AUGUSTA — You can almost see your breath in the cold morning air. If you listen, you can hear the cannons echoing down through the generations. Try, just a little, and the fear, misery and determination spilled out in the letters will carry you back and deliver you to a Civil War encampment of Maine soldiers, each wondering what will come next and if this letter home will be his last.
The documents, which include letters and other personal items, such as paintings and diaries, form the linchpin for the Maine State Museum’s new exhibit, “Maine Voices from the Civil War,” which opens Saturday. Each of the items gives an insight into the war from a Maine perspective, said museum Director Bernard Fishman. Or, perhaps more accurately, from the perspective of a Maine soldier and his family.
“It’s almost as if you’re gazing over their shoulders in the camp,” Fishman said. “You really get a sense of the soldiers’ daily lives and thoughts. It’s all very poignant and significant.”
The exhibit’s opening was planned to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and, specifically, the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863. There were about 50,000 casualties in the battle, including about 8,000 dead, 27,000 wounded and 11,000 missing. About 3 million men fought in the war, more than 600,000 of whom were killed in action or died as a result of accident, starvation or disease. Maine, at least based on its population at the time, endured a significant impact from the war, said exhibit curator Laurie LaBar.
“Over 70,000 Mainers from every corner of the state and every walk of life, representing more than 10 percent of the state’s whole population in 1860, fought in the Civil War,” LaBar said. “The voices of these Maine people will be heard in Maine Voices from the Civil War through the letters they wrote to loved ones and the diaries they kept. The bottom line is, how did Maine experience the war? We’re a long way from the battlefields, but we also sent a lot of people. A lot of Maine boys went to war.”
The exhibit will have a web presence as well. Photos of artifacts as well as brief biographies of the soldiers and civilians featured in the exhibit will be available on the museum’s website (MaineStateMuseum.org) by the end of the summer. The site also will feature full transcripts of the letters quoted in the exhibit. LaBar said she got to know the soldiers as she typed from the original letters. She ultimately grew to care for many of them.
“The things that moved me the most are the personal stories,” LaBar said. “There were days I sat at my desk and cried as I typed.”
LaBar began research for the exhibit about four years ago. The work began in earnest about 18 months ago, she said. About 98 percent of the collection belongs to the Maine State Museum. All but a small handful of the 80 items have never been shown before.
“Almost everything is new in terms of being out,” LaBar said.
The exhibit takes visitors through periods of the war, from the division leading up to the war, to introduction to the soldiers and forming encampments. The visitor shares experiences of the soldiers from leaving the encampment and going into battle and then to the hospital, prison and death.
“We have a section that touches on all those possibilities,” LaBar said. “There are poignant moments throughout the exhibit.”
The Maine State Museum is one of 22 museums and historical societies that form Maine’s Civil War Trail, a statewide collaborative effort to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. For a complete list of trail sites visit MaineCivilWarTrail.org.
The museum will celebrate the opening of “Voices from the Civil War” with free admission all day Saturday. The exhibit will remain on view until the spring of 2015.
Fishman said the exhibit is unlike any depicting the Civil War he has ever seen.
“None of this is that far away,” Fishman said. “When I was born, there were still Civil War veterans alive.”
Now, for a time, some are alive again at the Maine State Museum.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642