July 29, 2011

The fate of the Union

This week, the Maine State Archives will launch a four-year commemoration of Maine's important role in the Civil War.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - It's one sentence at the end of a brief letter that infuses history with a remarkable sense of fate.

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Joshua Chamberlain, one of Maine's favorite sons, is shown in 1864.

Photos courtesy of the Maine State Archives

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A Civil War-era advertisement, dated 1861, calls for boys and girls to work nine hours a day in Bates Mill in Lewiston making cloth for soldiers' tents.

Additional Photos Below


Commemorative Events

Today: Open house, Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, Peaks Island, 1 to 4 p.m.; speakers, Civil War-era music and children’s activities; admission free.

Friday: “Saving the Union: The Call for Volunteers,” Augusta Civic Center, 1 p.m.; historical readings, musical performances and re-enactment groups; admission free.



Maine and the Civil War

Maine’s 1860 population: 628,279

Total number of Maine troops: 70,107

Maine men in Union Army: 56,000

Maine men in Union Navy: 14,000

Civil War veterans buried in Maine: 38,000

Total deaths during war: 9,398

Killed in battle: 3,184

Deaths from disease: 5,257

Deaths from disease in Confederate prisons: 541

Deaths by drowning and accidents: 118

Maine soldiers murdered: 13

Deaths from sunstroke: 16

Deaths by suicide: 5

Deaths by military execution: 5

Discharged for injury or illness: 5,820

Missing in action: 616

Sources: Maine State Archives and William Fox’s “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War”

It's also one of more than 300,000 Civil War-related items in the Maine State Archives -- and thousands more held by museums and historical societies across the state -- that are being dusted off and reviewed on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, the April 12-13 fight near Charleston, S.C., that triggered the bloodiest period in U.S. history.

The letter in question was written in July of 1862, more than a year into the war. Maine's attorney general, Josiah Drummond, sent the note from Portland to inform Gov. Israel Washburn that a pair of Falmouth militia officers were secessionists who planned to resist a draft into the war.

Drummond ended his letter with a scathing, by-the-way postscript on Washburn's plan to appoint Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College alumnus and professor, to an officer's post in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

"His old classmates etc. here say you have been deceived: that C. is nothing at all: that is the universal expression of those who know him."

Drummond underlined "nothing" for emphasis.

Washburn ignored Drummond's warning and appointed the reluctant Chamberlain lieutenant colonel of the regiment, which went on to distinguish itself a year later in the defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Chamberlain rose to the rank of brevetted major general and was shot several times during the war, sustaining injuries that plagued him until his death in 1914 at age 85. On April 12, 1865, Chamberlain, flanked by his men, presided over the formal surrender of arms by Confederate troops at Appomattox, Va.

After the war, he received the Medal of Honor, was elected governor four times, served as Bowdoin's president for more than a decade and remains one of Maine's favorite sons.

But what if Washburn had heeded Drummond's warning? What if Chamberlain had declined the appointment?

"Who knew what was going to become of these people?" said David Cheever, state archivist. "They were absolutely blind to the circumstances they were about to undertake. These were ordinary people in extraordinary times."

Nearly every Maine family at the time was touched by the war. About 70,000 Maine men were drafted or volunteered -- more than 10 percent of the overall population and about 60 percent of eligible men ages 18 to 45, Cheever said.

On Friday, the Maine State Archives will launch a four-year commemoration of the state's role in the Civil War with a special presentation, "Saving the Union: The Call for Volunteers," at the Augusta Civic Center. The 1 p.m. event will include historical readings by state officials, musical performances and re-enactment groups recalling Maine's entry into the war.

In addition, 27 museums and historical societies across the state are collaborating to create the Maine Civil War Trail and mount coordinated war-related exhibits in 2013, marking the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg.

The exhibits will stretch from the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath to the Bangor Historical Society. They will tell the story of draft riots in Kingfield and children in Lewiston mills making cloth for soldiers' tents.

The trail is being organized by Kim MacIsaac, director of the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum on Peaks Island, which is holding an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. today.

"Maine's role in the Civil War is largely unknown today," MacIsaac said. "Everyone knows about Joshua Chamberlain, but that's just the tip of the iceberg."

Despite its relatively small population -- just 628,279 residents in 1860 -- Maine was a fast-growing and influential state because of its manufacturing, shipping, forestry and fishing industries, MacIsaac said.

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Additional Photos

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A letter by Attorney General Josiah Drummond warned Gov. Israel Washburn in 1862 against appointing Chamberlain lieutenant colonel.

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