The women of Sherman

 

Clad in a frock coat and a forage cap, a Union sergeant stands beside a young woman wearing a dress and a hat with a veil. Gazing toward the camera, she lays claim to her soldier by placing her right hand on his left shoulder. Both individuals are unidentified. Almost every Maine soldier who departed for war left behind at least one woman: a mother, a sister, a wife, or a sweetheart. (Library of Congress)

Clad in a frock coat and a forage cap, a Union sergeant stands beside a young woman wearing a dress and a hat with a veil. Gazing toward the camera, she lays claim to her soldier by placing her right hand on his left shoulder. Both individuals are unidentified. Almost every Maine soldier who departed for war left behind at least one woman: a mother, a sister, a wife, or a sweetheart. (Library of Congress)

The shots fired by Confederate artillery at Fort Sumter in April 1861 echoed as far away as Golden Ridge Plantation in southwestern Aroostook County …

… and still echoed four years later when the residents of Sherman — the town which the plantation became on Jan. 28, 1862 — took stock of the high price they had paid to preserve the Union.

Only 486 people, including 130 registered voters (all men), lived in Sherman in 1861, according to May H. Spooner, a late 19th-century local historian. She and Levi Caldwell, another Sherman resident, developed the “Historical Address” that Spooner presented to a June 17, 1886 reunion of men who had served in Co. B, 8th Maine Infantry Regiment.*

That reunion took place in Sherman, from which 31 men had enlisted in Co. B during the war. The town dated to 1832, when Albert Cushman came northeast from Sumner in Oxford County to claim the 200 acres he had purchased in Township 3, Range 5. Lured by rich, relatively rock-free soil, more settlers followed Cushman; Township 3 later merged with Benedicta, then with Island Falls, became Golden Ridge Plantation, and finally incorporated as the Town of Sherman.

In 1861 “the people were almost without exception were dependent upon daily labor, and their farm products, for their means of livings,” Spooner told the aging Co. B veterans and other people in the audience. “Many had hardly more than arrived in town, cleared a few acres of land and built rude dwellings in which to live, until with nothing but strong hands and sturdy wills they should convert the proud forests into more comfortable and attractive homes.”

Albert Osgood was the first Sherman resident to join the Army. Before the shooting ended, another 112 men from Sherman went off to war; 102 men enlisted, and the draft took 11 men. This meant that 87 percent of Sherman voters donned a Union uniform.

That figure has been accepted since the war, but John Forbey (originally from Lincoln and how an Arizona resident) has discovered a discrepancy.

He is the great-great-grandson of James Madison Emery, whose name appears on the Sherman Roll of Honor along with three other Emerys. However, James’s brother, Benjamin F. Emery, is not listed on the roll.

In her 1886 address, May Spooner described Benjamin Emery as “the youngest [recruit from Sherman], being fifteen years old at [his] enlistment.” He had joined Co. B, 8th Maine Infantry, and why his name was left off the Roll of Honor is not known.

Emery’s inclusion means that 114 men from Sherman (87.7 percent of the town’s registered voters) donned a Union uniform of some sort.

Farming in that era was labor intensive, and every member of a farm family played a critical role in planting and harvesting crops, raising and slaughtering livestock, and cutting and splitting firewood to burn in fireplaces or woodstoves to stave off Aroostook’s wintry cold. Men — husbands, sons, and brothers — could not be spared to fight Confederates in the Deep South, where the 8th Maine Infantry was initially stationed.

But the Sherman men left for war nonetheless. “To the wives, daughters, and sisters was left the hard task of lifting the burdens of care, of working while weeping, of hooping even amid torturing fears, and of praying, when it seemed almost as though God himself were hid behind the awful smoke of battle,” Spooner said.

Thomas Nast illustrated the homefront's connection to the Civil War in this emotional rendition of "Christmas Eve." As her soldier (likely her husband) reads a letter from home in a snowy Union camp, a wife and mother kneels beside her children's bedroom window at the same time and prays for her soldier's deliverance from harm. (Library of Congress)

Thomas Nast illustrated the homefront’s connection to the Civil War in this emotional rendition of “Christmas Eve.” As her soldier (likely her husband) reads a letter from home in a snowy Union camp, a wife and mother kneels beside her children’s bedroom window at the same time and prays for her soldier’s deliverance from harm. (Library of Congress)

Sherman women had no time for “idle grief, and perhaps it was better so,” she told her audience. Sherman men went away individually, in small groups, and once en masse with Co. B, 8th Maine; the town’s dwindling number of residents got used to seeing “women driving the team, holding the plow, or using the axe or hoe as necessity might require,” she said.

