You Can Go Home Again

 

Chamberlain house

Speaking about Maine Roads to Gettysburg at the Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick (Beth Ann Huntington photo).

This summer I headed up to Maine for what I called my “book tour” for Maine Roads to Gettysburg. I spoke at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, was one of the authors at the Books in Boothbay Festival, and did two really fun talks at the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick for the Pejepscot Historical Society. A few weeks later I went back to do a talk at the MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta and to tape a segment for News Center Maine’s 207 show (see the segment below).

I was born and bred in the great state of Maine. I grew up in Augusta, graduated from Cony High School, and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick for two years. Then I realized that perhaps I should get out and see a bit more of the world. So I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In March 1983, after I had graduated and returned to Maine, I packed up my car (well, my parents’ car, to be perfectly honest) and moved down to the Boston suburb of Brighton. I was 22. That officially marks the point when I ceased to be a Maine resident. After living in Brighton for a couple of years, I moved to Washington, D.C., and lived in that area for a decade or so before relocating to Pennsylvania. I have resided in the Keystone State for 22 years now. I live not far from Gettysburg, which is good, but it’s not Maine. I have been a Pennsylvania resident for about as long as I lived in my home state. That strikes me as strange. I am not a Pennsylvanian and I never will be. I am from Maine.

Being from Maine is something that stays with you. The connection even grows stronger the further away you go. I still remember my excitement at a concert in Santa Monica when I spotted someone in the crowd wearing a WBLM tee-shirt. I kept Maine plates on the car when I was in L.A., and one morning when I was driving down the Harbor Freeway a car pulled in behind me and the driver began flashing the lights and honking the horn. “What the hell?” I thought. Then the car pulled alongside me and the driver began pointing to the back of her car. When she moved ahead of me I could see she had Maine plates, too. Suddenly, I understood.

There’s something special about being from Maine. For one thing, we are the only state in the Union with a name that has only one syllable. (Go ahead. Look it up.) Second, we’re tucked way up in a corner of the nation. If you come to Maine it’s because you planned to, not because you’re heading someplace else (unless you’re going to Canada, but we won’t talk about that). Third, there just aren’t that many of us, so Maine feels like a small community. Whenever I pass a car with Maine plates I always glance at the driver, thinking there’s a good chance it will be someone I know. It never is, and even if it were, there’s little change I would recognize him or her. Or vice versa.

One of the joys of working on Maine Roads to Gettysburg is it gave me the chance to write about people from my native state. I included accounts of soldiers from Bangor, Dexter, Rockland, Wiscasset, Thomaston, Waterville, and Hallowell, all places I knew well. John Chase of the 5th Maine Battery, who was horribly wounded at Gettysburg, was from Augusta. I learned that Selden Connor, who had commanded the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, was buried in Augusta, just down the hill from James G. Blaine, who also appears in the book. I used to play Frisbee in the park around Blaine’s grave. I had the opportunity to explore archives all over the state, in Portland, Saco, Brunswick, Augusta, and Orono. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I learned that my great-grandfather served with the 31st Maine. I found his enlistment papers, with his signature, in the state archives in Augusta and visited his grave in Litchfield.

IMG_2892I certainly enjoyed talking at the visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park for the official “book launch” in April, but talking about it in Maine was even better. At the Maine Historical Society talk,  a friend of my parents’ surprised me by showing up for the talk. I used to go duck hunting with him. Someplace there’s a picture of him, my brother, and me in a hunting boat on the Sheepscot River near Wiscasset on a frigid morning during duck season. My dad probably took the picture around 8:00 in the morning, but we are all holding cans of Budweiser.

Another surprise at that talk was the appearance of my friend Peter. I hadn’t seen him in decades. He used to live on our street in Augusta, back when life seemed like an unending series of whiffle ball, capture the flag, ping pong, and sledding. One year Peter, my brother, and I rode out bikes all the way to Greenville, a distance of more than 100 miles each way. We had an epic time. Peter’s family moved to Cape Elizabeth and contact was limited after that. It was great to see him.

Bisbee, George

George Bisbee of the 16th Maine (Maine State Archives).

The Boothbay festival was a blast, too. I saw Sue, whose academic path first crossed with mine in kindergarten. Bill, a friend from college, also turned up. I was talking to a woman who bought a book and discovered that she was the daughter of another friend of my parents, who was also the realtor who had sold them their house. I met a woman who had an ancestor in the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, and an older man who told me he had an ancestor in the 16th Maine. “What was name?” I asked, feeling about as hopeful of recognizing it as I did when I peered at drivers with Maine plates. “George Bisbee,” he said. “His picture’s in the book,” I told him.

