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

Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stands at Lookout Point on Lookout Mountain. With either his wife, Susan, or their son, Christopher, in tow, Swartz has visited many Civil War battlefields east of the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swartz)

Part two of a four-part series

I’m talking this week with Brian Swartz, a former writer and editor for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. While with the paper, he started a regular column and blog called Maine at War. He belongs to Richardson’s Civil War Round Table in Searsport, Maine and for the past two years has chaired the Bangor Historical Society committee that organized Drums on the Penobscot: A Civil War Experience.

Yesterday, Brian explained the origins of his work, and we began to get into the particulars of how he pulls his material together. 

Chris Mackowski: You talk about old newspapers. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at old editions and I just find them to be fascinating sources of soldier letters, particularly—and as sources they’re often overlooked. I’ve gone through old editions of the Bangor Whig & Courier and found gold nugget after gold nugget.

Brian Swartz: I will agree with you there. Obviously, you and I have researched some familiar pages. I find that I ignore the reports from the battlefield and the general press accounts. They’re inflated and inaccurate. But when you read the soldier accounts. . . . The soldier either sent the letter directly to the paper or a proud mother or father asked the paper to publish a letter. The nuggets that are dropped in, a paragraph at a time in these pages, take you so incredibly close to the war.

I am wrapping up research I’m doing for book two of my “Maine at War” book series. I just wrapped up Brandy Station, and that included a visit about a week and a half ago to Fleetwood Hill for the first time since the Civil War Trust [now American Battlefield Trust] had acquired it and knocked down that house that was on top of it. In my research, I found a letter published in a paper written from a trooper in the 1st Maine Cavalry. He participated in that charge up and over Fleetwood Hill, and his observations about what the regiment did afterwards—it was almost like riding alongside him on a horse. It was incredible, and it was in a newspaper.

Chris: Do you have particular papers that you prefer over others?

Brian: Yes. The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, the Portland Daily Press, the Maine Farmer, which was out of Augusta, dedicated to agriculture in Maine and had a four-page issue every week that often had excellent material like letters and reports and such from people that were involved in the war, as well as some astute political observations. There was the Eastport Sentinel Downeast. And when I have time, I go to research the Lewiston newspapers from the period.

I should mention one more paper: the Republican Journal in Belfast was a pro-Democrat, anti-Lincoln administration newspaper, and it gives delightful insight into the other side of the coin.

Chris: You also mentioned that you spend a fair amount of time in the state archives. I know they’ve got a really neat collection of stuff. Are there any particular treasures there you appreciate?

Brian: In researching the 5th Maine Infantry, I came across the commanding officer’s report of the regiment’s participation in the Chancellorsville campaign, particularly in their effort to get past the Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights at the battle of Second Fredericksburg. And then they went out and fought the battle of Salem Church. It was very well written and very detailed. I cannot remember that officer’s name, but it comes across that it really bothered him that his regiment was so shot to pieces.

There are so many treasures. The one that I found recently that I just finished writing up: Freeman McGilvery was promoted to major in late 1862 or early 1863, and that opened up the captaincy of the 6th Maine Battery, which he had raised. The lobbying that went back and forth in the letters to the state house in Augusta is very interesting, almost to the point of being hilarious in the commentary between the men and some of the officers.

Then of course there are Sarah Sampson’s and Isabella Fog’s letters, who were both women from Maine that became volunteer nurses. Whenever volunteer nurses arrived, they usually dedicated themselves for the rest of the war serving as nurses. Both them wrote letters that are on file in the state archives.

Chris: One of the things I think is really neat about your blog is that you do have a lot of that civilian aspect—the home front, the contributions of Mainers in Maine during the war—which I think is an aspect of the war that tends to get overlooked in favor of the mud and blood and battlefield stuff. What do you think it was like to be in Maine, so far away from the front lines during that time?

Brian: If you had a direct connection with the military, like a son, husband, cousin, uncle, father, etc., who was going to war, it was difficult, especially depending on where you lived.

In the larger cities, there seemed to be more of a support network for women who saw their household income threatened because the man who was providing the money went to war. Thirteen dollars a month [a private’s pay] isn’t going to cover much. If you go out into the outlying towns, it became more serious, in the sense that now if a family has lost a father and son that went off to war, now mom is home, usually with younger children. How is she going to till the fields, chop the firewood, cook, and raise the kids? It was tough.

The lack of communications really made that loneliness more acute. The military was good at getting the mail to and from the soldiers and, in many families, the women wrote frequently. Say there was an elderly father left behind, or a middle-aged father: he would write to his boy that went off to war. Friends would write to soldiers.

But the press accounts about battles would come back before any news about casualty lists, and that would lead to a lot of fear. I sensed that particularly in the pages of the newspapers. People just worried.

There were many others who didn’t care that the war was going on. Some merchants did well, especially manufacturers of wartime goods and people who owned steamers and sailing ships that the war department would lease or rent—however they paid for that.

There was an aspect where it was almost like Vietnam, which was also concurrent to my growing up. For those who had a connection to the war, the war was going on. For the rest of us who had no family over there, it was just a story on the evening news, and I sensed that the Civil War could have been that way in Maine, again particularly in the larger towns and cities. If you had a physical connection to the war, it was happening. If you did not, it was just a press account in the newspaper, or maybe a story told at the general store or something.

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Brian’s blog successfully captures the soldier’s-eye view of Maine at war, on the home front and on the front lines. “I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did,” he says in tomorrow’s segment. We’ll explore that further, and we’ll talk about the things Brian has learned from those men by spending so much time reading their accounts.

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One Response to Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part two)

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