ORONO — In 2011, The United States began the sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War. Over the next two years, communities across the country, federal and state governments, and civic organizations will conduct a range of educational programs, parades, reenactments and other events to mark a major period in American history. Unfortunately, during this time of celebration and reflection, Orono’s last surviving Civil War veteran will likely remain out of view, tucked away in a storage facility, too ravaged by time and the elements to be on public display. It is a sad truth for Orono, a town, which like so many other Maine communities, played an outsized role in helping win the war.
From 1861 to 1865, more than three million men served in the combined armies of the North and South. Thousands more, including many brave and selfless women, served the war effort as civilians. Of those who served, more than 600,000 soldiers and an estimated 50,000 civilians would perish; far exceeding the combined total of losses from all other wars in American history. Hundreds of thousands of other veterans survived the war, but suffered from terrible wounds for the remainder of their lives. Maine’s support for the Union effort was especially strong; the state provided more than 70,000 soldiers and sailors, the highest such figure relative to state population in the Union. Of those who served, more than 9,300 perished from wounds or sickness, a truly staggering sum in any era, but especially devastating during a time in which Maine’s population was less than half of what it is today. It was a rare Maine family not touched personally by the ravages of the Civil War.
In the years following the end of the war, the people of Maine erected 175 Civil War monuments across the state to honor the enormous sacrifices made by its citizens. The people of Orono joined their fellow communities and in 1890 erected a simple statue in the middle of downtown, which then became known as Monument Square. The statue is of a single soldier of the time, a proud representative of the rank and file of Maine’s combat regiments. Over the years, as Orono grew and changed, the statue was moved many times, before eventually finding a home in Webster Park. Through all those years, Orono’s veteran stoically endured the elements. The arrival of spring each year, however, found him a little more frail and broken than the year before.
Each of the Maine Civil War monuments has faced the ravages of time and elements. Some have aged less gracefully than others, but most remain in their place of honor in each community. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for Orono’s monument, which, in 2008 was deemed too unsafe to remain on public display. Statues may seem timeless and enduring, but as Orono’s veteran can attest, they are not immune to the forces of nature. The Orono monument fared especially hard over the last 100 years, due in large part to its construction. Unlike many other statues or monuments of the era, which were generally solid cast metal or carved stone; the Orono statue consists of a metal skin overlaid upon an inner frame. Seams in the structure proved to be weak points, allowing moisture to penetrate, freeze and open cracks in the metal skin. A full restoration project is needed to repair this damage and ensure that the proud Orono veteran is returned to duty in time to join the 2015 commemoration of the end of the Civil War.
The Orono Historical Society, with the support of the Orono Town Council, is leading the effort to repair and re-erect the statue. For more than a decade members have held fund raising funds to repair the statue but the amount raised is a mere fraction of the cost needed. A concerted push by the Orono community is needed to raise the funds and allow restoration work to begin. Donations may be submitted by mail to: Orono Historical Society, PO Box 324, Orono, ME 04473.
In addition, Margarita’s Restaurant in downtown Orono will host a special fund raising event on Monday, June 24, with 15 percent of each diner’s tab donated to the statue restoration fund.
Civil War monuments in Maine range from the grand to the simple in form, but far more important than the grandeur or artistic form of the monument, is whether the community has preserved its sacred bond with the sacrifices of past generations. The purpose of every monument is to serve as a visible reminder of that solemn bond: to forever remind today’s citizens that the enormous sacrifices made by those men and women in times past still matter as much today as they did 150 years ago.