” he says. In Woodstock, he reconnoitered the area on the north bank of the Ottauquechee River where sculptor Hiram Powers stood and pictured the shimmering form of a Greek maiden rising through the morning mist, a vision that Powers said inspired his most famous work, The Greek Slave. And although Powers created the piece in 1844 as protest to Turkey’s domination of Greece, in the Civil War era, it became an important symbol of abolitionism. In Windsor, Coffin learned that the town’s Neo-Grec/Georgian Revival style public library was designed by Henry Bacon, the same man who also shaped the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. And in Cavendish, he found the hotel that housed militant abolitionist John Brown when he visited Vermont with the hope of raising cash and rifles in the mid-1850s.
It is most important to Coffin that people today remember the great and deadly conflict that split the nation beginning in 1861, and preserve it’s reminders. “It took all that blood and thunder to free four million Americans; a nation dedicated to freedom can’t have slavery,” he says, “People need to look at that for the lessons it can teach.”