Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part one)

Brian Swartz (photo courtesy of Gabor Degre)

Part one of a four-part series

Much romance surrounds the state of Maine’s role in the Civil War, in large part because of the myth of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his role on Little Round Top. However, as Tom Huntington points out in his new book Maine Roads to Gettysburg: How Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Howard, and 4,000 Men from the Pine Tree State Helped Win the Civil War’s Bloodiest Battle, there was more to Gettysburg than Chamberlain.

Writer Brian Swartz, a native Mainer himself, has been exploring the Pine Tree State’s role in the war in an even wider and deeper way. His weekly blog, Maine at War, which he’s been writing since the Sesquicentennial, tells the story of “soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians” sent “south to preserve their country in the 1860s.”

“‘Maine at War’ introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state’s honor during that terrible conflict,” the blog explains. “We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it.” Swartz also adds a warning: “Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality.”

Having deep roots of my own in Maine and a deep pride in Mainers on the battlefield, I reached out to Brian to talk about his work. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Brian Swartz: Let me begin with a brief introduction. I grew up in Brewer [Maine]. We had a house on the edge of my grandparents’ farm, and it was on Chamberlain Street, so there’s always been, for me at least since I was very young, a name recognition with Joshua Chamberlain. [Chamberlain was born in Brewer, on Chamberlain Street, and his birthplace still stands.]

I think it was in the winter of 2011 that I approached the top brass of Bangor Daily News, where I was working as the special sections editor and also the editor of The Weekly, which was a 12-page broadsheet that we published every Thursday in the greater Bangor area. I proposed writing a monthly column about Maine’s involvement in the Civil War, and it was going to be called “Maine at War.” I was instructed to focus just on Maine and not the general campaigns of the war.

Initially, I believed there was not much material out there, but that was due to my ignorance. Once I began researching Maine’s involvement in the war, I realized that the state’s contribution to saving the Union was substantial, both in terms of the military and the civilians at home.

Being a transplanted Mainer—my parents are a Virginian dad and a Maine-born mother. I was born in Victoria, Texas, where my father was stationed with the Air Force. My parents divorced in the late 1950s, and Mom moved us “home” to Brewer, Maine, where her parents lived—so I grew up in Maine. I have a tremendous love for the state and for the people who tough it out here. It’s a difficult state in which to make a living. The more I researched Maine’s involvement in the war, the more I really came to appreciate what our ancestors had done to help save the Union.

Chris Mackowski: Did you have a particular interest in the Civil War that made you pitch this idea?

Brian: Yes. The Civil War centennial started in 1961, of course. I was growing up in Brewer at the time. I was in school and the Bangor Daily News—ironically, my future employer—every Saturday in the comics ran a strip that was based on some event happening in the Civil War that particular week. I loved it.

I’ve always enjoyed history, particularly military history, and in trading letters with my dad, I was telling him what I was reading and telling him about the Civil War, and he mentioned that he is descended from several Virginia Confederates, most of them from the Shenandoah Valley.

It turned out that my great-grandfather, Joseph Swartz of Rockbridge County, which includes Lexington, had served in the Richmond forts in the winter of 1864 and 1865. He was reluctantly dragooned into the military at either 16 or 17 and survived the war. He married a woman, her name was Elizabeth Ochiltree, whose had three of her four brothers die in Confederate service. Two of them died of disease while serving in the 5th Virginia Infantry. The youngest brother was drafted in the summer of 1864 into the 14th Virginia Cavalry and then killed in a skirmish outside Cedarville in November 1864.

This information from my dad gave me a connection to the war and—I cannot call it a “visceral connection,” but it was like “Wow, we had people here?” It just brought an interest in the Civil War more to life than an interest in World War I or the Revolutionary War. I’ve been a fan of the Civil War all my life. I took my family to Gettysburg the first time in 1989, and was enamored with the place. It was much more than what I had expected.

Then, as the Civil War Sesquicentennial approached, I got this idea for a monthly column. I pitched it, it was approved, and was called “Maine of War,” and I started immediately in April 2011 with a blog post about Fort Sumter. There was a particular Mainer who was supposed to be aboard the Powhatan, the big Navy steamer that was actually sent off to Pensacola instead.

I continued with the column monthly for about a year, and then when I was assigned editorship of The Weekly, we needed material to fill the pages, so the column became weekly. The print edition continued until my retirement from the Bangor Daily News in April 2014, but I published my first blog post on March 6, 2012, and that has continued weekly to this day.

Chris: One of the things I like so much about your blog is that you’ve got a lot of material that is really well researched, and you’re able to keep the content current and fresh and updated. What goes into putting this together every week?

Brian: Research. Mostly my own, and occasionally somebody provides me information. Usually, that comes from a descendant of a Maine soldier who served in the war. Some of the stories I’ve told have come that way. I have others that have been provided to me that I haven’t written yet.

I’ve spent countless hours at the Maine State Archives with Dave Cheever, who is the Maine State Archivistand a good friend of mine. He is also a Civil War buff and extremely knowledgeable about Maine’s involvement in the war.

I’ve also spent far too many hours researching the Maine newspapers that were published from 1861-1865, just looking for material, sometimes specifics, sometimes just seeing what’s in a weekly newspaper, like the Maine Farmer, which, despite its name, turned out to be a very good source of Maine-based material in the Civil War—just going through edition by edition to see what they’ve got.

I pull all of that together, and then craft the individual blog posts. Some of them are in a series. I just finished one up on nurse Sarah Sampson of Bath, who should have her own Mercy Street-type TV show or movie. From my naivety in the early winter of 2011, believing there wasn’t much information out there on Maine’s involvement in the Civil War, I’ve come to realize that I could write these blog posts for another 50 years and not even begin to touch what’s out there.

————

As former journalists, Brian and I both appreciate the value of an old newspaper as a research tool. In tomorrow’s segment, we’ll talk a little more about that, as well as some of his other favorite sources as he researches the stories of Maine at war.

This entry was posted in Books & Authors, Civilian, Common Soldier, Internet, Websites & Blogs, Sesquicentennial and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply