ON THURSDAY, author Tom Huntington will speak at the Pejepscot Historical Society’s Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum about his new book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

ON THURSDAY, author Tom Huntington will speak at the Pejepscot Historical Society’s Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum about his new book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

BRUNSWICK

N early 40 years ago, Tom Huntington lived in the fraternity house that neighbored the home of Maine’s most famous Civil War hero, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain.

On Thursday, Huntington will speak in that very house, now the Pejepscot Historical Society’s Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum, about his new book “Maine Roads to Gettysburg.”

The event is part of the historical society’s Chamberlain Happy Hour event series, which features new research on the Civil War and Chamberlain on the third Thursday of the month from May to September.

In his book, Huntington goes “beyond Chamberlain” to tell the stories of hundreds of Mainers who fought for the

Union in the Battle of Gettysburg. With a topic like that, said PHS Executive Director Larissa Picard,

“this was a no brainer for us.”

But Huntington, an Augusta native and former student at Bowdoin, wasn’t always interested in the Civil War. It wasn’t until he moved to Washington, D.C., where the history is embodied in statues and monuments throughout the city, and later to Pennsylvania, where he began editing a history magazine, that he got hooked on the war — Gettysburg in particular.

 

 

“Maine Roads to Gettysburg” is his fourth book that centers on the “Civil War’s bloodiest” battle, which took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1-3, 1863.

“The more you look at that battle, the more it splits up into its component molecules, and you can chase stories off in every direction,” Huntington said. “And it just never gets old for some people, like me.”

The Maine connection

The decision to write about Maine’s involvement in Gettysburg was simultaneously personal and broader than that. Hunthington wanted to forge a connection between his home state and his area of study that was “not just Joshua Chamberlain.”

“There were so many other Maine soldiers who fought at Gettysburg,” he said. “You can kind of tell the story over all three days just by pinpointing where Maine soldiers were during important parts of the battle.”

There were soldiers from the 16th Maine Regiment, the 17th Maine Regiment, the Second Maine Battery and the Fifth Maine Battery, who fought alongside Chamberlain’s famous 20th Maine Regiment. Huntington’s goal was to tell their stories.

Over a two-year period of research, which took him from Gettysburg to the Bowdoin College Special Collections and Archives to the Maine State Archives in Augusta, Huntington shuffled through thousands of soldiers’ business documents, diary entries and letters in hopes of finding those “human interest stories.” He uncovered their personalities, their gossip, their desires.

He learned about Adelbert Ames of Rockland, who went to West Point (“A strict disciplinarian … very military”) and later played golf with John D. Rockefeller. Or Ellis Spear, once a schoolteacher from Wiscasset who complained to his friend Ames about Chamberlain’s pompous attitude (“He was a very sardonic, funny man”).

Or Abner Small from Waterville, whose 16th Maine Regiment was tasked with stalling a Confederate division at Gettysburg. Knowing fully well that it was a suicide mission, he and his regiment decided to rip up the Union flag and distribute a piece to each soldier, refusing to surrender the flag to the Confederates. Small kept the piece in his pocket. He survived the battle and wrote about it in his memoir. Looking through scrapbooks at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, Huntington found Small’s piece of the flag.

“That was one of the coolest parts of the whole research process, finding that,” he said.

Perhaps cooler, though, was discovering that his great-grandfather had served in the Army as part of the 31st Maine Regiment, fighting from 1864 until the end of the war. He was even buried in the same cemetery as Huntington’s grandparents.

Huntington relishes in those personal connections, or at least the sensation of a personal connection, that can only be felt when reading someone’s private journal or intimate letters to loved ones.

Such letters can be redeeming, where separation over time can make it easy to forget that soldiers and officers in the Civil War were real people with lives and ambitions outside of war. For instance, Huntington found a collection of letters from Oliver Howard, a “pretty terrible general” from Maine, who was and is so remembered for his mediocre performances at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Along with the letters, Howard sent sketches and drawings to his children.

“You really get a sense of him as a person, as a family man,” said Huntington.

Similarly, where letters can paint a rosy image of soldiers’ experiences, they can often also be a reminder of the horrors of war. To John French, a young soldier from Vassalboro, the war was an adventure. He wrote breathless letters home to his parents and sister, attempting to capture all of the sights of the big cities. He was shot at Fredericksburg, and died at a hospital in Washington soon after.

At the beginning of the war, “He wrote to his parents, ‘I think I’m going to be in the Army for quite a while until we finish this thing.’ And it ended up finishing him instead,” said Huntington.

Unflinching picture

Some may find his book a violent wake-up call, but that was part of his goal.

“That’s war,” Huntington. “War is hell, war is violent, and I hope I did capture that part of it, too, because that’s what these young men were facing when they went to war.”

“I think people are still trying to work out that terribly wrenching time in our country’s history,” said Picard, of the historical society. “And any additional information and understanding of what happened and what it felt like from the people who lived it — I think people hunger for that information.”

Huntington doesn’t plan on stopping telling wartime stories any time soon. Maybe he’ll follow the Maine soldiers, including his great-grandfather, to the end of the war; maybe then he’ll explore their lives post-war, with the experience of trauma. To Huntington, the number of “Maine Roads” in the “cauldron of war” are endless, and endlessly fascinating.

“When you’re writing about people and wartime you’re seeing the extremes of human behavior. You’re seeing extreme heroism and goodness, sometimes you’re seeing cowardice and deceit. But you’re seeing the human condition in all its incredible variety,” he said. “And the real people do seem to emerge out of that.”

Huntington will speak at the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, with light snacks and drinks available at 5 p.m. Space is extremely limited; R.S.V.P. required. Tickets are free for Chamberlain docents, $5 for Pejepscot Historical Society members and $10 for the public; pay at the door. If there is sufficient demand, Huntington may give a second talk.

For more information or to R.S.V.P., call the Pejepscot Historical Society at (207) 729-6606.

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