Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about museums. In general I think they are among the greatest things in the world. Sometimes, though—and I hate to admit this—they bore me. I don’t like to read a lot of explanatory placards when I visit a museum. I don’t go to read things. I go to see things and feel a connection with historical artifacts.
In that respect, my recent visit to the Maine State Museum did not disappoint.
When I was a kid living in Augusta, my dad would take us to the museum when it was still housed in the State Capitol. The museum moved to its more modern facility in 1971. I had been through the current museum before, but I couldn’t tell you when. The last time must have been when my own children, now in their 20s, were young, and we were in Maine for our summer vacation. When I visited Maine in January 2018, I enjoyed going through the museum again, and was pleasantly surprised by its size and scope. There were cars and trains and boats; recreations of Maine living rooms and kitchens and factories; and even a huge section of the square-rigged ship St. Mary. Launched in Phippsburg in 1890, the vessel sank on its maiden voyage, after colliding with another ship while trying to make it around the “Horn” at the tip of South America and eventually running aground in the Falklands.
I also enjoyed the wildlife dioramas, realistic slice of the Maine wilderness, populated by mounted specimens of the deer, moose, bear, birds, and fish you would expect to find in the great outdoors today. There were also some live trout in the streams. I remember being fascinated by the dioramas when I was a kid and I was still captivated as an adult.
All that stuff was great, but I came to see the Civil War material. The museum had a bigger Civil War display during the 150th anniversary commemorations, but that exhibit has been taken down. Fortunately, there was still an exhibit of Civil War flags. The state’s banners had been displayed for years in glass cases in the capitol building, where they deteriorated badly. After significant restoration, flags now rotate through the permanent exhibit, where they are displayed in low light to preserve the fragile silk.
On the day of my visit, I was pleased to see the regimental flag of the 16th Maine on display. This was not the banner the regiment had at Gettysburg. The soldiers tore that one up and distributed the pieces among themselves before being overwhelmed by the Rebels on July 1. (I saw one of the pieces in the collections of Abner Small at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. The state museum had another fragment on display, too.) I was also pleasantly surprised to see a guidon from the 31st Maine, the regiment to which my great-grandfather, Daniel True Huntington, belonged.
The exhibit’s star attraction was the U.S. flag of the 20th Maine, the same banner the regiment had when it defended Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. A photograph shows that same flag when veterans returned it to Round Top in 1882. Even then the flag was in bad shape, but at least it’s been cared for since. This was the banner that Andrew Tozier supported in the crook of his elbow as he fired at the approaching soldiers of the 15th Alabama. Chamberlain recalled seeing Tozier through the whirling clouds of smoke, “defending his sacred trust in the manner of the songs of chivalry.” (As I wrote in a previous post, Tozier is now buried in the same Litchfield cemetery where my grandparents and great-grandfather are.)
Nearby, in a glass case, is the Colt pistol that Joshua Chamberlain captured from Lt. Robert Wicker of the 15th Alabama after the Maine soldiers charged down the hill and ended the fighting.
The soldiers who carried these relics are long gone, but at least these things of metal, wood and silk remain to remind us of what the soldiers did during that horrible, terrible, fascinating war.