Fifth Maine museum connects past and present

 

Visitors to Peaks Island in Casco Bay approach the 5th Maine Regimental Memorial Hall, located in the Queen Anne-style cottage that survivors of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment constructed in 1888. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Visitors to Peaks Island in Casco Bay approach the 5th Maine Regiment Memorial Hall, located in the Queen Anne-style cottage that survivors of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment constructed in 1888. (Brian Swartz Photo)

When the 5th Maine Infantry boys decided to party after the Civil War, they figured that Portland was the obvious place …

… but to keep their poignant reunions private and give their weary comrades a quiet place to “get away from it all,” the 5th Maine’s surviving members chose peaceful Peaks Island as a perfect location for a cottage.

To this very day, Civil War buffs and island visitors can walk a floor trod by Maine heroes while learning a lot about them and Peaks Island.

Formed in spring 1861, the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment mustered into federal service in Portland (then called “Forest City”) by train for Washington, D.C. Later known as the “Forest City Regiment,” the 5th Maine fought in Oliver Otis Howard’s brigade at First Manassas and stayed with the colors until 193 original three-year enlistees mustered out in spring 1864.

Twenty-four years later, the regiment’s veterans constructed a Queen Anne-style cottage on the south shore of Peaks Island. Designed with two floors, walk-up steps, and a wrap-around verandah, the cottage featured a lookout tower that, at the top of its original configuration, resembled a turret on a Union ironclad.

Originally open to the weather, the turret’s viewing area has since been enclosed.

The cottage offered 15 rooms that veterans could rent as places for their families to stay. Until the last 5th Maine veteran could no longer visit Peaks Island, the boys held reunions at the cottage and, no doubt for some old warriors, found solace there from the PTSD that afflicted many soldiers after the war.

The aging veterans contributed funds to install in the 30-by-38-foot first-floor hall several red-and-white glass windows emblazoned with the names of 5th Maine members. The well-kept windows look as if they were set in place just yesterday.

Over the years additional development hemmed in the cottage as Peaks Island developed into a year-round community linked by ferry to Portland. The 5th Maine’s last survivors could have sold the cottage; they did not, and their foresight now links the Civil War with modern Maine.

Today the dedicated members of the Fifth Maine Regiment Community Association operate the cottage as the Fifth Maine Regiment Memorial Hall. Located at 45 Seashore Avenue, the hall serves as a museum and as a meeting place for private and public functions.

A large granite boulder set on the front lawn of the 5th Maine Regiment Memorial Hall is engraved with the 5th Maine Infantry's pertinent dates. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A large granite boulder set on the front lawn of the 5th Maine Regiment Memorial Hall is engraved with the 5th Maine Infantry’s pertinent dates. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The museum (and thus the memorial hall) is open:

• 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, May 17-June 30;

• Noon-4 p.m., Monday-Friday, and 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, July 1-Labor Day;

• 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, Labor Day-Columbus Day.

For Civil War buffs, visiting the museum means connecting with the past and the 5th Maine boys who charged up Chinn Hill at Manassas on July 21, 1861 and remained with the regiment until it was pulled from the Petersburg lines and sent home in mid-June 1864. Set on the front lawn and engraved with “Fifth Maine Volunteers 1861-1865,” a large boulder reminds visitors about the purpose of this yellow-painted Victorian cottage perched above Casco Bay.

Stepping into the first-floor hall, visitors will immediately notice the red-and-white windows. The names flow from 5th Maine Infantry muster rolls. Photographs depict specific veterans, and weapons and equipment await examination within their glass display cases.

Of particular interest is a Confederate hand grenade, among the few such Civil War examples of this supposedly 20th-century weapons that I have seen in any period museum. The replicas of two of four Confederate battle flags are displayed nearby; according to museum board member Tory Tyler Millar, who was the volunteer docent on the day that we visited, the actual flags were returned to the respective Southern states some years ago.

The museum currently offers the “Sacred At Any Cost” exhibit, focused on the soldiers, nurses, and one young girl affiliated with the 5th Maine during the Civil War. The exhibit includes the well-tattered flag carried into battle by the 5th Maine boys at First Manassas; recently restored so it could be displayed, the flag was presented to the regiment by the Sons of Maine in New York City in June 1861.

Nearby, a display case contains the uniform jacket, kepi, gauntlets, and shoulder straps worn by George Bicknell, the 5th Maine adjutant who later penned the regimental history. During the battle of Second Fredericksburg, an enemy artillery shell exploded near Bicknell, and a fragment struck his head, rendering him hors de combat for some time.
Inside the display case, the hole in the kepi reveals that Bicknell was wounded in the left rear of his head.

Located on the second floor are two more exhibits:

• An Island At War, focused on the island’s military importance during World War II;

• The Pioneer Trail, which focuses on the early history of Peaks Island.

Visitors relaxing on the rear verandah at the Fifth Maine Regiment Memorial Hall can enjoy views across Whitehead Passage to Cushing Island. This same view was seen by many Civil War veterans well into the 20th century. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Visitors relaxing on the rear verandah at the Fifth Maine Regiment Memorial Hall can enjoy views across Whitehead Passage to Cushing Island. This same view was seen by many Civil War veterans well into the 20th century. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Be sure to walk the full length of the verandah while visiting the museum. Relax in the benches on the side overlooking Whitehead Passage and Cushing Island and imagine the heroes — Bicknell, Clark S. Edwards, and so many others — who once shared this same view of Casco Bay.

The Fifth Maine Regimental Community Association suggests that visitors contribute $5 per person toward the museum’s upkeep.

For more information about the Fifth Maine museum, log onto fifthmainemuseum.org, email fifthmainemuseum@maine.rr.com, or call 207-766-3330.

Operated by Casco Bay Lines, the car ferry "Machigonne II' approaches the ferry terminal at Peaks Island in Casco Bay. The City of Portland lies on the western horizon. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Operated by Casco Bay Lines, the car ferry “Machigonne II’ approaches the ferry terminal at Peaks Island in Casco Bay. The City of Portland lies on the western horizon. (Brian Swartz Photo)

To reach Peaks Island, catch a car-ferry ferry operated by Casco Bay Lines. Sixteen ferry runs are offered daily during summer. For information about schedules and prices — plus a map of Peaks Island — log onto www.cascobaylines.com.

The Fifth Maine museum is located about a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminal. To enjoy both the museum and Peaks Island, I suggest arranging to rent a golf cart several days in advance of a trip. The prices are affordable, and Peaks is small enough that a golf cart can access the entire island during a day trip.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.