His family moved to Montpelier Vermont and Robert would get his common school training there and continued when the family moved to Morristown, 40 miles to the north. He then attended the first term at the Academy of Hyde Park, a few more miles to the north but when the Civil War broke out Robert set his education aside and took up the cause for the North.
In early 1861 Robert was back in Montpelier and became one of the first to enlist in one of the first regiments raised in Vermont... the 2nd Vermont Volunteer Infantry. He would be mustered into Company F as a private soldier. But soon he got an opportunity to switch over to F Coy of the New England Guard Company from Northfield, which became a company of the 1st Vermont Volunteer Infantry.
Shortly after a month in service Robert and the 1st would find themselves in the midst of one of the first land battles of the war. It would be at the village of Big Bethel Virginia. Here the Union force of about 4000 would be humiliated by a Confederate force of only about 1500. It started with the Union dividing it's troops into two columns. These both advanced on an enemy that was well dug in and had artillery fire awaiting the Union's arrival. Each column was travelling along a parallel road that they knew would converge about where the enemy was expected.
Along the route, for some reason some muskets were fired by the Union troops on one of the columns. But farther up on the column, the Union soldiers thought the enemy was now pursuing them from the rear so they stared to retrace their steps. When they finally realized that they had got it wrong they again about faced and headed off in the right direction again. When they arrived where the road converged. their comrades in the other column saw them, noted they were wearing grey...the usual colour of the Confederates, they started to shoot at their fellow soldiers... who then shot back. Eventually someone figured out what was going on and hollered out the password. But for curious reasons, the others didn't have the passwords so Union soldiers kept firing on Union soldiers till it was eventually sorted out. Meanwhile dozens lay dead from friendly fire.
This ridiculous event woke the Confederates up from their early morning sleep, and they enjoy the show for awhile and then started to fire on both columns who were in disarray and ultimately had to retreat from the battle to regroup.
Clearly not a good day for the Union!
Within days the three month term of Robert's unit elapsed and all were released.
It would only be a matter of days before this Saint John's soldier would yet again enlist, but this time it would be with a regiment with a three year term. This was the 4th Vermont Volunteer infantry, and again he would serve in K Company. Enlisting as a private he was promoted to the rank of 3rd Sergeant in quick order and would stay with this regiment and fight in over 20 battles and skirmishes including at Lee's Mill, Williamsburg, White Oak Swamp, Crampton's Gap, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Marye's Heights, 2nd battle at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Weldon Railroad.
At many of these battles fellow Canadians earned their Medals of honor.
At Lee's Mills Robert would receive a wound just below the leg, and in the 1880's he was still pulling pieces of shrapnel out of his leg.
Perhaps he used one of the needles out of his sewing kit, shown above, to pick away at the bone fragments coming out of the leg wound. Also above is a image of the dog tag probably purchased from a suttler at one of the camps, as the government never issued these identity tags during the war. Thus, so many graveyards today have deceased buried under the term... "Unknown." The front (left) says War of 1861 and United States across the bottom. The right image has the name Serg.t RJ Coffey and his place of enlistment..ie Montpelier Vt.
It would be at Salem Church, also known as Bank's Ford, that Robert's bravery would earn him a Medal of Honor. Here is what a newspaper about a month later had to say about the event... (though claiming in error that it was at Fredericksburg)
That could have become the death of him, pardon the pun! But he lived to fight another day...and many more after that.
Robert is pictured above and to the left of the pole in front of the tent during Civil War days.
In September of 1864 he and about 150 other originals from a unit of over 1000 were the only ones left in the Regiment to be released from the services.
In 1867 Robert Coffey married. He would be in the hotel business then and operated hotels in several centers. He joined the Grand Army of the Republic in 1873 and would go on to serve his fellow veterans from there for at least 21 years and in such capacity actually started about 20 of the GAR posts in the state. Robert later accepted a position in the National Guard of the state and move up in ranks from Captain to Major and then to Colonel. He would also continue his service by becoming the Superintendent of the Soldiers home at Bennington.
Robert led a very full life and died still young, at age 59 and is buried at Montpelier Vermont.
Nine years earlier...on his 50th birthday, he received in the mail his Medal of Honor. And that was for the action on 4 May 1863... 150 years ago tomorrow.
NOTE: many of the pictures and details containing in this blog come from the resources of the Vermont Historical Society. Kudos to them for making the materials available and doing such great work with their own website. It can be found at http://vermontcivilwar.org and it is highly recommended as a site you ought to visit... but only after reading over 100 blogs in this space. hehe.