Feature Story

From Southern Vermont to Sierra Leone: A Country Drive Led Me to Colonel/Consul Judson A. Lewis

My folks took Grandma and me for a country drive today. Today being Mother’s Day, my father, the designated wheelman for our tri-generational outings, commemorated the occasion with a longer than usual canvass of Rutland County’s back roads. In the course of our meandering, we stopped at several well maintained old cemeteries. We stopped at Riverside Cemetery in Ira, a tidy place of repose along Vermont 133 which contains markers primarily from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Farmland surrounds Riverside in three directions, but a quintessential Green Mountain backdrop endows the small cemetery with a sense of permanence and place. Later in our journey, we circled through Middletown Springs’ picturesque village center and stopped for a brief visit at the Old Cemetery, a tree-lined burial ground whose headstones date back to the generation of the town’s founding in 1784.

We made a final stop on our tour at the East Poultney Cemetery, a burial ground about two miles from the town’s revitalized main drag. Across the road from the East Poultney Cemetery stands a small Jewish Cemetery whose headstones date back to the late eighteenth century. Some of the headstones bear Hebrew and Yiddish inscriptions while others are rendered in English. Less than 100 yards up the road from the East Poultney Jewish Cemetery stands a marker that commemorates the site of the Poultney Union Church, which is described on the stone as the “Oldest Union Church in America. Founded Eight Years Before Religious Liberty was Made Constitutional. 1780.” The Poultney Historical Society’s excellent website (www.poultneyhistoricalsociety.org) includes descriptions of the history of the Union Church, which was created as both a meeting house and a house of worship to be jointly-used by the town’s Congregationalists and Baptists.

Back across the road at the East Poultney Cemetery, the most striking of the cemetery’s several hundred markers is a two-storey tall memorial statue to Col. Judson A. Lewis. The stone includes an additional inscription “To Our Country’s Defenders of Poultney, VT. Erected in Grateful Memory of Their Service by Mrs. Josephine A. Lewis In Memory of Her Husband, Col Judson A. Lewis. 1915.” The base of the memorial also includes a Masonic square and compass and the insignia of the Grand Army of the Republic. The statue that tops this memorial is a life-sized depiction of a Union Army infantryman standing contrapposto, his rifle and his right leg bearing the lion’s share of his weight.

The inscription in memory of Col. Lewis reads: “Col. Judson A. Lewis. Soldier, Patriot, Statesman. U.S. Consul in Africa Eleven Years. Born in Poultney, VT. 1840. Died At St Augustine, FLA. 1913.” Col. Lewis enlisted in the US Army during the Civil War in August 1862. He achieved the rank of Captain in 1865 before being discharged soon after the conflict ended. I have not been able to figure out how and when Lewis achieved the rank of Colonel. Following the Civil War, Lewis became a diplomat. He was appointed US Consul in Sierra Leone, which was soon to become a British protectorate after decades as an ambiguously governed British sphere of influence whose population included both indigenous Africans and the descendants of freed American slaves the British brought to West Africa following the American Revolution. During his tenure as US Consul in the 1870s and 1880s, Lewis facilitated the efforts of American Protestant missionaries to proselytize to the region’s indigenous population and to offer them educational opportunities and humanitarian aid. Additionally, Lewis worked to increase the availability of American made manufactured goods, in particular tools and building materials, in Sierra Leone. A series of “Monthly Consular and Trade Reports” published by the United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce available on Google Books (books.google.com) indicate that Consul Lewis succeeded at putting American firms in contact with British clients in Sierra Leone who were part of an effort to build up the protectorate’s infrastructure.

My brief perusal of Google, in particular Tom Ledoux’s encyclopedic Vermont in the Civil War website (www.vermontcivilwar.org), reveals at least one layer of the decision to depict Col. Lewis in the statue as an enlisted man rather than an officer. Col. Lewis enlisted as a private in 1862 and worked his way up to the rank of First Lieutenant by late 1864. He achieved the rank of Captain before the war’s end. The decision to depict Col. Lewis as a private and to include a tribute to Poultney’s generations of fighting men on his burial marker suggests that this man who achieved great personal success imbued his loved ones with a sense of humility about his place in the universe. The Colonel, who represented his country both as an officer in its armed forces and as a statesman thousands of miles from home, thought of himself primarily as that private from Poultney who enlisted in August 1862, just one of the many ordinary men in that cemetery who became a soldier.

Clayton Trutor

After publishing this article, Peggy Jenks has reported to us that the Judson Lewis monument was not originally erected in the East Poultney cemetery...it was originally erected at Green Mountain College! As evidenced by this picture from the college history, Judson first stood on the campus green. The monument was moved to the cemetery in 1959. Here's your challenge: why did they move it?