Maine Memory Launches Facebook Group

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 4.26.39 PMMaine Memory Network is now on Facebook!

While items and exhibits from MMN have long been featured on Maine Historical Society’s organizational Facebook page, the network did not have its own brand on the social media platform. As of last week, it does.

The new Maine Memory Network group is open to anyone interested in Maine Memory, or Maine history generally. While those seeking to join the group have to be officially approved by the group administrator, that’s largely a technicality. All are welcome!

A Facebook group, unlike an organizational page, prioritizes followers’ posts, so it’s a better platform for encouraging dialogue and creating a sense of community. Although items from Maine Memory and about Maine history will regularly be posted in the group by the administrators, members are welcome to post their own historical photos and share memories of Maine with one another.

Check it out!

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Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War, 2013-2015

by Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator, Maine Humanities Council


“Local & Legendary” project coordinators Larissa Vigue Picard (MHS) and Janet Lyons (MHC). Photo Credit: Nick Waugh.

It’s all over except for the paperwork and the reflection. For two years Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War, the National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded program, engaged Maine communities in their Civil War history.

Collaborative project teams comprised of libraries, historical organizations, and educational institutions explored local Civil War history in multidisciplinary ways and investigated questions of that era’s motivations, loyalty, identity, and politics at the community level.

The community involvement was impressive. Local and national scholars presented at three symposia (2013 – Maine in the Civil War Sesquicentennial Symposium, 2014 – Civil War Legacies in Maine and 2015 – The Civil War in American Memory: Legacies in Our Time).

Communities in Belfast, Bethel, Gorham, Jay, Livermore, Mexico, Pittsfield, Portland, Presque Isle, Rumford, Scarborough, Westbrook, and Windham hosted book discussions, author talks, films, plays, and final celebrations; ultimately 3,712 people attended 102 events across the state. Scholars from University of Southern Maine, Bowdoin College, Maine Maritime Academy, Northern Maine Community College, University of Maine at Farmington and University of Maine at Augusta provided scholarly facilitation of book discussions, project development, and assisted with final performances.

In addition, the community teams created nine digital exhibits, displayed within Maine Memory Network’s Civil War gateway, in a section called “Communities and the War” site. At least 23 organizations were involved directly in creating the exhibits, and more than 130 individuals, approximately 60 of whom were students. Two hundred and five new individual primary sources items (photographs, letters, artifacts, documents) were added from 15 different collecting organizations.

Collaborative bonds have been formed and strengthened between libraries, historical societies, schools, and other community organizations. Conversations about history and race and the enduring legacy of the Civil War have been started–and must continue. Sadly, the recent shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing media coverage of heritage, is a tragic reminder of that. The dialogue inspired by Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War is needed now in our communities more than ever.

After two years immersed in the Civil War it’s hard to believe that we’ve come to the end of this project. While Larissa (Vigue Picard, MHS Director of Education) and I won’t miss the innumerable hours on the road, we will miss the people we’ve traveled to meet. Presque Isle, Pittsfield, Belfast, Livermore/Jay, Rumford, Bethel, Westbrook/Portland, Gorham, Windham and Scarborough are special places. They are towns with volunteers who go above and beyond when they sink their teeth into a project; sometimes, they had less material to work with than they thought, but they persevered. People have shared articles, resources, meals, warm smiles, and amazing conversations with us.

Thank you to all who participated in this journey. It’s been more fulfilling than I ever imagined that it could be.

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Civil War Monologues in Rumford Conclude Local & Legendary Programs

June 3 was a busy end-of-school-year evening in the Western Foothills Regional School District, yet an appreciative audience of parents, peers, faculty, and community members gathered in the auditorium at Mountain Valley Middle School (MVMS) to learn about lesser known Civil War figures.

