AUGUSTA, Maine — In 1862, Joshua Chamberlain, a 34-year-old language professor at Bowdoin College, wrote to Maine’s governor saying he wanted to serve in the war between the North and the South, which he believed would not end unless men were willing to step forth and “defend the national existence.”
Israel Washburn asked confidants what they knew about Chamberlain. Attorney General Josiah Drummond replied that Chamberlain is “nothing at all: that is the universal expression of those who knew him.”
Nevertheless, Chamberlain joined the Army as a lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine, and went on to become a hero of the battle at Gettysburg in 1863. And now his letter seeking a military commission, as well as the attorney general’s letter casually dismissing him, are part of a series available for the public to view online on the Maine State Archive website.
Beginning Nov. 5, the archive had posted 160 letters and other documents that give personal glimpses of how the hostilities affected people’s lives. It includes images of original letters, transcriptions to help readers understand the script, graphics and narratives to give the letters context.
The website showcases some of what state archivist David Cheever calls the most comprehensive collection of Civil War material in any state. The archive has 180,000 letters from the Civil War period, more than 14,500 pages of muster rolls and over 2,000 soldier photographs.
Although some states have larger volumes, Maine has what Cheever believes is the most extraordinary variety of Civil War material, including photographs, letters, lithographs, muster rolls, battlefield reports and telegram transcripts.
Tracey Berezansky, past president of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, said that while there is no universal listing of all states’ Civil War material to make a state-to-state comparison practical, Maine could well have the most extensive collection among northern states.
But Berezansky, an assistant archivist in Alabama, said some southern states have very extensive collections. Her state, for example, has 220,000 cards summarizing the service of every Alabamian who served in the war, she said.
Cheever said interns from the University of Maine at Farmington and more than a dozen volunteers are helping archive staff, and he’d like to expand the website to as many as 400 entries.
“The crown jewel of the Maine State Archive collection is the Civil War material,” Cheever said.
Letters available on the website were penned not just by politicians and military officers, but by soldiers, their wives and widows, volunteers who made supplies such as shirts, socks and mittens for the soldiers, and those who were otherwise involved, including a woman who expressed her disappointment in the way some soldiers’ funerals were conducted.
Cheever sees the letters as important because they show the profound effect the war had on the state in myriad ways, from health care and race relations to intergovernmental relations, tax policy, business and banking practices.
“It changed everything about the state,” he said.
Perhaps the most captivating part about the letters is how they reflect the war’s impact on people’s everyday lives.
For example, Charles Doak, a 19-year-old from Bucksport who enlisted in the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, wrote on Dec. 30, 1861, about how he had spent Christmas while serving in Virginia. Some punctuation has been added and grammar modified in the following to make it clearer to readers.
“The day before Christmas we had to clean up our things, then we spent the evening in merriment. At nine o’clock we went to bed and had a pleasant nap ‘til morning then it was turn out to roll call, then it was a wish you merry Christmas all over the Regiment, then after that came breakfast,” Doak wrote.
Doak’s letter listed the menu: “Baked beans and hot biscuits and coffee, then we had turkey for dinner … baked beef and potatoes, then for supper we had fried donuts and hot tea.”
Charles Tilden of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment had a much more bleak message after serving in the battle at Fredericksburg in 1862. His regiment had 450 soldiers when the fighting started. By the end of the first day, more than half were dead, wounded or missing. The men, Tilden wrote, had represented “the Old Pine Tree State well, altho’ at a great Sacrifice.”
Samuel Grant of Hermon Pond, evidently brokenhearted that his 20-year-old son Amasa had enlisted, wrote to Washburn, “I positively forbid you or any one of sending him away for he is a minor and as I have control of him. I positively will not give my consent for him to go to war. Please send him home.”
Maine State Archive, Civil War Sesquicentennial letters: http:///tinyurl.com/2vt6f7j