AUGUSTA — Daniel Marston and his 13-year-old son, Daniel W., marched off to war together with the 9th Maine Infantry Regiment on Sept. 22, 1861. Military duties separated father and son within a year, and Captain Daniel spent worrisome months and spread much ink across letters while trying to transfer Dannie from South Carolina to join his dad in Virginia.
Through letters and official documents, a historically significant exhibit at the Maine State Museum tells the Marstons’ tale — and many others.
“Maine Voices From the Civil War” opened last June on the fourth floor of the museum, located on State House Drive across from the Maine State House. Utilizing wartime artifacts, letters, and photographs (and quilts), the exhibit delivers an eye-opening window onto a past long forgotten in Maine classrooms and homes.
“We wanted to commemorate the Civil War and convey how Mainers viewed the conflict,” said Laurie LaBar, the museum’s chief curator of history and decorative arts. “The war is often interpreted through its battles, but we wanted to know how these battles were seen by Maine soldiers and at home, so we took a different tack.”
Maine sent more than 70,000 men to war; “that [figure] amounted to more than half of Maine’s men between the ages 18 and 35,” LaBar said. Almost 9,400 Maine soldiers and sailors died; the War Department discharged another 5,820 for sickness or injury.
Thus “some 15,000 families had to cope with the loss or injury of a breadwinner. I wanted to hear these stories, to hear how Mainers viewed the complexity and horror of the war,” she said.
The exhibit was carefully crafted. “There’s an intellectual dance that goes on between the artifacts, the themes of an exhibit, and the needs of the audience,” LaBar said. “The topic of the Civil War is vast. By calling the exhibit ‘Maine Voices from the Civil War,’ we narrowed the scope considerably.”
She organized the exhibit “into four main sections or chapters, as if it were a book: an introduction to the topic and the protagonists; life of a soldier; the home front; and war’s end.
“I chose artifacts that helped tell these aspects of the story,” LaBar said. “The Maine State Museum is blessed with a fine collection of Civil War material.”
Taking the exhibit from proposal to completion took about 1½years. Many people assisted, including “a great team of volunteers that researched biographies, tracked down facts, and transcribed letters,” she said.
“And my colleagues were a huge help during that period, both with the exhibit directly and in taking up the slack so I could really focus,” LaBar noted. Museum art director Don Bassett “did a great job fitting the themes into the gallery. We only had 30 days to install the entire exhibit, and he was able to incorporate existing walls so that we could put things in place fairly quickly.
“Our facilities manager, Aedan Jordan, was involved as well, she said.
The exhibit tour opens with recruitment activities, illustrated by sign that hung at a 2nd Maine Cavalry recruiting office in Kennebunk and a November 1863 poster announcing that Maine must sign up another 9,000 soldiers “to reinforce our armies and end the Rebellion.”
A display titled “Arms at Rest” depicts three bayonet-tipped muskets or rifles leaning together to form a tripod from which a canteen dangles. Backdropped with a enlarged period illustration of Union soldiers relaxing around a camp fire, the firearms represent a “stand of arms” often found in soldiers’ camps. The firearms and canteen actually date to the Civil War; the canteen, for example, was carried in the war by Augusta resident John B. Larrabee or his son, John H. Larrabee.
A large display incorporates a tent similar to that found in military camps during the war. Displayed with the tent are many wartime artifacts, including a field desk used by Maj. John T. Richards of Gardiner, writing utensils, and a cavalry saddle. Period photographs and letter transcripts provide additional information with this display and others found in the exhibit.
The story of Daniel and Dannie Marston is told by a display titled “The Marstons: Separation and Reunion.” When Capt. Daniel transferred to the 16th Maine Infantry, he left his son behind with the 9th Maine in South Carolina.
Writing to the 16th Maine’s Col. Charles Tilden on May 25, 1863, Marston explained that he requested Dannie’s transfer “for reasons that he is my only son + is away from his friends + acquaintances + is young being only 14 years of age + a Drummer boy — I have the written consent of his Col. + Capt. to his transfer.” Dannie ultimately joined his father in Virginia; both Marstons survived the war.
The Marstons’ display includes wartime photos of father and son.
“Maine Voices From the Civil War” makes excellent use of actual “voices” as “spoken” in letters. In a combined display that tells stories of actual Confederate raids in Maine, the panel titled “A Confederate Raid on Calais” provides insightful details into a foiled Confederate bank robbery in Calais on July 18, 1864. Portions of letters written by would-be robbers William Collins and Francis Xavier Jones reveal the men’s strong desire to bring the war to Maine.
In another display, a letter written by Sgt. William Livermore of Milo and the 20th Maine Infantry to his brother, Charles, reveals the horrors that William witnessed after the Battle of Gettysburg. “The ground every foot of it was covered with [dead] Men horses clothing Cartridgeboxes Canteen Guns Bayonets …,” William wrote.
“The Maine Voices in the Civil War” will feature three quilts made during the Civil War. Displayed until November 2013 was a quilt sewn by Mary Octavia Lewis of Jay. On loan from the Belfast Historical Society, the Belfast Soldier’s Quilt will be on display until May 2014. The third quilt, to be displayed from May 2014 until April 2015, was sewn by the Ladies’ Aid Society of Munjoy Hill in Portland.
The exhibit has drawn many visitors; “I am pleased to say that ‘Maine Voices’ has been quite popular,” LaBar said. “I am gratified to know that visitors come a long way specifically to see the exhibit.
“People who are interested in the Civil War tend to have a great deal of knowledge about the subject. ‘Maine Voices’ offers information that they haven’t seen before, because it features the experiences of enlisted men and company-level officers, as well as local civilians,” she said.
On Jan. 28, new artifacts were added to the exhibit. “In February and March the cases at the entrance to the museum will feature Civil War artifacts that have come in since ‘Maine Voices’ opened,” LaBar said. “They include the uniform of 2nd Lt. William Keely of the 13th Maine and an unusual writing case that belonged to his father, Josiah, who was the 13th Maine’s chaplain. We also have the diaries of Pvt. Cyrus Tucker, who fought with the 17th Maine, as well as the photographs of his fiancé and his brother that he carried during the war, to list a few of the new artifacts.”
The exhibit was funded by the Windover Foundation, Davis Family Foundation, Libra Foundation, Maine State Museum Commission, Friends of the Maine State Museum, the A.R. and Marylouise Tandy Foundation, and the Green Meadow Fund of the Maine Community. Individuals and organizations lending material for the exhibit are the Androscoggin Historical Society, Belfast Historical Society, the Maine State Archives, the Library of Congress, Bernard Fishman, Vincent Labertino, the Mystic Seaport, the and the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
The Maine State Museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday. Admission is $2 per adult, $1 per for a senior 62 or older and a child ages 6-18, and free for children under age 6. The maximum family admission is $6.
For more information about “Maine Voices From the Civil War,” call 287-2301 or log onto http://www.mainestatemuseum.org/exhibits/maine_voices_from_the_civil_war/.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.