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Local & Legendary: Rumford in the Civil War team leader, Nick Waugh, introduced team members and gave a brief overview of the year before turning things over to teacher Craig Milledge. Craig explained the Quest program at MVMS as an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a topic across all domains of learning. Every Wednesday for a trimester students in the Civil War Quest have enthusiastically engaged themselves in math (Venn diagrams of Confederate & Union strengths), language arts (book discussions with veterans of Gary Paulsen’s Soldier’s Heart), music, science, and history through the lens of the Civil War.

This trimester Diane Farrington’s students rose to her challenge to “tell someone’s story that you haven’t heard of.” Over the course of six weeks students researched people from the past, the role they played in the war, and their motives.

Eight students wrote and performed fascinating first person Civil War monologues. Dressed in homemade costumes, Emily Shackley, Emily Davis, Faith Riddick, Darin Buono, Kennedy Hamner, Mackenzie Arsenault, Alexis Chapin, and Aanisah Smith introduced the audience to nurses, a woman on the homefront, spies, a photographer, and a special soldier. Videographers Noah O’Leary and Nick Bourgoin captured the event for viewing at a later date.

Through first person monologues, historical figures Amanda Cordelia Kimball of Rumford and Rita Sanborn introduced us to nursing during the Civil War. Both women shared their experiences of nursing: Amanda at St. Johns’ College Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, and Rita as a volunteer in the hospital where her husband was hospitalized. Julia Pendleton Allen, wife of a Confederate soldier, shared aspects of life at home with a young son and an absent husband. Through the words of Confederate spies Isabella Marie Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, audience members were reminded that women played an important and scandalous role in the “War Between the States.” Renowned Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady told us that he was compelled to take photos of the battlefields because, “the most important thing to me is that the Civil War be remembered.” While sitting at his desk, John Summerfield Staples shared how he came to be the paid “stand-in” for President Abraham Lincoln. He received a bounty of $500 and saw little action during the year he served as the president’s representative, primarily working as a clerk and prison guard.

After the enjoyable, informative performance, the cast and audience enjoyed pizza and drinks while watching a slide show of Local & Legendary events throughout the year. This journey to the past would not have been possible without the efforts of teachers Craig Milledge and Diane Farrington, team leader and photographer Nick Waugh, and Local & Legendary team members Luke Sorensen, Nghia Ha, Jane Peterson, Mary Gamble, Adelaide Solomon Jordan, and Barb Radmore.

Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for this post. Thanks to Nick Waugh for taking the photos.

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Stepping Back in Time with the Washburns of Livermore

Visitors to the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center may have felt like time travelers when they stepped out of their cars on the beautiful spring evening of Monday, May 18.

IMG_1410IMG_1413Young men attired in 1860s garb directed community members to the Farmer’s Cottage where young women in long dresses welcomed them at the door and passed out programs for the evenings’ entertainment.

The occasion was the culminating event of the year-long Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War project in Jay/Livermore. From September – May, 10 students from Spruce Mountain High School “lived” with the celebrated 19th century Washburn family and pursued an in-depth study of the Civil War, both nationally and on the homefront.

IMG_1408IMG_1407The evening began inside the 1870s Farmer’s Cottage with food and fellowship. Students mingled with parents and community members and engaged them in conversation about the project.

To paraphrase team leader and teacher Susan St. Pierre, sometimes it takes 21st century technology to discover the 19th century. Seated at laptops, students led visitors through sites related to their project, including a video about the how history can come alive through technology created by tech teacher Kymberli Bryant, and the Maine Memory Network exhibit the students created, “The Washburns of Livermore: A Maine Connection to the Civil War.”


While guiding guests through the exhibit, student Emily Hartford discussed the challenges involved in transcribing letters and the fun surprises in the correspondence between family members. For example, while Samuel Washburn’s letters to his brothers end with a distinctly 19th century closing–“Truly Yours S B Washburn”–they open with a salutation a 21st century teenager can appreciate–“Dear Bro.”

