By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
BELFAST, Maine — A course offered this month at Senior College of Belfast will examine the Civil War’s impact on Belfast civilians — and civil liberties, especially those pertaining to a local newspaper editor arrested and charged with treason in 1864.
The course, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War,” takes its name from a 2008 book authored by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, now president of Harvard University. Classes will be held 1-3 p.m., Thursdays, starting Jan. 9 and running through Jan. 30, at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center, 80 Belmont Ave., in Belfast. The instructors are Megan Pinette, Belfast Historical Society president, and Bob Rackmales of Northport, a senior Foreign Service retiree and member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.
Gilpin’s book, the impetus for a Ric Burns documentary on PBS, examines how the tremendous loss of life [current estimates place the military death toll at 700,000 men] affected American society. Because the Senior College course is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded “Local and Legendary: Maine in the Civil War” program, Belfast will be its focus.
Students will see excerpts from Burns’ documentary, and Pinette will talk about the many roles played by Belfast women as the war progressed. Rackmales will discuss how the war affected civil liberties, especially as experienced by Belfast newspaper publisher William H. Simpson.
Born in Belfast on Sept. 24, 1825, Simpson later owned, edited and published the Republican Journal. Despite its name, the paper vehemently opposed the Abraham Lincoln administration and the war.
On July 22, 1864, Simpson published an editorial titled “More Victims for the Slaughter Called for, A Draft for 500,000 Men Ordered.” Citing Lincoln’s call for another half million soldiers to defend the Union, Simpson saw the draft as sending “the young men of this nation to be sacrificed on the battlefield, to be mangled and torn by shot, to yield up their limbs, or their lives in this inhuman conflict.”
Simpson went on to write, “It really seems as though Lincoln, envying the fame of Gengis Khan, was going to build a tower of skulls that would overtop that of the sanguinary Tartar.” Noting the impending national election that fall, he asked, “Will the people vote for another four years of this work …?”
The Republican-dominated legal establishment responded immediately. Based in Bangor, United States Attorney George F. Talbot convened a federal grand jury and convinced its members in August that Simpson “feloniously, traitorously, and wickedly did assist and give aid and comfort to a rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the said United States.”
On Thursday, Aug. 11, 1864, a United States deputy marshal politely arrested Simpson for treason and escorted him to Bangor. At 10 a.m., Friday, Simpson stood in a courtroom and heard the indictment read against him.
Fortunately, the charges were later dropped.
According to Rackmales, Simpson’s editorial represented widespread opposition to the war, especially after the 50,000 casualties incurred during the spring 1864 “Overland Campaign” executed by Ulysses S. Grant. In Maine, “mobs, even militias tried to obstruct the war [effort] early on,” Rackmales said, and some arrested militia leaders went to a political prison at Fort Lawrence, N.Y.
Simpson’s case “represents an aspect of the war that hasn’t received a lot of attention,” Rackmales said. “It seemed to me there was this very area of politics that was important.”
Rackmales, who suspects that Simpson “wanted to be arrested,” will present the treason case to students on Jan. 16; students will serve as a de facto federal grand jury, hearing the same evidence that Talbot presented almost 150 years ago.
Pinette will speak on “Women in Belfast” on Jan. 23, and the four-week course will wrap up with a discussion on Jan. 30.
“This Republic of Suffering” is among 19 classes being offered this winter at the Senior College of Belfast.
For information, go to belfastseniorcollege.org. Students must belong to the Senior College to take particular classes; membership is $25 per year, from Sept. 1-Aug. 31. The first course per term costs $30; each additional course costs $25.