Spooner remembered that many married mothers “were left with only small boys to help about the heavy farm work, and many [such women] with none at all.” Thirteen Sherman fathers would die before the war ended; 42 children lost their dads.

She told the Co. B survivors, especially those from Sherman, that “it was well that you who went away leaving wives, sisters, or sweethearts could not realize what weary days of toil were before them.”

The departing soldiers remembered their women as “the same cheerful girls you left behind,” who with their “bright eyes and smiling faces” would be “waiting to welcome you home,” Spooner said.

But in Sherman, as across Maine, women worked incessantly to hold families together and to bar the household doors against the wolves of starvation, financial penury, and disease. Soldiers could (and did) send some or most of their pay to their wives or mothers, but as the letters pouring into the office of Maine Attorney General John L. Hodsdon can attest, too many women worried about their men and financial survival.

And worry about their men the Sherman women certainly did. Of the 114 local men who went to war, 34 men (or 30 percent) died as a result of the war.

During the war, Sherman had three stores and one post office, all located on the Sherman Road, according to Spooner. Incoming mails arrived three times a week, and household mail delivery was only a dream for many women living on outlying farms.

Today, when social media, smart phones, Facetime, and Skype immediately “connect” war-zone soldiers with their stateside relatives, the communication isolation of Sherman in the 1860s seems unimaginable. Soldiers did not (or could not) always write on a regular schedule, men vanished into hospitals, prison camps, and marked or unmarked graves, and women burdened with raising children and running a farm faced difficult challenges.

In this scene cropped from a Winslow Homer illustration, a wife, mother, or sister sobs after reading the terrible news reported by the letter clutched in her left hand. In the small town of Sherman in Aroostook County, such news came to 32 households during the Civil War — and two more Sherman men died of war-related wounds long after the shooting stopped. (Library of Congress)

In this scene cropped from a Winslow Homer illustration, a wife, mother, or sister sobs after reading the terrible news reported by the letter clutched in her left hand. In the small town of Sherman in Aroostook County, such news came to 32 households during the Civil War — and two more Sherman men died of war-related wounds long after the shooting stopped. (Library of Congress)

Mail carriers did not usually deliver mail directly to homes in that era, especially in rural Aroostook County. If a Sherman woman expected or hoped for a letter, she went to where she typically picked up her mail.

“It was with the greatest difficulty [that] news was received from the absent ones,” Spooner said, referring to Sherman women waiting for word from their soldiers. She indicated that many women walked “from five to eight miles to get a letter” at a store or the post office.

A woman “walked all that distance in feverish anxiety[,] half hoping that no news would be received for fear it might be sad,” Spooner said. “And how many poor wives or sisters have had to walk all that distance home, foot-sore and weary, with hearts ready to break from the news that some loved one was wounded, missing, or dead.”

Albert Cushman, the founder of Sherman, sent four of his sons to war. All returned alive, albeit brothers Cyrus, Edward, and Joseph “were severely wounded,” according to Spooner.

The Caldwell family saw six men off to war. Phillip died in a Washington, D.C. hospital, Hiram at Covington (an Ohio River town in Kentucky), and Asbury opposite the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg. He “was buried in a rifle-put,” Spooner noted.

A musket ball lodged in one lung, Leonard Caldwell survived until spring 1885. After trying “to regain his health in the more favorable climate of Florida,” he headed home, only to die not far from Sherman that June.

He was as much a casualty of the war as if he had died on a battlefield.

For the women of Sherman, many were left “in lonely darkness with crushed hopes and anxious fears,” living in “humble homes [that] were never again to be lighted by the presence of those of those who went so bravely forth,” Spooner told the Co. B boys.

*We thank John Forbey for providing a copy of Spooner’s “Historical Address.”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

 

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 jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.