Notes from the Director: The Civil War

The introductory panel for "This Rebellion: Maine and the Civil War," our 2014-2014 museum exhibit.
The introductory panel for “This Rebellion: Maine and the Civil War,” our 2014-2014 museum exhibit.

We are at the epicenter of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, a moment that is drawing vast attention across the country and here in Maine. This week marks the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, widely considered the turning point of the war and a moment with which Maine is closely identified.

We, as a nation, continue to be obsessed with the Civil War. Why? What does it mean to us? Typical of history, there is fierce debate over its causes and significance: Was it about preserving the Union? Economics? Slavery? States rights? There is still little consensus. (Journalist/historian Tony Horwitz’s article in the recent The Atlantic provides a quick and useful summary of the historiography of the Civil War.)

The Civil War is also a moment to which Maine is closely tied, and of which we are justly proud. Our very statehood was tied to the Missouri Compromise, and issues and deep divides that had been unresolved since the founding of the country. Many cite Maine’s high per capita participation as evidence of our outsized contributions to the war effort. And, of course, there is the story of Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Civil War marked a moment of significant transition: it came on the heels of a time of great prosperity in Maine, and accelerated major economic and demographic shifts that had a dramatic impact on the state going forward.

MHS’s new exhibit This Rebellion: Maine in the Civil War, which opened on Friday, is particularly interested in personal stories: how did Mainers experience the War? What did it mean to their lives? The stories in the exhibit are told through the objects that families held onto—items that they felt were significant, that they saved, and that they donated to institutions like MHS. I am guessing that many of you have your own family stories and artifacts that serve as personal touchstones to the Civil War.

Civil War related items available in our museum store.
Civil War related items available in our museum store.

We are particularly proud of the exhibit’s Memorial Wall which lists the names of nearly 9,000 Mainers who served in Maine regiments and died in the War. It like, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington DC, provides an extremely powerful way to experience the impact of war. I hope that you’ll have a chance to see it, and to look for a familiar name, or a soldier from your community.

MHS will provide many opportunities to explore and consider the Civil War’s legacy in the year ahead. We look forward to seeing you, and to the many conversations that the sesquicentennial will stimulate.


Student Interns Contribute to New Civil War Exhibit

“This Rebellion,” the 2013-2014 MHS museum exhibit, opens to the public on June 28 and will be up through May 26, 2014. A special Members’ Only exhibit opening takes place on Thursday, June 27, from 5-7PM.

Memorializing Civil War Soldiers

Eben Calderwood engraved his name on this ring to ensure he could be identified. (Collections of Maine Historical Society)
Eben Calderwood engraved his name on this ring to ensure he could be identified. (Collections of Maine Historical Society)

At some point during Eben Calderwood’s seven months as a private in Co. H of the 21st Maine Infantry Regiment, he purchased a ring engraved with his name, hometown, company, and regiment.

Calderwood of Vinalhaven, who had been a fisherman, was 39 years old and had a wife and five children when he enlisted in the nine-month regiment on October 11, 1862. In the era before dog tags, soldiers often pinned or wrote their names in their clothing or found other ways—like Calderwood’s ring—to make sure they could be identified if anything happened to them.

Letter from Eben Calderwood to wife, from Baton Rouge, 1863. (Collections of Maine Historical Society)
Letter from Eben Calderwood to wife, from Baton Rouge, 1863. (Collections of Maine Historical Society)

On May 17, 1863, during the Siege of Port Hudson, Calderwood became one of more than nine thousand Mainers who died during the war. Family legend is that his death, and that of other soldiers, was caused from drinking poisoned water. The family saved the ring—an unusual artifact to survive the war, especially since Calderwood was buried in the Baton Rouge National Cemetery in Louisiana. The family also saved his letters home along with other documents and ultimately donated them to MHS, enabling us to become familiar with him.

Calderwood’s story is one of many that will be told in the new museum exhibit This Rebellion: Maine and the Civil War. Battlefield relics, uniforms, documents, letters, paintings, photographs, and evidence of post-war commemorative activities are the core of the exhibit, and help bring to life the people and events of the Civil War era.

The Memorial Wall

One important element of This Rebellion will be a Memorial Wall that will list the names of more than 8,000 members of Maine regiments who died or were killed during the war. No comprehensive record like this has existed and developing it has been possible in large part because of the hard work of student researchers.