IMG_1412Shortly after 7PM, the crowd of more than 60 wandered over to the charming white church on the property for an enactment of the life of three of the Washburn siblings.

As student Sarah Collins narrated the story, classmates Peter Theriault (Israel Washburn Jr.), Alex Greenleaf (Sam Washburn) and Emilly LaFleur (Caroline Washburn Holmes) took turns reading letters written during the Civil War. The letters covered many topics–daily life, politics, battles, and family; a recurring theme was the frustration of writing to loved ones, but not receiving replies.

Perched at a high desk with quill pen in hand, Peter epitomized a politician–and for good reason, since Israel Washburn was Governor of Maine from 1861-63. He read selected letters to Washburn brother Elihu, a political ally of President Lincoln. Meanwhile, Alex as Sam resembled a daguerreotype of a 19th century naval officer come to life.


Rounding out the family was Emilly as Caroline, who was married to Dr. Freeland Holmes, a Civil War surgeon. She read letters from Freeland, while her young children–silent parts played with aplomb by the adorable Rylee and Rivers Purrington, the children of teacher Nate Purrington–sat playing with 19th century toys at her feet.

At the close of the program the teachers had a fun surprise for all the students and others who helped make the project a success–including Norlands director Sheri Leahan, school librarian Suzanne Cole, and several other RSU 73 staff in attendance, including superintendent Kenneth Healy.

IMG_1421Kym Bryant passed out commemorative tee-shirts printed with a quote from a Freeland Holmes letter–“How do your hens and chickens prosper?”–which had been a popular catchphrase with the students throughout the year.

Just as the shirts serve as a lasting reminder of a memorable experience, so too does the “Our Hands on History” course–and its enthusiastic students and teachers–serve as a model of authentic, hands-on history learning.

Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for this blog post.

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Drama and Song Mark Bethel’s Local & Legendary Finale

IMG_1389Gould Academy’s Bingham Auditorium was full on Sunday afternoon, May 17, for the Final Celebration of Local and Legendary: Bethel in the Civil War.

The celebration began with the singing of songs of the Civil War performed by the Androscoggin Chorale Chamber Singers, directed by Dr. John Corrie of Bates College.

Dr. Corrie (far right in photos below) gave a brief introduction to the importance of music during the Civil War period. In 1861 each Union regiment was required to have a 24-piece regimental band but as the need for weaponry increased bands were disbanded.


The audience was treated to a variety of songs, including familiar tunes, such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Goober Peas,” and “The Dixie War Song.” Many of the songs by George Frederick Root were less familiar to the audience and provided a better understanding of the sentiment of the time. One such piece was the classic and endearing “Just Before the Battle Mother.” The 13 singers ended with the moving spiritual “Steal Away.”

After a brief intermission, audience members were treated to the premier performance of My Dear Absent Husband–a dramatization of the Civil War letters of Private Stephen Richards and his wife Lydia, of Upton. Local & Legendary team member Tom Davis, a trustee of the Bethel Library Association, wrote the play based on the letters, which were transcribed by Gary Fuller.


Davis did comprehensive research to put the play together, obtaining information from the Adjutant General’s Report on the 30th Maine Regiment, the army records of Private Richards, and “Life on the Homefront: Bethel During the Civil War” an essay by Dr. Stanley Howe, also a team member.

IMG_1398The play allowed the audience to step into the life of a farm family in the waning years of the Civil War. Stephen and Lydia shared their daily life, frustrations, thoughts on the war, and their love for each other in the letters. The letters between 10-year-old daughter Lizzie and her father epitomized the caring relationship between the two. Narrator Lenny Hoy provided seamless and informative transitions between the reading of letters by Roddy Royer (Stephen), Lake Templeton (Lydia), and Corrine Nivus.

