Maine celebrates the Civil War sesquicentennial

Go back in time
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 30, 2013

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"Other than statehood itself, there has been no more disruptive or transformative event in the history of Maine" than the Civil War, says state archivist David Cheever, who oversees the most extensive collection of Civil War documents in the nation — everything from photographs of soldiers to battlefield reports to correspondence on government affairs. "It changed everything."

Consider that Maine sent a higher proportion of men to battle than any other state — about 80,000 soldiers and sailors. On the home front, women navigated new responsibilities while government officials fretted about the costs associated with mustering and supplying troops. While much of the fighting took place many states away (no Civil War land battles were fought on Maine soil, though the June 1863 Battle of Portland Harbor did bring the conflict close to home), Mainers' contributions on the frontlines were crucial and the effects at home were all-encompassing.

To that end, Peaks Island resident and Fifth Maine Museum curator Kim MacIsaac has spent the past three years organizing the Maine Civil War Trail, which opens this spring. Comprising more than 20 exhibit sites, the trail reaches along the coast from Kennebunk to Castine, and inland to Bethel and Bridgeton. In addition to providing an itinerary for Civil War buffs, the trail celebrates and explores lesser known economic, cultural, and political ramifications of "The War of Northern Aggression." (See sidebar, "Stops Along the Trail.")

After all, as Cheever delicately reminds us, "There is so much more [to Maine's Civil War history] than Joshua Chamberlain."

Maine's methods of commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial are diverse and illuminating, from the State Archives' Sesquicentennial Narratives Project, which draws on primary sources to develop readable historical anecdotes (tinyurl.com/civilwarnarratives); to Bowdoin College's "On This Day in Civil War History" blog, curated and maintained by the George Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives (tinyurl.com/bowdoincivilwarblog); to the Maine Memory Network's incredible online collection of Civil War-era materials (civilwar.mainememory.net).

THE SIXTEENTH MAINE

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the brutal Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1-3, 1863 and considered to be the war's turning point. The occasion of the sesquicentennial encourages us to look beyond the stories we already know, and to learn more about local legends.

"Essentially, when people think of the Civil War they think of the 20th Maine," says Daniel Lambert, art director and producer for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Sixteenth Maine at Gettysburg documentary, which will air this summer. Filmed last year at Gettysburg and at several Maine locations including the Brunswick Inn and the Viles Arboretum in Augusta, MPBN's Sixteenth Maine "really is a story that hasn't been told," Lambert says.

The story of the 20th Maine, and its famously daring bayonet defense of Little Round Top on Day Two of the fighting at Gettysburg, is indeed well known. We rarely hear, however, about Maine's 16th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of 14 other units from Maine that participated in the three-day battle. The regiment had already been through hell when it arrived in Gettysburg on Day One, having spent two months of the previous fall without basic necessities such as blankets or changes of underwear. By the end of 1862, the unit had already lost half its soldiers to sickness and disease.

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