The William Wells Civil War memorial statue in Battery Park, Burlington, VT, stands on a spot overlooking Lake Champlain where once 13 cannons were placed for the protection of the city during the War of 1812. The original of this statue stands on the battlefield in Gettysburg, PA. Who was Wells and how did this former Kimball Union student (1856-57) come to be honored with two grand statues, with one at an historical battle site, and a Congressional Medal of Honor?
Wells was born in 1837 in Waterbury, VT. His father was a prominent businessman who served in the state legislature. After Wells left KUA, he worked for his father until the outbreak of the Civil War when he and three of his six brothers enlisted. Wells helped raise Company C, First Vermont Cavalry Regiment in 1861 and was elected second lieutenant and a month later, captain. He rose quickly in the military having been promoted to major in 1863, colonel in 1864, awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general of volunteers in February 1865 and brevet major general “for gallant and meritorious service” in March 1865. Through the recommendations of Generals Sheridan and Custer, he was commissioned brigadier general in May 1865 for his brilliant service.
Although his military career was brilliant, there were moments of calamity, and a little dark humor, such as the time when his life could have ended at the hands of John Mosby, the “Gray Ghost” of the Confederate Cavalry in Virginia. David F. Cross in his essay, A Tale of Two Statues, tells the story. “On March 17, 1863, Mosby raided the federal outpost at Herndon Station, Virginia. His Rangers surprised troopers of the FVC and captured two dozen Vermonters. It so happened that Wells was visiting the post to investigate complaints that federal troopers were stealing from the local citizenry. Major Wells, accompanied by Captain Robert Scofield, Jr. and Lt. Perley C. J. Cheney, was enjoying lunch across the road from the station at the home of Nat Hanna with the commander of the post, Lt. Alexander G. Watson. Mosby recalled, ‘We saw four finely-equipped horses tied in front of a near-by house. My men at once rushed to find the riders. They found a table spread with lunch. One of the men ran up-stairs where it was pitch dark; he called but got no answer. As a pistol shot could do no harm, he fired into the darkness. The flash of the pistol in his face caused one of the Yankees to move, and he descended through the ceiling. He had stepped on the lathing and caved it in. After he was brushed off, we saw that he was a major. The three other officers who were with him came out of their holes and surrendered. My men appropriated the lunch by right of war.’” Wells spent seven weeks in Libby Prison before returning to his regiment and the Battle of Gettysburg where he replaced the fallen General Farnsworth. In a letter home, Wells described his part in the battle.
Dear Parents In the afternoon My Battalion B. H. A & G made a charge. Also the 1st [West] Va made one on our left. Genl Farnsworth led my Battalion in the Charge. We charged over rocks over stone walls & fences. Drove in 200 Infantry. Captured 30 or 40 Prisoners. Genl F was dismounted. One of Co C Men gave up his horse to him. The Genl was wounded. I have not seen him since. It was reported that he was wounded but in our Lines. … He is a fine officer. We charged about 1 [written over with a “2”] miles until we ran onto a Brigade of Infantry stationed behind a Stone wall in the woods. They opened on us, killed some horses & Captured some men. When we fell back we met Cos L & E & F who were sent to support us. . . . Officers & men behaved themselves gallantly.”
Wells was wounded by saber cuts in Maryland, and by a shell fragment at Culpeper Court House, Virginia. After recovery he went on to lead his company in other battles and eventually commanded the FVC and led it into the Shenandoah Valley under General Sheridan. In September Wells assumed command of the brigade and sometimes the entire Third Division. He was the last commander of General Sheridan’s Corps.
Wells left the army in January 1866 and returned to Waterbury and to the family wholesale drug business that moved to Burlington in 1868 and became Wells, Richardson & Co. pharmaceutical company in 1872. Always an active veteran, he was involved in many of their affairs including being a founder and first president of the Vermont Veterans Home. In 1891, Wells was one of several Vermont veterans recommended to receive the Medal of Honor. It came to him seven months before his death in 1892 at the age of 54. The Burlington Free Press commented, “In the death of Gen. Wells which . . . brought sorrow to so many hearts, the city of Burlington lost one of it foremost citizens and the State of Vermont one of its worthiest, best known and universally respected citizens.” A large and grand funeral was held for him with many veterans in attendance.
A delegation from the FVCS journeyed to Gettysburg in the autumn of 1910 to confer with the GettysburgNational Military Park Commission, and the War Department promptly granted a site for a monument to Wells. In December 1912, Governor Allen M. Fletcher approved an act of the Vermont legislature that appropriated the sum of $6,000 “for the purpose of erecting a monument on the battlefield of Gettysburg . . . commemorating the services and perpetuating the memory of General William Wells and the officers and enlisted men of the First Regiment, Vermont Cavalry.”