IMG_1400The afternoon performance closed with the entire audience rising to their feet and joining the Androscoggin Chorale Chamber Singers in a rousing rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In addition to Tom Davis, this fantastic final performance was made possible by the incredible teamwork of Gould teachers Brad Clarke and Savannah Sessions and other Gould employees who assisted with the lights and sound for the production; Dr. Stanley Howe and Randy Bennett of the Bethel Historical Society; and Michelle Conroy of the Bethel Library Association.

Post contributed by Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator, Maine Humanities Council

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Scarborough Students Highlight Local & Legendary Finale

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Twenty students in teacher Jessica Kelly’s Gifted and Talented class at Scarborough Middle School spent the 2014-2015 school year learning about the Civil War–nationally, and at home in Scarborough–through photographs, artifacts, and volunteers at the Scarborough Historical Society; reading a graphic novel about the war and corresponding with the author; participating in community discussions; and preparing a final performance.

On Thursday, May 14, they got to show off all their hard work, and the performance, at a final community celebration for the city’s Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War project. Also unveiled to the community during the event was the online exhibit produced by the team for Maine Memory Network, “Scarborough: They Answered the Call.”

The evening kicked off, to a multi-generational audience of nearly 100, with a welcome and introduction of Local & Legendary team members by team leader Celeste Shinay, Scarborough Public Library’s manager of programs and development. In addition to Jessica, other teams members included Mary Pickard, Bruce Thurlow, Carl Ross, and Linda McCloon of the Scarborough Historical Society.

Celeste then ran through a slideshow of the year’s highlights including orientation at Bowdoin College, field trips to the historical society by the students, research and digitizing of artifacts, and the creation of the MMN exhibit.

Clicking through several pages of the exhibit, Celeste showed off the many hours of research, digitizing, and writing the historical society team put into the story of how Scarborough residents participated in the war, and what the lives of those who survived were like thereafter. A sidebar features individual photographs of several of the soldiers highlighted, and a full list of every Scarborough resident who served is available at the historical society, thanks to the meticulous work of Carl Ross.

This all built to the main event, the student performance, which the students wrote themselves based on the stories in the exhibit, and a number of letters in the historical society’s collection. The play was full of good history–students took on the roles of real Scarborough soldiers and family members and read passages from the letters–and creatively envisioned, with one character providing some delightful comic relief. Historical images projected on screen provided a rich backdrop.

Following the performance, attendees were treated to an array of cookies and collegial conversation about the project year. While that year has now drawn to a close, the students, and the community, are likely to remember these experiences for a long time to come.

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“The Civil War in American Memory”: An Evening with David Blight

by Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator, Maine Humanities Council

If historians were rock stars, Civil War scholar David Blight would top the Billboard charts.

After three years of reading innumerable books and articles, as well as learning about Civil War history in 10 communities in Maine, I thought I had reached my personal Civil War saturation point. I was wrong. Professor Blight’s lecture, on May 7, 2015, at Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium, added at least three books to my reading list and several points to ponder as I try to move on from the Civil War. Judging from comments overheard I was not the only one so inspired.

Blight, a Yale professor and author, delivered a wide-ranging, sometimes humorous, always fascinating lecture entitled “The Civil War in American Memory: Legacies in Our Time.” This timely talk was the culminating public event for the three-year, NEH-funded Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War program.

Professor Blight spoke of the Civil War as “our first racial reckoning.” While it is easy to attribute the problems with our current police-community relations to the Civil War and Reconstruction, he reminded us that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

Blight, the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and  American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era explored the perilous path of remembering and forgetting, and talked about its tragic costs to race relations and America’s national reunion.

While audience members were arriving a slideshow highlighting the Maine Memory Network exhibits of the 2013–2015 Community Teams played in the background.

Meanwhile, students from the “Our Hands on History” class at Spruce Mountain High School, along with their teachers, and Local & Legendary team members from Rumford and Scarborough, had the opportunity to converse with Professor Blight.

