BANGOR — When Brian Swartz first began writing about Maine and the Civil War almost a decade ago, he had what is likely a common misconception among Mainers.
“I thought, ‘There can’t be too much material out there because it was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the 20th Maine and Little Round Top — and that’s all there was,’” the Hampden journalist recalled recently. It was, he admits, a bit naïve in retrospect.
Eight years, dozens of newspaper columns and more than 400 blog posts later, Swartz’s new book — “Maine at War — Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg” (Maine Origins Publications, Brewer, $30) — is a testament to just how much more there is to Maine’s Civil War story than one hot July afternoon on a hill on the outskirts of Gettysburg.
A 27-year veteran of the Bangor Daily News, Swartz first started writing a “Maine at War” column for the newspaper in 2011 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That eventually morphed into a blog of the same name, and upon his retirement in 2014 he began to seriously explore the possibility of a book.
He credits his now publisher and former BDN co-worker David Fitzpatrick with the original idea.
“The day that my first column published in 2011 he said, ‘Brian, you’ve got to save this material and turn it into a book,” Swartz said.
The “Maine at War” author will give a talk at the Bangor Public Library (145 Harlow St. in Bangor) on Tuesday, May 28, from 6-7:30 p.m. Copies of the book will be for sale and Swartz will sign them for readers. The book also can be ordered online from Amazon (beware of higher-priced copies from third-party sellers there), Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.
By statistics alone, it is an impressive book: 492 pages (including an index), approximately 125,000 words, more than 1,000 footnotes and 313 photos and illustrations. And it only covers the first two years of the war: two more volumes are planned, and Swartz said he is about halfway through Volume 2 right now.
None of that should dissuade a reader, however, or give the impression that it is the sort of dry, rote recounting of history that has put high school students to sleep for decades. Instead, Swartz takes names encountered in his exhaustive research and brings them to life through letters, diaries, military reports and other accounts.
“I wasn’t going to take what’s already been written and just rehash it,” he said. “I tried to present all the major characters as human beings and not just two-dimensional individuals.”
And so it is that the reader learns about people like Isabella Fogg from Calais, one of a number of Maine women who went to war as nurses. In Fogg’s case, her son belonged to a militia company in Calais that became part of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, which had many Downeast men in its ranks. Fogg and Ruth Mayhew (from Hancock County) were in Maryland by the fall of 1861 tending to soldiers in a hospital where spotted fever ran rampant.
Another character that comes to life in “Maine at War” is 1st Lt. William H. H. Rice of Ellsworth, a member of the 11th Maine who was sick with what was called Chickahominy Fever (likely malaria, Swartz said) during the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in May of 1862. As the regiment faced an intense Confederate attack, Rice responded to a call for every available man to fight, left his hospital bed and “grabbed a rifle and cartridge box” and led other sick soldiers to the front.
Though an officer, Swartz writes in his book that Rice fought “like an enlisted man” and managed to fire 17 shots before he was hit in the thigh by an enemy bullet. He was helped off the field by Sgt. James Morris of Cranberry Isles, but died in an Annapolis, Md., hospital on July 1.
Swartz said he considered that incident with the 11th Maine one of the key moments in the book because of what it revealed about the men from Maine. Even though some were sick and ran the risk of getting further injured (as was borne out with Rice), “these boys went out” to the fight, he said.
Also filling the pages of “Maine at War” is Adjutant General John Hodsdon, whom Swartz calls “a very capable man” tasked with the monumental administrative challenge of organizing and overseeing the military units Maine sent to the war (though the 20th Maine is the best-known of the state’s Civil War infantry regiments, there were 32 such units in total from the Pine Tree State).
Another character is Charles Clark, whom Swartz said he called Charlie because he was a student at Foxcroft Academy when the war broke out in 1861. Clark recalled later he “piled up my Greek and Latin books” and enlisted on April 24, with other classmates, less than two weeks after Fort Sumter was fired upon in South Carolina.
“We were all young,” Clark wrote years afterward. “The most of us had seen nothing of the world.”
Swartz was young, too, when he first got interested in the Civil War. Growing up in Brewer, he was seven years old in April of 1961 when the Bangor Daily News began running a color cartoon in its Saturday edition highlighting a Civil War event that coincided with the paper’s publication date.
“I read that religiously,” said Swartz, who now lives in Hampden but frequently spends time with family in Hancock County. “I remember cutting them out and pasting them into scrapbooks. By the time I was 10, I was reading every book I could find
on the Civil War.”
A desire to see the battlefields took hold early, too, but was set aside due to marriage, having children and pursuing a career. He finally made it to Gettysburg in 1989, and it remains his favorite and a travel destination at least once a year. He has visited others ranging from Fort Pulaski in Georgia to the Battle of Corydon in Indiana (the only battle site in that state, a minor battle the Confederates won in 1863).
Along the way, Swartz said he has repeatedly crossed paths with characters from his writings. Charles Clark, for example, went on to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Chancellorsville campaign in 1863. Being able to tell stories such as Clark’s (the Medal of Honor part fits into the Volume 2 timeline) has been both memorable and meaningful for Swartz.
“It’s been an honor to write about all these heroes from Maine and to tell their stories,” he said.