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War: Views From the Homefront

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society and Thomaston Historical Society

Those who remained in Maine during the Civil War relied on letters from soldiers or others, newspaper accounts, and general gossip to follow the war effort.

In their own letters, Mainers often expressed opinions about the war and an interest in its progress. As a few such letters indicate, emotions ran high about the war.

A month before the official start of the Civil War, a letter from John Bailey to Edward O'Brien of Thomaston reflects fears about the war based on economic disruptions.

Bailey, who was in Georgia to oversee the shipment of lumber to the O'Briens, writes that their order likely would be delayed because of the approaching hostilities. He writes, "… If it had not been for these d-m Abolition times. But I am in hopes Lincoln will persue a different course than what his hot head Abolition friends desire him to: for that question has played out in this country. I think it has got its groth and has not long to live."

Bailey's hopes were not realized.

In between comments about investments, finances, family births and deaths, Josiah Pierce (1792-1866) of Gorham writes to his sister Hannah Pierce of Baldwin on April 19, 1861, seven days after the start of the Civil War.

Pierce and other members of his family had long been involved in Democratic politics in Maine, were lawyers, judges, and farmers.

Pierce's distress over the future of the nation was unmistakable, and, unlike many of his time who expected the war to be short, Pierce did not foresee a quick victory for the Union.

"But alas! How are we to day in the midst of a Revolution – a fraternal war – a divided people – No longer - & never will be again the United States – Slaughtering our Kindred – and bringing unnumbered – woes, suffering, & death. & no one can see or fore tell when this state of things will have an end!"

Hannah Pierce (1788-1873), who remained single and was the eldest of eight siblings who survived to adulthood, and Josiah were close. They were frequent correspondents – the trip from Gorham to Baldwin, while only about 20 miles, was difficult to negotiate in bad weather and challenging other times due to both siblings' responsibilities.

"We have foolishly - & wickedly – thrown away – the rich blessings, left us by our fathers - Wild reckless fanaticism. North & South. has produced these terrible fruits. All might have been well- by a little Compromise – a little yielding on the negro questions I feel excessively sad about these troubles. I little thought you & I should outlive our Country’s Our Nation’s – name, being, & glory!" Pierce writes to his sister.

Although a Democrat, he did not name Lincoln or the Republicans in his outpouring about the war. Instead, he focused on the futility of war itself. Pierce writes:

"I suppose war in its most hidious and revolting aspects – will go on till – one or both sides- are exhausted – and then when vast amounts of property are wasted – trade ruined thousands killed – or crippled – hundreds of families covered with mourning - & poverty. Some fortunate military chief - will assume the power - & establish despotism. I do not expect to see the end of this war."

Again, putting politics aside in favor of his support for the nation, Pierce writes, "As we are situated here we must sustain the Government at Washington – we must not let our Capitol fall into the hands of the desperate Southern Secessionists – therefore I think the President has done right in calling out 15,000 men to protect our National City – There is great excitement in Gorham – more in Portland – still greater in Boston & New York."

The Pierces wrote little about the war during the intervening years, although the subject did appear from time to time in their letters.

In 1864, D.B. Prince, who ran a school in York, Pennsylvania where Josiah's daughter Nancy taught, wrote to the elder Pierce in August 1864 asking about land prices in Maine.

Prince and his son were considering buying a farm in New England. He says, "If the war should continue much longer, it will be desirable to be farther from the border." In fact, Nancy Pierce left her teaching job with Prince, in part because of the war.

As the war continued, infirmities of old age, droughts that harmed crops, rising taxes and loss of income dominated the siblings' letters.

Another, quite different concern from the home front is revealed in a letter from Peter Sanborn to his brother Joseph Sanborn of East Readfield, written on April 26, 1861. Joseph Sanborn is concerned that his son Emery and a friend of his have enlisted.

In 1860, 18-year-old Emery Sanborn was a student at Kents Hill School and a number of former Kents Hill students reportedly had enlisted.

Peter Sanborn writes from Portland to report his progress in tracking down the younger Sanborn and his friend Dickey. As far as he has learned, neither of the youths had enlisted and Peter Sanborn was hoping to intercept them at Gray.

He then comments, "War feeling is very high here – Nothing important since yesterday which you have seen I suppose. That is 'old Abe' threatens I they molest the troops [?] in Baltimore to reduce the City to Ashes, & that Beauregard has sent word also to Uncle Abe to remove the women & children before Saturday from Washington when he is to sack the city — I hope old Scott will give him a warm reception ––"

There is no evidence that Emery Sanborn served in the military during the war.

Some nine months later, in February 1862, Peter Sanborn again comments on the war, this time in a letter to his daughter, Sarah. He was under no illusions about the potential effects of the war – at home and on the soldiers.

Sarah Sanborn letter to father, 1862
Sarah Sanborn letter to father, 1862
Maine Historical Society

" The 14 Regiment left at about 8 1/2 oclock this morning –– Most if them went off in high glee –– Some few seemed to be loth to leave – I noticed one man after all his companions were in the cars stood beside the road with a woman holding on to him (his wife I suppose) who seemed determined to retain him At length an officer ordered him into the cars and I saw no more of him –– poor fellows! Many of them have seen Augusta for the last time."

In November 1862, in a letter to her father about her schooling, friends and other activities, Sarah Sanborn writes a few lines that suggest her interest in following the war: "I am glad that Mc Lellan is superseded by Burnside, and, I hope the latter may prove himself worthy of the position - I wish if you have any papers to spare –– daily papers I mean –– you would send me one or two, if convenient-"

In 1864, Peter Sanborn again mentions the war to his daughter, who is studying at the Hudson River Institute and Claverack College in New York and about to travel there. Sanborn's comments are serious, but have a lighthearted tone.

He writes, "There is nothing talked of here but the invasion of Maryland by the Rebels. I hope they will not get so far as Claverack or New York City for I should not like to have you & Golphus captured and carried down the to Libby prison –– Still should that be your fortune I hope you have wrote an elaborate description of what you see & hear there ––"

In November 1862, Ira E. Getchell of Winslow writes to Ellen Forbes, a nurse in Washington, D.C., where he had visited recently. Getchell was about 30 at the time.

"I find my Ideas in regard to the War changed somewhat since my visit to W. before I was only anxious to have the army increased indefinitely expend all the resources of the North for the crushing out of the Rebellion but seeing the cost in life and treasure."

He added, "Seeing the dark side finding a Brother offered a sacrafice makes me to realize the cost of Liberty the worth of our Institutions the danger of haste (almost sometimes a conservative) and now I have said it I feel ashaimed But to see how much is expected of our army the work to be done and how little has been accomplished I fear that nothing short of Divine Interposition can save our country from ruin but I_m blue excuse me.

He tried, too, for a note of optimism, "We have a grand army a new Commander an honest President (in whom I put great confiden) wealth, an Inteligent People, and a just cause."

He went on to other topics, but closed the letter asking for "gossip" from Washington about McClellan's removal and the army's progress.

Information was crucial and anxieties about individuals and the Union on the minds of many at home.