If you ever visit Burlington, Vt., and find yourself wandering around the Lakeview Cemetery, you might chance upon what otherwise at first is an unremarkable grave site. You have to walk directly upon it to notice the government-issued bronze plaque placed flat into the ground. It reads:” THEODORE SAFFORD PECK – MEDAL OF HONOR – BVT MAJ GEN CO H 9 VT INF – CIVIL WAR – MAR 22 1843 – MAR 15 1918.”
Those few words sum up the man’s life. They don’t tell the story of his struggles — rejection by the Army four times, surrender, a coward’s label. And they certainly don’t describe the astounding feat of heroism that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Theodore Safford Peck Enlists, Finally
Peck was born in Burlington on March 22, 1843, the son of Theodore Augustus Peck and Delia Horton Safford. The oldest of the five Peck children, he had two brothers and two sisters. A brother and sister died young.
The 1860 Census lists Theodore’s occupation as a clerk. He probably worked for his father, a druggist in Burlington.
The first shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C. Just under six months later, Theodore Safford Peck enlisted successfully — on his fifth try — in the 1st Vermont Cavalry Regiment, Company K. His rank, quartermaster sergeant, most likely reflected his civilian occupation.
During his short time with the 1st Vermont Cavalry, the regiment saw action at the Battle of Winchester on May 25, 1862. The battle was a major victory for the Confederates during Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign.
Peck won promotion to full quartermaster sergeant on June 27, 1862, and mustered out of the 1st Vermont Cavalry on the same day. He then joined Company S, 9th Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, presumably as a quartermaster sergeant, on July 9, 1862. It’s not clear why he made the change.
The regiment was organized at Brattleboro, Vt. The army then sent it to Washington without any real formal training, like most newly formed regiments. From there the regiment went to Virginia. Less than a month after its formation, the 9th Vermont retreated from the Shenandoah Valley to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia in 1863).
Unluckily for the regiment, it had a commander who ranked as one of the most useless and incompetent Union Army officers: Col. Dixon S. Miles. The army had court-martialed him for drunkenness during the First Battle of Bull Run. For some now unfathomable and unfortunate reason, he had orders to defend the vital Harpers Ferry arsenal.
Confronted by Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson, Miles surrendered his entire force on Sept. 15, 1862. He offered only token resistance. Among those captured: the 9th Vermont and Sgt. Theodore Safford Peck.
A later board of inquiry described Miles’ character: “incapacity, amounting to almost imbecility [for] the shameful surrender of this important post.”
The Confederates had marched through Harpers Ferry to Maryland and their ultimate defeat at Antietam. But Jackson had no time to detach troops to guard the huge hoard of Union prisoners. So he paroled them. Parole meant they could return to the Union Army. However, they couldn’t participate in active operations until exchanged for a like number of Confederate prisoners.
Unfortunately for the regiments that surrender under Miles’ command, people labeled them cowards. Though unfair, as they had no say in Miles’ actions, they nonetheless had to live with the fact.
Unable to take part in active combat, the 9th Vermont and Peck were sent to Chicago as guards for Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas. Theodore Safford Peck won promotion to full second lieutenant on Jan. 8, 1863. Two days later, the regiment was finally exchanged.
Still not fully trusted, the regiment went to guard Confederate prisoners at City Point, Va. That assignment lasted only a couple of weeks before the necessities of war sent them south to the garrison at Suffolk, Va. There they joined Wardrop’s Reserve Brigade, 7th Army Corps, Department of Virginia.
As soon as the 9th Vermont arrived in the spring of 1863, Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederate forces embroiled them in the Siege of Suffolk, Va. It lasted from April 13 to May 4. The Union Army held the garrison, but Longstreet’s troops had managed to forage for supplies during the standoff.
After helping raise the siege, the 9th Vermont took part in several small actions. It then went to New Bern, N.C., remaining in the area for several months and taking part in small actions.
Newport Barracks, N.C.
Near Newport, N.C., the Union Army held a small outpost that guarded a railroad trestle bridge, a key link in the supply routes between East Coast ports and New Bern, N.C. The Union had won the Battle of New Bern in 1862, which enabled it to control the North Carolina coast.
On Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces overran the Newport Barracks. Two thousand Confederate infantry, 400 cavalry and 14 artillery pieces outnumbered the 750 Union troops at the barracks. The Union soldiers retreated. Company B and Company H, commanded by 2nd Lt. Theodore Safford Peck, had orders to guard the rear of the retreating forces.
Two bridges over the Newport River formed the only line of retreat for the Union soldiers. They also formed the only line of advance for the Confederates. Lt. Peck had orders to hold the bridges until the Union forces had crossed and then fire them. The Roster of Vermont Volunteers During the War of the Rebellion…Deeds of Valor, describes what happened.
