“Women in War 1861-1865” exhibit opens Saturday

Posted May 02, 2012, at 4 p.m.

At the Bangor Museum and History Center, the marketing poster for the “Women in War 1861-1865” exhibit features an unusual photo, taken sometime after the Civil War, of a young woman holding and aimed a cocked rifle while wearing a Union Army kepi. The woman has not yet been identified. The exhibit will run from May 5, 2012 to March 30, 2013.

The Bangor Museum and History Center will unveil its new exhibit, “Women in War 1861-1865,” on Saturday, May 5, and visitors will learn about several local women who supported the Union during the Civil War.

Slated to run until March 30, 2013, the exhibit “will showcase how women broke out of proscribed gender roles,” said BMHC Executive Director Jennifer Pictou. “These women did something extraordinary” — such as serving as nurses and, in one situation, fighting with the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment — “while setting the groundwork for the future suffrage movement.”

Sponsored by Bangor Savings Bank, “Women in War 1861-1865” will incorporate period artifacts and photographs, a “walk-through” hospital tent, period dresses, and other displays to highlight the roles that local women played during the war. “We’re going to talk about all women,” Pictou said, but the exhibit will introduce particular women like Nancy Atwood, Josephine Baldwin, Mary Brown, Permalina Crowell, and Isabella Fogg.

“Bangor women played an enormously important role and often in unexpected ways,” Pictou said. “The exhibit puts faces and names to the contribution [that] women made to the war effort.”

For most of these women, their stories are pretty straightforward. Atwood joined the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment as a field nurse. In spring 1861, Baldwin spent three weeks “helping to sew 2,000 shirts, beds, pillows, blankets, and towels for the 2nd Maine ]Infantry] Regiment,” a BMHC press release indicated.

But one woman remains an enigma 150 years later. A Bangor woman named Ellen and nicknamed “Nellie” married Hartson Crowell of the 2nd Maine Infantry, a Bangor-area regiment. She tried to enlist, too, to go with him to Virginia. Crowell later divorced Nellie, and she vanished into history.

“What happened to Nellie?” Pictou rhetorically asked. “We have some mysteries that we’re going to supply what we know, and then we will ask visitors what they think happened.”

Located at 159 Union St., Bangor, the Bangor Museum and History Center will be open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday until March 30, 2013. “We are staying open later so we can accommodate people who want to come by after they get out of work,” Pictou said. “Our Saturday hours will be ideal for families to tour the exhibit.”

Dressed in period costume, a docent will be present each day to answer visitors’ questions. The docent “will engage visitors in discussions about women’s roles during the Civil War,” Pictou said.

She hopes that “people of all ages” will tour the exhibit, among the few statewide focusing on Maine women in the Civil War. “There is magic that happens when you have a multigenerational family come through a museum,” Pictou said. “For a grandparent and a grandchild, there is a bridge that happens when they talk about their experience and how it relates to their family life now.”

According to Pictou, the concept of “Women in War 1861-1865” began with two tintype photographs that each depict a Bangor woman in martial array. In one photograph, a young woman sports a Union kepi and holds a drum. In the other photograph, a young woman also wears a Union kepi; she kneels awhile tucking a cocked rifle into her shoulder and aiming at an off-camera target.

“We believe these women are sisters named Swett, but we can’t confirm that,” Pictou said. She described the physical resemblance between the women. The drummer appears younger, and the backgrounds indicate that both photographs were taken in the same location, possibly a studio or a theater.

As to when the photos were taken, one clue indicates a post-war date. The kepi worn by the young drummer bears the letters “GAR.” This reference to the Grand Army of the Republic dates the photo to at least spring 1866 and likely later.

The “Women in War 1861-65” poster incorporates the riflewoman’s image, which “embodies all that we want to get across with this exhibit,” Pictou said. “It’s a fabulous photograph. It celebrates the end of the war. We were celebrating the reunification of the country.”

Admission for “Women in War 1861-1865” is $5 per adult, $3 per senior citizen, free for active-duty military personnel with their identification, and free for children ages 12 and under.

For more information about the exhibit and the Bangor Museum and History Center, visit the museum on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bangor-Museum-and-History-Center/121641104770 or call (207) 942-1900.