The 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry at the start of the Wilderness Campaign. Over 30 men from Cape Elizabeth served in Company E of the 17th Maine, which mustered at Camp Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The 17th Maine was a three-year regiment that experienced heavy fighting and losses during the war. Contributed / South Portland Historical Society

On Wednesday, May 22, at the South Portland Community Center, the South Portland Historical Society will hold a lecture by historian Paul Ledman, author of “A Maine Town Responds: Cape Elizabeth & South Portland in the Civil War.” Ledman will discuss how the Civil War impacted the town of Cape Elizabeth and how its residents responded to the war. At the outbreak of war in 1861, South Portland was still known as Cape Elizabeth and the southern section of the town had not yet broken off, so the roughly 3,200 residents of 1860 Cape Elizabeth were spread out over a much larger area that includes both present-day South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

Col. John Goddard from Cape Elizabeth organized the First Maine Cavalry, recruiting men with newspaper advertisements and personal appeals. Goddard never saw action as he resigned his commission before the regiment headed south to the battlefields. Contributed / South Portland Historical Society

One of those Cape Elizabeth residents who fought for the Union during the Civil War was Capt. Ezekiel Wescott of the 25th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Wescott was born in 1821, the son of Joseph and Betsey Jordan Wescott (Joseph and Betsey are buried at the Wescott Cemetery on Marcelle Avenue in South Portland).

In 1848, Ezekiel married Henrietta Low. They lived in the northern section of Cape Elizabeth and had at least five children: Charlotte (died at 3 years), Joseph, Eldora, William and Wendell. Having grown up on a farm, Ezekiel first worked as a farmer, like his father. In the 1860 census, he reported 67 acres of land, 7 acres of which were improved. His primary crop was potatoes, but he also grew peas and beans, barley and hay.

While his brother Elliott Wescott served for many years as a selectman for the town of Cape Elizabeth, Ezekiel worked as the town tax collector for a short time in the 1850s.

In 1862, Ezekiel Wescott was commissioned as an officer and became the captain of Company I in the 25th Maine Volunteer Infantry. This nine-month regiment mustered in at Camp Abraham Lincoln, in the Ligonia area of Cape Elizabeth, on Sept. 29, 1862. They were shipped down to Washington, D.C., where they served garrison duty (defense) from October to March; they were then sent to Chantilly, Virginia, where they did picket duty (watching for movements of the enemy) through June. Compared to most of the Union regiments, they had a pretty easy assignment and saw no battle. Of the roughly 1,000 soldiers in the regiment, they lost only 20 men during their period of service, all due to disease and sickness. The 25th Maine mustered out of service on July 10, 1863.

After returning from his service with the 25th Maine, Ezekiel Wescott turned away from farming. He began working as a teamster, hauling cargo by wagon to make a living. But his career eventually turned to construction and he became a well-known contractor in Cape Elizabeth, especially in the area of bridge construction. In the Portland Daily Press on May 20, 1886, it was reported that “Mr. Ezekiel Wescott has secured the contract for building the new wharf at Cape Cottage, and also for enlarging the wharf at Cushing’s Island.” In the summer of 1887, he was awarded a contract for “the piles and driving … for Back Bay sewer” in Portland. He retired in 1888 after a stroke resulted in paralysis of his right side.


During the Civil War, it was possible for a man to avoid serving in the military by hiring a substitute. Shown here is the document showing that James McDonald enlisted and mustered into service as a substitute for Elijah Hamilton. Contributed / South Portland Historical Society

Ezekiel Wescott died in 1892 at the age of 70. He is buried at Forest City Cemetery with his wife Henrietta.

Civil War lecture

South Portland Historical Society will hold its annual meeting on Wednesday, May 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the South Portland Community Center. A short business meeting will be followed by Ledman’s lecture. Ledman will trace how residents’ attitudes towards the war changed as they were impacted by events on the battlefield and in the political arena. Euphoria in the early days of relatively unquestioned patriotism gradually gave way to a more sober view as the reality of war took hold. Ultimately, these residents paid a high price, both in economic and human terms, for their participation in the war.

Some of the war costs borne by locals are easily quantified; for example, we can trace the growing expenditures incurred by the town due to its wartime commitments. Other costs can never be quantified. That was the very tragic human price that the town paid. Some men didn’t return from war, others returned severely wounded and traumatized, many families were fractured and would never be the same. We can’t measure this human toll, but what we can do is be aware that the people of 1865 were not the same people they had been in 1860.

In spite of all these changes, there were constants as well. The Civil War did not occur in a vacuum – Ledman will discuss how the underlying causes of the war go back to the very founding of the colonies. By 1860, many people in Cape Elizabeth had lived through crisis after crisis, which finally culminated in South Carolina seceding from the Union and then attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April of 1861.

All these crises stemmed from the contradiction between the concept that “all men are created equal” and the reality that slavery was not only legal but the very foundation of the country’s economy. Eventually this reality could not be ignored and could no longer be compromised away. Seen in this way, many had known that war was inevitable.

Towns would try to meet their quotas for service men by paying bounties to men who would agree to volunteer. Shown here is a Cape Elizabeth document showing men who received a $100 bounty from the town for enlisting. Bounty jumpers became a problem – men who would enlist and collect the bounty, only to then leave. Contributed / South Portland Historical Society

After four years of war, some of the issues facing the country were resolved on paper. Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment; the 14th and 15th Amendments expanded due process and expanded voting rights. Yet the actual implementation of these expanded rights remained to vex future generations. There is a straight, but tortuous, line from the Civil War to the fight for Civil Rights in the 1960s to racial gerrymandering and voter suppression today.

Ledman will provide this historical perspective to show how the differing values and attitudes of those 1860 Cape Elizabeth residents – and how they responded to events based on those beliefs – have been mirrored in every subsequent generation up through our own.

Admission to the lecture is free for current members of the South Portland Historical Society and $20 for non-members. Annual family memberships will be available for $25 at the lecture; please arrive early if you wish to join or renew your membership at the door. FMI, contact the historical society at 767-7299 or by email at

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is the executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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