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Maple for the Troops, a Longstanding Tradition

The Whitehill sugar house in Ryegate.

Operation Maple Sweetness, a collaboration between Vermont maple producers, various Vermont maple organizations, state agencies, and the Vermont National Guard, sends Vermont maple syrup to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This tradition extends back to the Civil War, when Vermont soldiers welcomed sugar from home.

UVM’s Special Collections holds a number of Civil War letters and diaries that document the soldiers’ enthusiasm for maple sugar shipments, including the letters of William Henry Harrison Whitehill, a private from Ryegate, Vermont.  Whitehill, who served in the 10th Vermont Infantry, Company A from 1862-1865, regularly corresponded with cousins Quincy and Louisa Whitehill back home.  Four of the twelve Whitehill letters include sections on maple sugar.

In May 1863, Whitehill, writing from Camp Heintzelman near Poolesville, Maryland (where, according to the regimental history, “life was one heyday of listless, almost ideal pleasure” and the soldiers were “yet strangers to war”), Whitehill told his cousin, “I am much obliged to you for the cake of sugar you sent me.  I have got some of it yet.” While Whitehill appreciated the taste of home, he also remarked on its value as a commodity.  “Maple sugar sells first rate.  It is worth 25¢ a pound. I sold one cake about like the one you sent me.”

The following spring, Whitehill decided to take advantage of the local demand and a potential supply from Vermont. He wrote to his uncle, Andrew Whitehill, from a camp near Brandy Station, Virginia, asking “I want to know how you are getting along making sugar this spring.  I want to know what you could afford to send me.”  He hoped for “50 or 60 pounds run in small cakes from ½ to 5 pounds each.”  Whitehill asked his uncle to tell him the cost of the sugar and the shipping, and promised to send the money as soon as he heard from him.  He also advised him to “be sure and mail the box up tight so that it will not break open.”

A few weeks later, Whitehill let his cousin know that he had the money and expected the sugar would arrive soon.  Luckily he had been able to meet the immediate demand with 50 pounds of maple sugar that his father’s folks sent.  He worried that the unit might move out before his uncle’s sugar arrived, and he was relieved that “the rest of the boys run all the risk.”  Whitehill complained, “The suttler is selling sugar in little cakes at the rate of nearly a dollar a pound,” a price he could not bring himself to charge.  In a letter later that fall, Whitehill admitted to some hard fighting in the summer, but quickly turned the letter to agricultural activities back home, asking about the apple crop and the current price of sugar.

In January 1865, Whitehill wrote from a camp near Weldon Railroad in Virginia to answer his cousin’s inquiry about sending more sugar.  Although he acknowledged that if “I had it here now it would sell very well, the likelihood of troop movements make it risky to send it.”  He sounded a bit wistful, knowing that he “could sell it for 50¢ a pound in cakes,” twice what he sold it for in the spring of 1863.

After the war, William H. H. Whitehill emigrated to Iowa while his cousin Quincy took over the family farm in Ryegate.  Like many Vermonters who went west, William may have continued to depend on his cousin for annual shipments of maple sugar and syrup.

For more information about Civil War letters and diaries, see Jeffrey Marshall’s Vermonters in the Civil War: Manuscripts in the Special Collections Department, Universityof Vermont Library.  Wilbur open stacks, Z692.M28 U57 2004

To see more photos of the Whitehill farm in Ryegate, visit the Vermont Landscape Change Project.

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