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Museums mark Maine's 'special connection' to Civil War

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Museums mark Maine's 'special connection' to Civil War

PORTLAND — The Civil War may seem the dusty stuff of history textbooks. But 152 years after it began the impact of the war is felt even today.

The country has been marking the 150th anniversary of the war since 2011. But much of the remembrance is taking place this year, the sesquicentennial of what is often seen as the war's peak in 1863.

On Saturday, April 27, the public gets a chance to learn about the role of Maine in the war at a Portland symposium sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and the Maine Historical Society. A new documentary film on a Civil War hero premieres a few days later in Brunswick.

And special Civil War exhibits are opening this year at museums in more than a dozen communities, including Portland, South Portland, Bath and Brunswick.

About 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, according to recently revised estimates, making it by far the bloodiest war in the country's history. Maine played a key role in the conflict, according to Patrick Rael, a history professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, who is one of the symposium's featured speakers.

"There's a special connection between Maine and the Civil War," Rael said, noting that, per capita, the state sent more of its men to fight than any state in the Union. About 80,000 Mainers served in the Union Army and Navy during the war.

The state was even the site of one of the northernmost battles of the war, a June 1863 naval clash in Portland Harbor where a Confederate raiding party of 25 was captured.

The state's contribution to the Union cause will be the focus of Rael's talk at the  symposium, "Local and Legendary: Maine in the Civil War," which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Southern Maine's Hannaford Hall in Portland. Tickets are $35 each, and advance registration is required online at mainehumanities.org.

Hollywood hero

An earlier Bowdoin professor, Joshua Chamberlain, was a Union colonel who led the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment in a pivotal fight during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Chamberlain's heroism was a focus of the 1993 Hollywood movie "Gettysburg."

Chamberlain's life will also be the focus a film being debuted by the Pejepscot Historical Society Tuesday, April 30. "Joshua Chamberlain: Scholar, Soldier, Statesman" will be shown at 7 p.m. at Curtis Memorial Library, 23 Pleasant St., Brunswick. Admission is $5.

The film includes narration by Jeff Daniels, who played Chamberlain in "Gettysburg." Much of the new documentary was shot in Chamberlain's former Brunswick home, now a museum operated by the society.

The war deeply affected Brunswick and communities throughout the state, as evidenced by more than 140 public monuments that dot Maine, according to a state website. Portland has five memorials, including the landmark bronze sculpture in Monument Square.

"There are Civil War memorials in many towns in Maine, and this was the first time that was done on such a large scale," said Larissa Vigue Picard, MHS community partnerships coordinator.

War resonates today

Picard believes the events and people the monuments commemorate are still relevant in the 21st century. "The issues that were raised are the ones we still deal with today," she said.

Rael agreed.

"The Civil War is the fulcrum of U.S. history from our founding to now," he said. "Our story turns on the Civil War.

"The war answered fundamental questions that the Revolution left unanswered," he continued. Issues of race and the sovereignty of U.S. states, acknowledged as causes of the war, are "things we still argue over. ... These things animate us today."

In addition to co-sponsoring the symposium, the MHS will open an exhibit on the war June 27 in the society's museum, at 489 Congress St. in downtown Portland. "This Rebellion: Mainers and the Civil War" will include local letters, documents, photographs and other artifacts from the war era. The exhibit will also feature a display bearing the names of more than 8,000 Mainers who died in battle or from disease, representing the first-ever compilation of the state's Civil War dead.

The society is one stop on the newly formed Maine Civil War Trail, a loose affiliation of 23 museums and other sites, stretching from Kennebunk to Bangor, that are launching Civil War-themed exhibits.

The Portland Museum of Art will open an exhibit Sept. 7 focusing on the work of Maine artist Winslow Homer during the war. Homer, regarded as one of the country's greatest artists, first gained national recognition for sketches of war scenes he produced for Harper's Weekly magazine.

Also in Portland, Victoria Mansion will introduce a Civil War exhibit when the museum opens for the season May 1. Victoria Mansion, built in 1858 on the eve of the war, will showcase the historical connections between Maine and New Orleans at that time. The exhibit marks the 150th anniversary of the occupation of the city by Union forces.

Starting next month, the South Portland Historical Society will highlight that city's role in the war with an exhibit at Cushing's Point Museum, 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland. The city was the location of two military installations during the Civil War, and the mustering-in point for infantry regiments from southern and western Maine.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.