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.

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The Real Impact of “Paul Revere’s Ride”

Illustration and poem, Paul Revere's Ride, ca. 1880

In the most recent issue of The American Scholar, Harvard University professor of American history Jill Lepore offers a keen analysis of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most famous–and one of his most widely debated–poems, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

“How Longfellow Woke the Dead” examines how the poem was read in Longfellow’s day as a “bold statement of his opposition to slavery” and why it deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been by scholars over the years. Timely, given that the poem was published on the eve of the Civil War (while ostensibly being about the Revolution), and that we are about to begin marking that war’s Sesquicentennial.

Lepore simultaneously redeems Maine’s most famous poet from the various critics, particularly in the 20th century, that made a sport out of “shooting down Longfellow’s [so-called] greeting-card verse.” After all, there’s nothing wrong, she explains, with being a poet who “loved writing poems that everyone would read, poems that everyone could read, poems in which people, unsophisticated people, even little people, might find pleasure and solace.”

Amen to that!