It is a small world, especially when you’re from Maine. It was like that during the Civil War, too. After the battle of Middleburg in June 1863, Walter B. Morrill of the 20th Maine was surprised to see that one of the Confederate prisoners was a man he had worked with while lumbering along the Penobscot River. During their march to Gettysburg, soldiers of the 17th Maine almost exchanged friendly fire with troops that had been sent out from the defenses of Washington. Those soldiers were from the 25th and 27th Maine regiments, and for some soldiers the encounter turned into reunions with old friends from home. When Thomas Hyde reached the battlefield at Antietam, one of the first things he did was ask around about people he knew in the 10th Maine, who had already been in the fight.

chamberlain house

The Joshua Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick (Tom Huntington photo).

My favorite experience on the “book tour” was speaking at the Chamberlain Museum. When I went to Bowdoin, the building was right across Potter Street from the fraternity I had joined. Chamberlain’s old home was then being used an apartment building for students. I recall it had been painted yellow and was adorned with fire escapes necessary to meet safety regulations. If there was any kind of plaque, I can’t recall it. I doubt I had any idea it had once been Chamberlain’s home—or if I even knew who Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was.

I should have, for he and I were fraternity brothers. We both belonged to Alpha Delta Phi. The window in Chamberlain’s office looks right out at the big brick fraternity house on the other side of Potter Street. (The building postdates Chamberlain, so it wouldn’t have been a view he enjoyed.) I had lived in the frat house for one semester and two summers, so it was a little surreal to be speaking about Chamberlain just across the street. Several of my fraternity brothers (and a sister) showed up to hear me talk, too, as well as several other friends from various phases of my life.

So I don’t care what famous novelist Thomas Wolfe said. You can go home again.

MRGCover

Maine Roads to Gettysburg is available for purchase now! You can find it on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or at any fine bookseller near you.

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A Golden Star

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Photographs of Abner Small, from the scrapbook in the collections of the Maine Historical Society.

Abner Small was aptly named, standing only about 5 feet 4 inches tall. He was born in Augusta but was living in West Waterville when the Civil War broke out. His Civil War carte de visite reveals a balding young man with a big mustache and a sardonic cast about his eyes. The accounts he wrote about his war experiences have a sardonic cast about them, too, though it took long years of war, including a spell in a Confederate prison, to infect him with cynicism. Small fought with the 3rd Maine at First Bull Run and later joined the new 16th Maine regiment as its adjutant. He left behind two accounts of his experiences. The first was The Sixteenth Maine in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, which was published in 1886. The Road to Richmond: The Civil War Memoirs of Abner R. Small of the Sixteenth Maine Volunteers. Together with the Diary which He Kept when He Was a Prisoner of War was published posthumously in 1939. Both make for excellent reading.

At Gettysburg the 16th Maine served in Gabriel Paul’s brigade of the I Corps. During the fighting on July 1, the advancing Confederates began to overwhelm the I and XI Corps, forcing them to retreat towards Gettysburg. Division commander Brig. Gen. John Robinson rode up to the 16th’s colonel, Charles W. Tilden. “Take that position and hold it at any cost,” Robinson ordered. He wanted the 16th Maine to delay the Confederate advance long enough to give the rest of his division time to retreat.

“All right, General, we’ll do the best we can,” Tilden replied. He turned to his officers. “You know what that means,” he said, and he gave the order to move forward.

“It was an hour when bands of brave men did heroic things which have been obscured in history by the turmoil and confusion of the general agony of the army,” noted the history of the regiment in Maine at Gettysburg.

‘The rebels fired upon us from all sides, from behind the wall, from the fences, from the Mummasburg Road,” remembered adjutant Small. “They swarmed down upon us, they engulfed us, and swept away the last semblance of organization which marked us as a separate command.” The regiment did what it could to hold back the rebel tide, but it was a doomed and bloody enterprise. Once the soldiers realized their time had run out, they determined that the enemy would not capture their flags. “We looked at our colors, and our faces burned,” Small recalled. “We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.

“Our color bearers appealed to the colonel, and with his consent they tore the flags from the staves and ripped the silk to shreds; and our officers and men that were near took each a shred,” Small wrote. Captured men kept the pieces hidden while in captivity, and many flag remnants eventually became enshrined in scrapbooks back in Maine. “I have one with a golden star,” said Small.

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Abner Small’s star, torn from the flag of the 16th Maine at Gettysburg. Photographed at the Maine Historical Society.

I came across Small’s star while looking through his files at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. It had been pasted into a scrapbook, on the same page with photos of the young soldier. I assume the label in the photo below was created by one of Small’s children, the same one who had typed out transcriptions of his Civil War letters. Items like this really help personalize the war. It’s not just an event in the history books; the war was something that had affected hundreds of thousands of people–like Abner Small.

You can read more about Small and other soldiers from the Pine Tree State in Maine Roads to Gettysburg by Tom Huntington. It will be published in May 2018 by Stackpole Books. In the meantime, try Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg.

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The full scrapbook page. Photographed at the Maine Historical Society.