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Civil War hits home in Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — For the last three years, Candace Kanes has shown up most work days at the Maine Historical Society and immersed herself in the handwritten letters of soldiers sent from Civil War battlefields to friends and family back home in Maine.

"I am so moved by the letters the soldiers wrote, the letters the families wrote and all the correspondence relative to the war," she said, leading a tour of the new exhibition she curated, "This Rebellion: Maine and the Civil War."

"If you dive in at a more personal level, you get a different sense of the war. At that personal level, the politics and the other factors that led to war become less the focus, and it becomes more about the human aspect of the war. We hope this exhibition explains what it meant to be soldiers. They write about what they think of Lincoln, their own commanders and things like that."

The exhibition, which opened last week and will remain on view into May 2014, frames the war in the context of Maine, its soldiers and toll paid by the state and its citizens. Because of the battlefield leadership of Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment, Maine has received a lot of attention for its role in the war.

Maine Historical's "This Rebellion" does not dwell on Chamberlain and Gettysburg, and instead tells the Civil War story through the letters and artifacts of everyday Mainers who served. Many of the hundreds of items on view were donated to the historical society over the years by the families of soldiers who served.

The exhibition includes photos, letters and artifacts. Battlefield relics, uniforms, documents, letters, various objects, paintings, photographs and evidence of post-war commemorative activities bring to life people and stories from the 1860s.

Among the most interesting are woolen soldier uniforms, a crude surgical kit used for field amputations, a neck chain worn by a slave and a Confederate Forever Flag left behind at the prison in Thomaston. The Confederate soldier who owned the banner was captured in Maine, turned in by his own brother who lived in York.

He escaped from prison, and left the banner behind. His brother claimed it, and the family donated it to the historical society.

The surgical kit belonged to Charles W. Oleson, who enlisted as a private in 1862 and became a surgeon the following year. The kit includes five knives, a double-edged knife, a saw, scalpel, tweezers and a pair of scissors.

There's a handwritten telegram from Ulysses S. Grant to Gen. George F. Shepley of Maine, announcing the surrender of Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee.

Some perspective is necessary to understand the magnitude of the Civil War in Maine. The state's population was about 628,000 when the war began. About 70,000 of those people served in the war, including 56,000 in the Union army and another 14,000 in the Union navy.

Maine suffered 9,398 deaths, including 3,184 battlefield deaths.

For the first time, Maine Historical has assembled a wall memorializing those who died in the war. The Memorial to Maine Soldiers wall includes the names of about 8,500 Mainers who died in the war. It is similar in concept to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., except that the names are printed on panels, which can be removed and transported for travel.

In the short time the exhibition has been open, people have crowded the hallway where the panel is displayed, looking for names of family members and others who died in service to the country. The historical society also includes a place where people can add names to the wall.

The panel is incomplete, but includes all the names the historical society could document.

"We thought it would be moving to visually represent these names. It's the first time the names of people from Maine who died in the war have been brought together like this," Kanes said. "It's interesting to see the names, even if you don't know anyone. Just seeing the names has more impact than just hearing the numbers."

Eventually, a digital version of the wall will be available, she added.

Maine Historical Society Executive Director Steve Bromage expects the exhibition will draw big crowds to downtown Portland over the next few months. The 150th anniversary of the war has generated a lot of attention, and the Civil War, more than most U.S. wars, captures the imagination of people, he said.

"It's a story in American history that people are fascinated with. It's big and meaty and was clearly a defining moment in American history," he said. "With the anniversary at hand, people are focused on it again now, and it's a great opportunity for us to engage people in history in a variety of ways."

That Maine played a major role in the war only adds to the interest, he said. "Our statehood was tied to issues that led up to the war. Maine became a state because of the imperfect political solution that was the Missouri Compromise, which tried to address issues that led to the war," he said.

"And of course we have heroic stories, such as Chamberlain at Gettysburg. Mainers happened to be positioned in a place at the right moment in a significant battle, and played a distinct and important role. Heroism and heroics and that kind of battlefield pride is part of the Maine story, as well."

He loves the approach that Kanes took with this exhibition, because of the human element.

"History does touch everybody," he said. "A lot of people think they are not interested in history, but it's the individual stories, the objects and the tangible material that people can connect to," he said.

bkeyes@pressherald.com
 

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