“The left of the Union line lay near the river, while the right was in the woods, and commended (sic) by First Lieutenant Theodore S. Peck Company H, Ninth Vermont Infantry. The line was continually pressed back by the enemy, and made eleven different stands before reaching the Newport River, over which there were two bridges, one a railroad bridge and the other a county bridge…”
No Turpentine, No Cavalry
Peck had been promised turpentine and tar, along with a cavalry contingent to support him, would be waiting at the bridges. They must destroy the bridge at all cost.
“Lieutenant Peck made a desperate fight all afternoon, and had been the farthest out toward the enemy the entire time, holding them in check until they had broken through the line on his left. At this time the Union troops had mostly crossed the railroad and county bridges…while Lieutenant Peck’s rear guard was hotly engaged with the Confederates, who were close at his heels.”
When Peck sent a man to check the bridge, he reported back that he found no supplies to burn the bridge and no cavalry anywhere.
Medal of Honor
“Lieutenant Peck, leaving one-half of his men with their officers, fighting the enemy, ran with the other half down the hill to the bridge, determined to destroy the same, if possible. Finding that some of the planks were not spiked down, he had these torn up, and being fortunate in finding plenty of dry grass…he had the same placed in readiness for burning the bridge, then ordered his men, who were fighting, to stop firing and rush across.
His men instantly obeyed the order, though the enemy came forward on the run, killing and wounding some of them. As soon as the men crossed the bridge they started firing on the enemy, while others ignited the dead grass.
“The Confederates brought up a battery, and poured in grape and canister. In the rush, Sergeant Charles F. Branch was wounded and left behind, a fact which, instantly it became known to Peck, caused him to rush back across the now burning bridge, to the sergeant, and half carrying him in his arms, succeeded, in spite of a shower of bullets and shell and in momentary danger of death…”
They succeeded in destroying both bridges in the face of overwhelming enemy fire. While the river was narrow, it had high bluffs and was deep, and the Confederates could not ford it in time to halt the Union retreat. Then-2nd Lt. Theodore Safford Peck won the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Peck was promoted to first lieutenant on June 10, 1864, and to captain on March 11, 1865.
The 9th Vermont remained in the New Bern area until September 1864, when it went north to join Ulysses S. Grant’s army at the protracted siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Va. The siege actions included a formal siege and a series of individual battles. The 9th Vermont fought in several of them. Peck was wounded in action during one battle, the Battle of Fort Harrison.
The wound must not have been too serious since he remained with the regiment, which then fought in the Battle of Fair Oaks.
Immediately after the battle, it was sent to New York City to guard against possible rioting during the upcoming presidential election. It then returned to the Richmond siege lines and took part in the final assault on the city on April 2, 1865.
Captain Peck marched with the 9th Vermont as one of the first to enter and occupy Richmond.
After performing various occupation duties around Virginia, he mustered out with the rest of the regiment on Dec. 1, 1865.
Marriage and Money
Returning to Burlington, Theodore Peck began a career in insurance, and in 1869 he founded T.S. Peck Insurance. In time, it would grow into one of the largest insurance companies in Vermont. It is still in existence in 2023.
Peck was also involved in local businesses and served on the board of directors of several Burlington manufacturing companies.
In 1879, he married Agnes Louise Lesslie from Toronto, Canada, in Manhattan, New York at her uncle’s residence. They had one daughter, Theodora Agnes Peck.
Like most Union Civil War veterans, Theodore Peck remained active in the Grand Army of the Republic. He served as president of the Society of the Army of the Potomac at the time of his death. He belonged to many civic organizations. They included the Society of Colonial Wars, General Society of the War of 1812, Military Order of Foreign Wars, the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Ethan Allen Club, Algonquin Club and the Lake Champlain Yacht Club. A Freemason, he served as grandmaster of the Vermont Lodge for 10 years.
Later Life of Theodore Safford Peck
Unlike most Civil War veterans, however, Theodore Peck remained a part of the military. From 1881 to 1900 he served as its adjutant general in the Vermont National Guard as a brigadier.
His relationship with the military remained firm. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to the West Point Board of Visitors. He also commanded the Medal of Honor Legion (now the Legion of Valor). And he received an honorary degree in 1896 from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., then a military school second only to West Point.
After a full and active life, Brevet Maj. Gen. Theodore Safford Peck, Medal of Honor, died on March 15, 1918 in Burlington from heart complications.
William E. Utley has an M.A. in Military HIstory from Norwich University. Theodore Safford Peck is his 3rd cousin, three times removed.