Keeping the home fires burning — Belfast during the Civil War

Megan Pinette of the Belfast Historical Museum points out details from the new exhibit on the home front in Belfast during the Civil War.
Megan Pinette of the Belfast Historical Museum points out details from the new exhibit on the home front in Belfast during the Civil War. Buy Photo
Posted June 30, 2013, at 6:43 a.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Nearly 150 years ago, the tide of the Civil War seemed to be rolling against the Union troops.

Bloody battles were being fought, and lost. Morale was low. But when Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general-in-chief of all the Union armies in 1864, it energized many supporters of the Union armies — including a group of young women in Belfast.

“They got inspired by Ulysses S. Grant,” Megan Pinette, president of the Belfast Historical Society and Museum, said Thursday. “He just struck them.”

And so those 22 ladies — who had diligently been making bed quilts for soldiers which often were used as burial shrouds — decided to make something a little bigger. They carefully pieced together red, white and blue pieces of fabric to make a large flag quilt. A woman with fine handwriting delicately wrote the names of all the quilters on the white stripes of the flag and inspirational mottos in every star.

When it was finished that summer, the ladies held a supper and a dance, then sent it to Armory Square Hospital, Ward 26, in Washington, D.C., where it was likely shown to soldier patients.

“It was an inspirational quilt,” Pinette said.

That quilt made its way back to Belfast — but it took until 2011 to get here. Now newly conserved, it’s the centerpiece of this summer’s special exhibit, “Belfast During The Civil War-The Home Front.” The museum is one of 23 historical societies and museums around the state that are part of the Maine Civil War Trail, with special exhibits to tell the stories of Maine’s 70,000 soldiers and residents who worked at home or behind the scenes for the war effort.

Pinette said that the war affected the 5,000-person city in large and small ways, even though its battles mostly were fought in faraway locations. Belfast had nine recruitment centers to keep up with volunteer enlistments from the area and neighboring counties. Belfast soldiers saw action in battles including Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and of the 858 men who served in the Army or Navy during wartime, more than 100 were killed of wounds, disease or in rebel prisons.

The C.P. Carter shipyard built a gunboat, the USS Penobscot, in the record time of 90 days, and gun batteries were erected on both sides of the city’s outer harbor to protect against raiders from the south. When Confederate troops seized a revenue cutter ship in Portland Harbor, that set off “all sorts of alarm bells” up and down the Maine coast, Pinette said.

Also, money was scarce, so bartering became very common. At the museum, the exhibit showcases newspaper ads for butter and eggs in exchange for wallpaper and curtains.

Pinette described how a shopkeeper accepted an egg from a girl who wanted thread by putting the egg into the store’s cash drawer.

“Even though it was a big town and prosperous, the war was still affecting them,” she said.

During the war, people would come to Post Office Square to read or listen to the latest telegraphic dispatches from the war, Pinette said. They’d hear about battles, get information on casualties and otherwise absorb the news of the day.

“A lot of people would come there to meet,” she said.

Many of those people also were getting mail from their boys at the front. One Belfast volunteer, Billy Burgess, wrote a dozen letters home to his family. In one, he described how bodies of the dead were piled up “two to three tiers deep.”

“I wish I was in Boston Bay, reefing topsails in the dead of winter — it would be better than this place,” he wrote.

The Belfast Museum, 10 Market St., Belfast, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday until Labor Day and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Saturday until Columbus Day. Admission is free. For information, call 338-9229.

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