Research the Civil War at the Maine State Archives

An astounding amount of material pertaining to Maine’s involvement in the Civil War is preserved at the Maine State Archives in Augusta. Much of the material is available to researchers. During a recent backstage tour, archivist Samuel Howes holds the Soldier’s File index card for a member of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment. The open drawer contains original muster rolls of that regiment. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

If you’re researching Maine’s involvement in the Civil War, check out the incredibly detailed files preserved at the Maine State Archives in Augusta.

There’s a whole Research Room available for your use.

The Archives, the Maine State Library, and the Maine State Museum are all located in the State Cultural Building, the sharp-lined, monochromatic gray building opposite the State House.

When you enter the same window-surrounded lobby serving the Archives, library, and museum, the Archives’ entrance lies on the right. Follow the corridor to the sign steering the public “right” to the Research Room.

Look for the Civil War here, the only Archives’ section open to the public. Here you can literally touch history, and I don’t know about other researchers, but there are times while reading a particular regimental letter or report, I get goose bumps.

When you handle a document signed by Calvin Douty, Joshua Chamberlain, Freeman McGilvery, and other Maine heroes sung and unsung, you are touching history.

A visitor must sign in at the desk (you won’t get far beyond it otherwise) and, because of security concerns, put everything (except pockets) that could hide documents into a locker beside the door. Locker rental is 25 cents; take the key with you.

The top sheet of this pile of 19th Maine Infantry enlistment forms belongs to Andrew J. Dain. Enlistment forms are among the Civil War documents preserved at the Maine State Archives. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

There are three parts to the Research Room:

• Beyond the desk is the microfilm area. Most cabinets contain non-military records, but Soldiers’ Files and other Civil War records are available on microfilm. Use a microfilm reader across the way to find what you seek.

You can print a photocopy for 15 cents or buy a thumb drive from the Reference Room staff and copy a file to it as a PDF. Outside thumb drives are banned.

Although the Soldiers’ Files are alphabetized, names are sometimes listed out of order or are misspelled. Be patient while researching the files, and spell creatively: Smith, Smyth, and Smythe are examples of how Mainers spelled similar surnames in the 1860s.

Depending on how many Soldiers’ Files you seek, plan on spending some time at the microfilm reader.

• Beyond the microfilm area is the original documents area, comprising several adjoining tables and some chairs. The adjacent window blinds are usually turned to prevent sunlight from fading precious documents.

You can carry only a camera, a computer, and/or a pencil into the original documents area. Forget a notebook and notepad; if you need paper for note taking, the staff will provide lined pink paper.

Ask the Research Room staff for specific records, such as a particular regiment’s correspondence or muster rolls. If you have a good idea of what you seek, but are unsure about the specifics, ask the staff for their suggestions.

A staffer will take the elevator to the Archives’ second floor (the Research Room is on the third floor) to retrieve the box(es) containing the requested material.

Boxed and marked accordingly, regimental correspondence is filed by month (or months) and year inside folders in an archival box — ditto the muster rolls and company returns. If you know the time frame, start with the appropriately marked folder and go from there.

This document at the Maine State Archives is the muster roll for the original three field officers (including Col. Francis Heath) of the 19th Maine Infantry Regiment. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

You never know what treasure you might find. Amidst the often mundane correspondence, a gem suddenly appears in your hands. For me, it was the after-action report of the 5th Maine Infantry’s Chancellorsville-related fighting; you could be there at Salem Church, the report was so realistic.

Cursive handwriting from 153-plus years ago can be difficult to transcribe mentally or on paper. If a word or phrase makes no sense initially, re-read the sentences before and after the penned perplexity; sometimes its meaning leaps out at you.

Transcribe a letter or report to a computer file or to a sheet of pink paper, photograph the document with a camera, or ask the Research Room staff to either photocopy or digitally scan the pages.

Photocopying is far less expensive than scanning, believe me.

• Located beyond the original documents area is the Civil War Reference Library, containing many regimental histories, the war-related Maine Adjutant General’s reports, and other books.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing 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.