Each morning, as I sit enjoying my first cup of coffee while sifting through the news of the day, I look out at Portus Baxter Park in Derby Line.
Every season showcases a different set of activities—from cross country skiers gliding along the tracks laid down by snowmobilers at dawn and families with young children gathering around the playground at the first signs of spring to neighbors playing pick-up baseball deep into the fall. I must admit that these dog days of summer are my favorite when the basketball and tennis courts are buzzing with people and the echo of their play reflects an urgency and understanding of how fleeting these moments of warm sunshine are in a Vermont town named for its border with Canada.
Yet, in these moments of quiet solitude, my mind also turns to the contributions of the man the park honors. Portus Baxter was born in Brownington in 1806 and moved to Derby Line at the age of 22. Two years earlier, upon his father’s death, he had left the University of Vermont to handle the estate. He subsequently built a life as a respected banker, farmer, entrepreneur, and public servant, holding positions as Assistant Judge of Orleans County (1846-47), delegate, and elector at the national presidential conventions in 1848, 1852, and 1856, and as a U.S. Representative in Congress (1861-1867). Baxter’s unyielding support of the more than 34,000 men and boys from the Green Mountain State who fought to preserve the Union and abolish slavery during the Civil War, which coincided with his years as a representative, earned him the nickname of “the soldier’s friend.”
Three snippets from his life, documented in letters and other reports from the field, offer a glimpse into why he was held in such high esteem beyond the halls of Congress and the boundaries of the place he called home. The first comes from a letter to Abraham Lincoln written by Baxter on December 31, 1863. In it, Baxter calls on the president to issue an executive order granting clemency to draft dodgers and deserters who fled to the Canadian side of the line marking the boundary with the U.S. His appeal highlights the poor treatment of these men by Canadians, who were largely Union sympathizers, and points to the possibility of strengthening federal forces to defeat the “wicked Rebellion” through pardoning men he was convinced were eager to return to service. Though Lincoln didn’t issue pardons to deserters until March 11, 1865, Baxter’s plea demonstrates a level of compassion and understanding for the psychological complexities of fighting in a war, even when one believes deeply in the cause.
Moreover, for Baxter, words were not enough, and doing all that he could to preserve the Union by supporting federal soldiers led him to put his own life on the line following the Battle of Wilderness, which took place on May 5, 1864. The first day of fighting in a nearly two-week offensive, ordered by General Ulysses S. Grant toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, marked the most significant losses suffered by Vermont soldiers during the war. While the Union had a numerical advantage over the rebel forces—115,000 troops to 65,000—the Confederates were familiar with the rough terrain and thick undergrowth of Spotsylvania, Virginia. As a result, the Union suffered over 17,500 casualties—more than 7,000 experienced by the Confederates. Baxter’s acts of valor are chronicled in Howard Coffin’s Something Abides: Discovering the Civil War in Today’s Vermont (2013), where the author reveals that when Governor John Gregory Smith learned that there were 1,000 wounded Vermont soldiers in Fredericksburg, he gathered fifteen doctors from the state and traveled with Baxter and his wife, Ellen, to treat the casualties. Filling in as nurses, the Baxters worked so tirelessly throughout the summer that they were forced to leave the front due to extreme exhaustion.
It is no wonder that in 1864, one of the three hospitals established in Vermont to treat sick and wounded soldiers was named for the Vermont Congressman. Baxter General Hospital, located in Burlington, treated 2,406 patients before the Army closed the facility a year later. But by then, Baxter was well-known to those on the battlefield. For instance, in a letter written to his parents on March 6, 1865— one month before he was killed in battle— Union Captain Charles C. Morey makes clear why Baxter’s dear friend, Justin Morrill, referred to his Congressional colleague as “one of nature’s noblemen.” The letter from Patrick Station, Virginia mentions efforts on the part of soldiers to raise money “for Honorable Portus Baxter and his wife for services to the sick and wounded,” noting that the couple had already spent “no less than $8,000 of their own money” on the cause.
Despite the honors heaped upon him, as it turns out Baxter was a charismatic but reluctant Congressional leader. For several years, he resisted public urgings for him to run for office. Then, as now, the man who so often inspires me at daybreak serves as a model for the type of moral leadership needed in times of deep political division, when placing country and service above self is more critical than ever.
Spencer Kuchle is the associate director of collections and interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.