Later, in his talk, Blight shared some of his thoughts from this meeting. Speaking directly to the students on why studying history is so important, Blight quoted from a 1962 Studs Terkel interview with author James Baldwin. Terkel asked Baldwin, “What is a sense of history?” Baldwin responded, “You read something that you thought only happened to you and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky. This is a great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks he is alone.”

Much of Blight’s talk focused on why “this event,”–the Civil War–still has a hold on us. Among others, and in addition to the original “racial reckoning,” his list of 10 reasons included:

  • The sheer number of Americans who have an ancestor who fought in the war–by some estimates, 1 in 3;
  • The “epic” nature of the war, in the classic sense with great trials, tribulations, and tragedy, and figures who were larger than life;
  • The massive loss of life
  • The ushering in of so-called “big government” with the establishment of multiple federal agencies, services, and taxes as a result of the war; and
  • The was as a story of unity–how the republic survived.

Blight supported his ten reasons by reviewing writings from the centennial celebration of the end of the Civil War in 1965, to the current day. He invoked a number of authors including Walt Whitman, Bruce Catton, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin to explore the unfolding American narrative of the Civil War.

During the question and answer period several participants advanced additional ideas about why the Civil War is still so compelling 150 years after it ended. One man called the Civil War our national “’What if’ moment–and we can’t let go of the what ifs.” Another person suggested that we are captivated by the nobility of the men who fought and that nobility seems to be missing in today’s world.

Perhaps, James Baldwin’s response that history keeps you from feeling alone helps to explain our collective interest in the American Civil War; there is something in it that resonates with each one of us. Whether it is the battlefield battles or the battle of states’ rights vs. federal rights, the questions of civil rights and human rights, or any number of other aspects of the war, the 100+ attendees at this talk left with more reasons to sustain their interest in it.

David Blight’s lecture is available as a podcast.

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“Reflections of the Civil War” in Pittsfield Draws 100

Sunday, May 3, was a beautiful spring day in Pittsfield–a day for yard work and outdoor activities–yet about 100 community members gathered at the First Universalist Church for Reflections of the Civil War: A Performative Celebration of Our Civil War Heroes and Memories. ABC Fox22 News covered the event.

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Still from Fox22 ABC 7 News out of Bangor. Reporter Ashley Paul covered the event.


Guangshuo Yang being interviewed for the Fox22 News piece. Photo credit: Mark Schumpert

An intergenerational audience of pre-schoolers through senior citizens learned about the Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War team’s project year and enjoyed a variety of performance pieces about Pittsfield’s and central Maine’s contributions to the war. A reception with historically-themed treats followed.

Team leaders Jane Woodruff (Heart of Pittsfield) and Guangshuo Yang (Chinese teacher, Maine Central Institute), along with team members Tom Brown (Pittsfield Historical Society), Lyn Smith (Pittsfield Public Library), and Jason Allen (history teacher, MCI) created an amazing event.

Guang summed up what team members learned in his closing remarks. “It’s not just about battles and great men, but about everyday men who accidentally become heroes and then return home.” He asked the audience to take the time to “look at your heritage and then look at the contemporary connections.”


Photo credit: Mark Schumpert

The afternoon included something for everyone. Vittles Restaurant provided a modern remake of Civil War gingerbread cake to go with NECCO wafers (a popular Civil War candy) and lemonade. The festivities began with MCI Class of 1964 alumni Lee Southard’s “Be Brave Ye Sons of Maine” played on CD. The song recounts Pittsfield soldier Walter Morrill’s prominent role at Gettysburg. (Read more about Captain Morrill in Pittsfield’s online exhibit.) That was followed by MCI teacher Steve Peterson, playing two Civil War songs on his banjo, including “Gray Coat Soldiers” by Gary Brewer, and reading two Civil War poems.

Debra Susi, MCI Theatre Arts teacher, created a multi-dimensional theatrical performance that followed the opening songs. The one-act play, A Veteran Returns, by Maine resident David Greenham, was the focal point of the afternoon.

