By Janet Lyons, Maine Humanities Council’s Consulting Project Coordinator for Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War
The first weekend in March was sunny, with a taste of spring; at the Scarborough Public Library it was also all things Civil War. An author talk, three book discussions, and several fascinating speakers drew community members of all ages to the day and a half of “One Book, One Community” events.
Jean Flahive, author of Billy Boy: The Sunday Soldier of the 17th Maine kicked the event off with a talk about how her husband introduced her to the story of Billy Laird of Berwick and how through research she crafted her historical novel to tell his story.
She explained that the “Sunday soldier” in the book title referenced Civil War slang used to describe an unsuitable soldier. Audience members asked many questions about Civil War research and creating a story based on local lore.
Participants than had the opportunity to attend the first of two book discussion of Billy Boy with Adam Tuchinsky, Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine. Ms Flahive joined participants in discussing the story and the lure of history.
Like many book discussions on Civil War era books, participants spoke about fictional characters and historical figures with the passion one normally reserves for discussing close friends and family. As one participant in the morning discussion said, “Billy Boy draws people into the experience of history.” In the afternoon Ms Flahive reviewed the history of the book which led to a discussion of society in the 1860s and today.
University of Southern Maine Associate Professor of History and Department Chair Libby Bischof facilitated a lively discussion of Picture the Dead with middle school students as their parents observed. Teacher Jessica Kelly chose the book because it demonstrated the role that primary sources play in writing a fiction book and it showed how events impacted life on the battlefield and on the homefront.
When asked what they remembered from the book student answers ranged from, “I liked the pictures in the scrapbook, they were clues to what will happen” to “It was 35% history, 45% ghost story and the rest was mystery.” A girl commented that her favorite character was Quinn even though he was evil, dark, and weird. This led to a discussion of how the photographs in the book functioned as a character.
Throughout the day library participants could view “What They Carried” a collection of impeccable reproductions of items that Civil War soldiers carried in their packs, including government issued supplies, weapons, and personal items. Mark Matteau, a Civil War re-enactor and historian, provided participants a hands-on look at, and explanation of, the items in his collection.
Saturday finished with a fascinating slide presentation by Karen Sherry, Curator of American Art and Director of Collections, Portland Museum of Art. Karen discussed how Winslow Homer’s iconic images in Harper’s Weekly helped to shape perceptions of the Civil War.
Several dozen hardy souls returned on Sunday afternoon for presentations on “The 2nd Maine Cavalry: Horse Soldiers of the Civil War” and “Soldier’s Heart: The Hidden Wounds of the Civil War.”
Civil War historian and preservationist Steve Bunker told stories of the interesting assortment of Maine horse soldiers and their distinguished record during the war. Audience members had the opportunity to view his impressive collection of firearms and swords used in the Civil War.
Halfway through the presentation, Steve gave the audience a little “wake up” call (not that we needed it…he was fascinating) when he actually fired one of the rifles. No bullet–just a cap! But the sound, flash, and residual smell of sulfur made it feel very real.
The term “Soldier’s Heart” was used to describe the psychological change found in returning Civil War veterans. Steve Bentley, author and advocate for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), showed a video on PTSD that he produced in the early 2000s. The images in the video–from Vietnam, and the two World Wars–brought home the horrors of what soldiers have faced during wartime.
Many things have changed since the Civil War but the emotional challenges veterans encounter when they return home to civilian life remain. Steve reminded us that Togus in Augusta, was the first “veteran’s home” to open in 1866 after President Lincoln signed an act creating the National Asylum (later changed to Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1865.
Kudos to Celeste Shinay, Manager of Programming and Development at Scarborough Public Library, and her colleagues for creating a well organized, dynamic weekend of “Local & Legendary: Scarborough in the Civil War” events!