Candace Kanes, curator of Maine Memory Network and curator of This Rebellion, enlisted the help of University of Southern Maine Associate Professor of History Libby Bischoff, who recruited two students in the fall semester and two in the spring to work on the project.

The students went through the Maine Adjutant General’s Report for each year of the war, page by page, looking for “remarks” that indicate a soldier was killed, died of disease or accident, or was missing in action. They used a spreadsheet to record the soldier’s name, rank, company, regiment, hometown as well as the date, cause, and location of death, if given.

The Memorial Wall will not include every detail recorded, but we hope to make the spreadsheet available to researchers—and hope to be able to add to it in the future. The list of names will be incomplete, as it will not include those Mainers who fought for regiments in other states, or, like black soldiers, for federal regiments; nor the names of sailors who died.

Ellie Brown and Andrew Robinson, who worked on the project during the fall 2012 semester.
Ellie Brown and Andrew Robinson, who worked on the project during the fall 2012 semester.

Ellie Brown of Brunswick, who is majoring in history and minoring in studio art, is especially interested in American history from the colonial period to the Civil War. She worked on the project during the fall 2012 semester, and identified more than 1,200 names of soldiers who had died or were missing in 1862. She said, “The most lasting impression I got from the project was simply the realization of just how many men died during the war. It is one thing to be told and to know that 8,000 or 9,000 men from Maine died during the war, but another to spend hours and hours writing down the names of each of those men. It certainly changed my own understanding of the Civil War.”

Also working during the fall was Andrew Robinson, 26, a senior history major and economics minor from Dover-Foxcroft. Robinson said his academic interests have centered on 20th century U.S. foreign policy, especially in Southeast Asia. Working on compiling names of Civil War deaths, he said, “has given me the opportunity to work from primary sources, creating a database and information platform for further research.” He compiled names some 1,250 names from 1861 and 1863.

Robinson added, “Searching through the names of those who served and the towns they were from helped to humanize the enormity of the Civil War. Often, discussions of the Civil War focus on politics, the reasons for war, and the reasons for its outcome. This project, for me, has shed light on the social aspect of this war, allowing me to interact with the research through previous knowledge of the state of Maine and many of the municipalities mustering soldiers. ”

Matthew Rodney worked on Adjutant General's reports from 1862 and 1864-65.
Matthew Rodney worked on Adjutant General’s reports from 1862 and 1864-65.

During the spring semester, Matthew Rodney of Litchfield, a senior double major in history and classical humanities, worked on Adjutant General’s reports from 1862 and 1864-65, entering 3,164 names into the database. While his primary interest is in ancient history and the classics, Rodney said, “Working on this project has made me realize the true nature of the Civil War. It’s something that is always taken for granted, but when you see 60 names of young boys all from the same town among the dead you realize just how devastating this war really must have been for the country and our state. I feel very privileged to be working on collecting these names so that they can be displayed to the public and truly reflected upon.”

Amanda Fawn Leach compiled 3,069 names from 1864-65.
Amanda Fawn Leach compiled 3,069 names from 1864-65.

Amanda Fawn Leach, a native of Alfred, who now lives in Portland, is graduating this spring with a major in history with plans to continue on to a doctoral program. In her free time, Leach enjoys the theater and great food and wine. She compiled 3,069 names from 1864-65. She called the project “a wonderful experience” and said it “solidified her love of historical research, even at its most basic level.”

Post-Mortem Portraits

Leading off this week’s This Week at MHS e-newsletter is this rather startling image–to modern eyes, anyway. Post-mortem photography emerged soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 and evolved over the course of the 19th century. Photography, more affordable than commissioning a painted portrait, enabled families to memorialize loved ones and became commonplace.

The fact that it would be considered almost taboo today (at least in Western culture) says a lot about changing attitudes regarding death and dying over the past two centuries. In the mid-19th century and prior, death itself was more commonplace and closer to home. Over time, medical advances and the transition to the hospital as where one went to die created a distance between the living and the dying that hadn’t been as pronounced as before.

The subject of this ca. 1843 portrait is Mrs. William H. Herbert, daughter of George Barker, a ship captain in Bangor. Read more about this item and, if you choose to, view another post-mortem photograph of a child on Maine Memory.