MCI students Alex Harvey (Tom) and Alexis LaMarre (Fanny) gave a thought-provoking performance as a young couple discussing their futures. Tom, a Civil War veteran, has returned home to Sebec, Maine (about an hour north of Pittsfield, in Piscataquis County), and is wondering whether to stay or to seek his future elsewhere. He and Fanny discuss the changes in Sebec, their families, and the opportunities elsewhere as they try to figure out what their life after war will be.


IMG_20150503_142840005The play was book-ended by the reading of Civil War letters included in Pittsfield’s Maine Memory Network exhibit, Civil War Soldiers Impact Pittsfield.

Dressed in period clothing, and scattered throughout the audience, students Jesse Langford, Jessica Liebowitz, Emma Zerba, and Jacob Ackroyd took turns reading letters regarding enlistment, recruitment, and other important matters of the day.

Throughout the afternoon, the names of the 200 Pittsfield residents who fought in the war were displayed on a large screen.


Photo credit: Mark Schumpert

The event concluded with Peter Logiodice playing “Taps” and local re-enactors Carmen Kirkpatrick and Brandon Howe reading the names of the 24 local men who died in the war. Kirkpatrick and Howe provided historical color and information at events throughout the year.

This final Local & Legendary event–the first of five throughout May–provided a rousing conclusion to an intensive project year in Pittsfield. Congratulations to the entire team for their hard work and dedication!

Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for writing this post. She also took the three photos not otherwise credited.

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Soldier’s Heart Discussions in Pittsfield

Jeff Sychterz, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maine Augusta (Bangor campus), facilitated two energetic Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War discussions in Pittsfield this month.

Community members, high schoolers at Maine Central Institute, and Warsaw Middle School students read Soldier’s Heart: Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers by Gary Paulsen. A core group of participants attended both discussions which led to some lively exchanges.

Pittsfield 4.2.15Soldier’s Heart is a short (128 pages), but powerful young adult book that raises a multitude of questions. The first week Jeff started the discussion by saying that what struck him “was that he (Charley) went to war with no idea of why he went to war.” A woman shared that what struck her was “the horror of war, the realism in his thoughts, and that Charley was not mature enough to understand.”

A retired U.S. Marine jumped right into the heart of the matter when he said that Charley was “a case of PTSD waiting to happen!”  This led to a discussion on training, leadership, and family support systems from the Civil War to the present day and how all of these factor into the soldier’s experience.

High school students talked about how Charley “wanted to be accepted as a man like we want to be seen as adults” and that “he doesn’t know anything about war, like we talk about war but we know nothing about war.”

Pittsfield soldiersHeart (2)Veterans then shared why they enlisted: “I believed in the country. I saw it as a responsibility.” Participants discussed duty and responsibility, terms that we still associate with manhood; a woman suggested that duty is what kept Charley with his unit even when his mother wanted him to come home. A young Civil War re-enactor added that “you follow your brothers; you’d be a coward to run.”

The second discussion picked up where the first one left off with returning and new participants. The issues of why Charley fought and whether the war turn him into a man continued to create spirited discussion. In the book Charley said that the only thing the south understood was steel. Someone commented that similar comments are made today about our enemies.

Participants debated whether wars are fought for economic reasons, or for ideals like freedom? A teacher said that her students were more upset over the killing of horses than the killing of people. Another woman responded that it might be because the soldiers depersonalized the men that they were killing, but a horse doesn’t fit into this scenario so it is harder to be emotionless.

Pittsfield 4.15.15In both sessions Jeff asked, “Is there something that novels teach us that we can’t get from history?” Although participants did not directly answer his question the fact that people came back a second time to discuss the book and continued their conversations in the parking lot says something about the value of novels to extend our understanding. Through discussing Charley and his experiences participants were able to explore their thoughts about war and their response to it.

