Converting the Copperheads 1861


There were in Brattleboro a few rebel sympathizers---"copperheads" as they were termed--who expressed satisfaction over the fall of Sumter, but they repented for such manifestations of disloyalty. The stories of how these "copperheads" were suddenly converted to the Union cause are amusing. With the announcement that the rebels had triumphed in their first attempt at arms it behooved the men of the north to take active steps to suppress any attempt of succor or support, and the men of Brattleboro lost no time in informing the most radical rebel sympathizers that the time had arrived to talk and act differently. The first demonstration of this kind in Brattleboro occurred at the home of George Bugbee who lived in the two-story brick house west of the present Grange block. Mr. Bugbee kept a boarding house and much of his time had been spent upon the street for several days previous to the receipt of the news from Charlestown. With the arrival of the news that Sumter had fallen Mr. Bugbee felt that his cause was in the ascendancy and he lost no opportunity to deride the north for its attitude toward the south. On the evening of Tuesday, April 16, Mr. Bugbee's neighbors made him a call and he was given a chance to repudiate the rebel cause. There are few survivors of that interesting occasion in Brattleboro and they smile as they tell how George changed his mind and espoused the Union cause suddenly after a half dozen stones were thrown through his bedroom window. He decided to retract when he saw the temper of the crowd and said that he was willing to espouse the Union cause. That simple statement was not sufficient. He was brought out doors and commanded to kneel down on the national flag and repeat an oath of allegiance administered by Captain Phelps who a few weeks later took command of the First Vermont volunteers.


There are other instances of sudden conversion of "copperheads" in Brattleboro, though the town authorities took steps the day following Mr. Bugbee's "admission to the Union" to prevent further demonstrations. They issued a statement that no citizen should be molested in his home but how religiously this mandate was carried out will be shown later.


With the announcement from the south that the rebels were in possession of Sumter came an outburst of sentiment against Jefferson Davis by the people of Brattleboro and the president of the Southern Confederacy was hung in effigy on a gibbet erected on Main street directly in front of the Brattleboro House. Not content with expressing their contempt for "Jeff" Davis and his cause by hanging him in effigy the stuffed figure was cut down and burned. John S. Tyler, C.A. Miles and Captain Todd were among the young men who helped convert local "copperheads."


In the unwritten history of Brattleboro in the War of the Rebellion should be mentioned James Lilly. "Jim," as he was familiarly known, was an ardent supporter of the Union cause. This West River farmer had seen pictures of flags but his color scheme was rather at variance with that used in the manufacture of the national colors. His was of yellow and white as he had no red cloth. The stripes of yellow were sewed upon a large sheet of white and the designer was liberal in his starry effect. With the announcement from the south that Sumter had been fired upon word came that one of Brattleboro's well-known summer guests, Harvey Bawtree, was to become a lieutenant in the Confederate army. Mr. Bawtree had spent his summers in town for several years and came from the south.


Brattleboro Reformer, April 14, 1911.


Extract from "Brattleboro's Spirit of 1861".


George Bugbee lived on the north side of Elliot Street, east of Church Street. He died of consumption on November 17, 1861---seven months after this incident.


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