Charlie Buttrey

June 12, 2018

This recent article in VTDigger refreshed my memory of a true Civil War story involving a son of Thetford.

27-year-old Alansan Sanborn left Thetford and went to New York City and Washington to recruit men to serve under his command in the all-African-American 1st Union Colored Volunteers (by the end of the war, some 179,000 black men had served in the Union army, about 10% of the total).

On July 11, 1863 — a week after twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg — Lt. Sanborn was marching his troops through Norfolk, Virginia. While the details remain murky, words were exchanged between Sanborn and Dr. David Wright, a local dentist, slave-owner and devout Confederate supporter and, in the end, Wright pulled out a Colt revolver, shooting Sanborn twice. Sanborn was fatally injured.

Wright was arrested and tried before a military tribunal, which rejected his claim of self-defense, convicted him and sentenced him to death.

President Lincoln was besieged by pleas to spare Wright’s life and ordered the execution held in abeyance pending an evaluation of Wright’s sanity. The evaluation determined that Wright (who, ironically, had graduated from Vermont’s Norwich University in 1829) was sane, and the death penalty was confirmed.

Wright wasn’t done yet. A few days before his scheduled execution, several visitors came to Wright’s cell.  When they left, the jailer noticed that one of the women in the party seemed unusually tall. It was Wright, dressed in women’s clothing and wearing a veil, while his daughter climbed under the covers of his bed. Someone else offered a Western Union operator $20,000 in gold and passage to England on a Confederate ship if he would send a fake message to Norfolk saying that Lincoln had granted Wright a pardon. That trick didn’t work, either, and Wright was hanged on October 23, 1863.

Sanborn’s body was returned to Thetford, where some of his descendants live to this very day.

Tomorrow: The Sleeping Sentinal



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