Join members of the “Local & Legendary: Pittsfield in the Civil War” team at the First Universalist Church on Sunday, May 3, at 2PM for their final celebration: “Reflections of the Civil War,” with the award-winning a cappella group Chameleon and a dramatic presentation by MCI students of the short play, A Civil War Veteran Returns, written by David Greenham. Refreshments will be offered following the formal presentation. The event is free and open to the public.

Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for writing this post.

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Local & Legendary Book Discussions in Livermore

Over the course of four weeks students in the “Our Hands on History” class at Spruce Mountain High School have participated in five book discussions. They began with two community wide book discussions at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center and finished by facilitating three discussions for seventh grade students in teacher Janet Ventrella’s class at Spruce Mountain Middle School. In all cases great conversation ensued.


The “Hands-on History” class at the Norlands.

Community members, local historians, retired teachers, the high school principal and the Superintendent of RSU 10 came together to discuss For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War by James McPherson with the students. McPherson’s book is a scholarly compilation and analysis of letters written by Civil War soldiers.

Bowdoin Professor Patrick Rael challenged participants to think about how historians work and how to evaluate a book written by an historian. Participants came up with three reasons why they found the authors work credible:

  1. He lets us draw our own conclusions,
  2. We don’t see him taking sides, and
  3. In the preface he goes to great lengths to explain his research methodology.

When asked why McPherson wrote his book, one veteran said, “I sense that he wants to get to the bottom line – what goes on in soldier’s minds.” A girl posited that based on letters in the book, at the beginning boys and men went for the adventure and to prove their manliness but after they’d “seen the elephant” their reasons changed. This led a boy to say that the book tries to demonstrate the difference between why you go to war and what sustains you once you are there.

The book raised many questions from participants. One man commented that although McPherson gives voice to many men, there were many men who were illiterate so we don’t have their stories: did these men have different reasons for fighting? Participants frequently referenced the book and their notes to support their thoughts on why men fought.

Two weeks later University of Southern Maine Associate Professor Libby Bischof led a group of students and their teachers in a discussion of This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. Libby led participants through a thoughtful discussion of this “game changer of a book which allowed people to see how modern the Civil War was and how it changed practices and perceptions.”

Libby discussion

Libby Bischof’s discussion group.

Participants discussed not just the massive amount of death attributed to the war, but also how dying on this scale changed the rituals of death into a business. Prior to the Civil War 90% of people died a “good death” at home attended by their loved ones. One student brought up the horror of the mass burials of soldiers on the fields where they fell and how townspeople were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead. Other students discussed how nurses and fellow soldiers sent letters home to the next of kin of dead soldiers in an attempt to bring closure to their families and to make sense of the dying. Students engaged in a lively conversation about mourning practices and burial rituals from 1860 to the present.

After successfully participating in three book discussions as part of their studies, seven high school students switched things up and became the discussion facilitators. Prior to leading discussions of the Newbery Honor book, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, students read and discussed the book in class, talked about how to facilitate a book discussion, and developed questions to guide the conversation with three classes of seventh grade students.

7th gr discussion

The discussion group with the 7th graders.

Students talked about Homer and his predilection to lie, the influence of other characters on Homer, and what Homer’s motives were. They related all of this to the Civil War and their lives in the 2010s. One boy liked the book because it was “an accurate representation of what the Civil War was like.” A seventh grade girl said she liked the book because, “It made me think about the past and want to know more.”

Students discussed motivating factors of the war including: “Both sides wanted to protect their cultures.” They were reminded by one of the facilitators that “there’s definitely more than one reason why everyone was fighting.” Each class of students walked away from the discussion with something new to add to their understanding of the Civil War thanks to the extremely well prepared facilitators.

On Monday May 18, at 7:00PM, there will be an unveiling of the Maine Memory Network exhibit, “The Washburns of Livermore,” at Norlands, followed by a student-written and performed dramatization of the family’s story. All are welcome!

Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for writing this post.

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