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Remembering on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War
Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865. (The Petersburg identification appearing in the official caption for this photograph received by NARA from the Army Signal Corps has been disputed. Civil War historians and photo-historians have uncovered documentary evidence suggesting that this image of Union forces was taken by Andrew J. Russell just before the Second Battle of Fredericksburg in the spring of 1863)
OXFORD HILLS— The Oxford Hills is still feeling the effects of the Civil War.
It is easy to think of that war as nothing but a chapter in an American History book. It happened 150 years ago, and other than its influence on a school report card, has little to do with us today.
But that's not the case. The war lives on here, in two real ways. One is in the hearts of Mainers who have family members that fought for the Union. The other way, one that affects us all, is the devastation caused to Maine – and hence to the Oxford Hills – by the war, a devastation this area never recovered from.
The first way the war lives on here is easy to understand. Many people in the Oxford Hills have relatives – now referred to in terms of great or great-great grandfathers and uncles – who served, perhaps at the cost of their lives, in the Civil War.
An example would be Peter Starbird, of South Paris, who had 11 relatives fight for the Union.
"As near as I can tell, all but two of them survived," Starbird said.
As far as living memory is concerned, Starbird, who graduated from Oxford Hills High School in 1962, is only two steps from the Civil War: He knew his grandparents, who knew relatives who fought.
"The closest relative I had in the War was Winfield Scott Starbird. He was the brother of my great grandfather. Winfield died in South Paris in 1925. My grandmother on my father's side knew him and used to talk about him. And my grandfather, Les Starbird, knew him as well."
There are two national organizations, one for men and one for women, for descendants of Union veterans. Both organizations – Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War 1861-1865 (DUVCW) – have chapters in Maine, and each has a chapter in the Oxford Hills.
Local chapters of SUVCW are called camps. Dennis Gray, a member of Camp 69 in South Paris, said, "Our camp at the moment has 39 members, but we cover a broad area, since we are the only camp in the western area of the state. We have members that range from Rumford and Porter and Peru and Denmark and so forth."
Local chapters of DUVCW are called tents. Lesley Gouin Dean, of Stoneham, is a past national president of DUVCW and is now a member of its executive board.
"Tent 19 in Stoneham has 25 members. The tent in Norway, Tent 8, has about a dozen members right now. Tent 17 in Bryant Pond has over 30 members," Dean said.
Both Gray and Dean are aware of what the Civil War did to our state.
"In the long term," Gray said, "the war had a dramatic effect on the state of Maine.
"Quite a few people from this area enlisted and quite a few of them didn't come back. The casualty rates for the war were very high.
But it wasn't just casualties that hurt Maine. A lot of people who went to war saw other places and moved south or west after the war. They saw the farms there that weren't so rocky. There was good land available. New opportunities opened up for people after the war. Even General [Joshua] Chamberlain tried to do real estate development in Florida for awhile."
Gray points out that in the two decades before the Civil War, Maine had a vibrant and growing population.
"We had at one time, seven representatives in Congress," Gray said.
That's more representatives at the time than California, Texas, and Florida had combined.
In a mere 40 years – from the year Maine became a state in 1820 to the eve of the war in 1860 – the state's population more than doubled, from 298,335 to 628,279. Towns sprang up all across the state, as lands were cleared and farms established.
It wasn't just farming that powered Maine's economy. We had many products needed by the big cities on the Atlantic coast – Northern cities and Southern ones. In addition to farm crops, we exported granite, timber, seafood, and ice. Shiploads of cotton and other raw products were brought here to be processed in our mills.
Along Maine's coast there was a constant need for sailors, shipbuilders, and dock workers.
Maine was not only an economic force, it was a political powerhouse as well. The saying, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation" had real meaning.
When the war broke out, Mainers thought the conflict would last but a few weeks, perhaps a few months at most. Many men signed up for a three-month enlistment in the Union Army, believing that by the time their term was up, the war would be over. To their credit, many of these short-term enlistees re-enlisted – and re-enlisted again – for longer terms as the war dragged on.
Maine eventually sent 32 regiments, seven artillery batteries, two cavalry regiments, and one heavy artillery unit to the war. More than 70,000 Maine men served in the war, the highest percentage of volunteers of any state in the Union. More than 9,000 Mainers lost their lives in the conflict and many others were wounded.
We had no idea as we strove to save the Union, that the war would break Maine's back both economically and politically. We had no idea that our population growth would slow to a trickle. We had no idea that our coastal trade would collapse. We had no idea that Maine would go from being a leader in New England to being a poor rural cousin.
Now, 150 years later, Maine's population is only about twice what it was in 1860. And we remain a poor rural cousin.
Lesley Dean has direct-line connections to Union veterans and she has family stories that illustrate what the war did to this area.
"One of my ancestors from my Frost line lived up on Paris Hill. The family was very upset to think that [the husband] left her and however many kids they had, up there all alone and didn't make any accommodations for her. She moved down into town with her brood. I don't know if she worked in a factory or where she went, but she essentially left the farm standing and walked away.
"I would say that happened a lot.
"I can remember six or eight years ago, talking to one of the Maine foresters. He said that in the 1980s – and even now – Maine is more forested than in any time since the Civil War. In those days [before the Civil War], you had pastures everywhere. You didn't have the forests you have now.
"Everybody was self-sustaining on the farm. You did what little you needed to at a little local store. A trip to Norway was a once or twice a year thing. The fairs were huge because you got to show off what you did, and that's when you got to go see your neighbors."
The Civil War changed that.
"There was one farm I know of up in the Greenwood-Bryant Pond area where there were eight children. When the father joined the Union army, he was in his 40s, and his three oldest boys went with him. Only one of the four came back. So they lost not just dad, but most of the able-bodied men. I would say that sort of thing happened a lot. And the women left behind couldn't work the farm alone, so they walked away, moved to town, and looked for work."
Dean said that in the Oxford Hills – and in Maine as a whole – the transition from being self-sustaining to being dependent on jobs in town left us more vulnerable to changes in the economy.
"Since the 1860s, we've had some boom times, but they didn't last," she said.
"Manufacturing in Lewiston/Auburn and down to Brunswick and here in Norway was big for awhile. In the Oxford Hills at one time we had Cornwall's that was going great guns. Wilner's. We had four different snow shoe manufacturers here. We had 2,000 people employed at the shoe factory. Gladding-Paris was at its peak. But eventually people started saying, 'We could take this to the Caribbean or wherever and get it made cheaper.' And now economically we're back to the way things were in the late 1860s."
The argument can be made that without Maine's contribution to the war, the North would have been defeated, but that in stepping up to help save the Union, Maine lost herself.
"Economically, we never really recovered from the Civil War," Dean said.