Field & Homefront: Bethel during the Civil War

Text by Gould Academy juniors Maddie Simard, Cullen Boone, Brooke Kelly, Will Cole, and Will Harvey

Images from Bethel Historical Society, Maine Historical Society, and Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum

When the first shots of the American Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, the people of Bethel generally stood neutral on the issue of slavery.

Bethel Zouaves militia company, Bethel, ca. 1862

Bethel Zouaves militia company, Bethel, ca. 1862

Item Contributed by
Bethel Historical Society

Nevertheless, Bethel responded to the call of war, as did other Maine towns.

However, Bethel's support of Union forces was not limited to the soldiers it sent out. Local citizens supported the men on the front lines in many ways.

For instance, some 50 women formed the Ladies Union Aid Society, which sent pillows, handkerchiefs, shirts, towels, dried fruits, and many other materials to soldiers.

The ladies' efforts were perhaps one of the most visible illustrations of Bethel's support for the Union cause.

The Civil War years in Bethel also "marked the greater industrialization of the town, the growth of the summer tourist trade with many hotels and boarding houses being established throughout the town."

Even the Ladies Union Aid Society employed industrial methods to provide aid to the front line. On June 6, 1862, according to the group's minutes, "two ladies came in with sewing machines, aiding greatly in forwarding the work of making shirts and drawers." At the time, most work was done by hand.

Also during the war, an outbreak of smallpox affected the town. In February 1863, a soldier was reported to have carried the disease home with him.

During the course of the war, about 16 percent of soldiers from Bethel died. But 47 percent of the town's 180 soldiers never returned home because they settled elsewhere.

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted federal land to people from the Union. As the soldiers went to other places in the United States, they discover much better land for agricultural purposes, as well as many job opportunities. This situation was common for the State of Maine as a whole.