Waldo at War, 1863-1865
This is the first in a monthly series dealing with Waldo County during the Civil War Era. It is related to a grant provided by the Maine Humanities Council to the Belfast Free Library. The library, in cooperation with the Belfast Historical Society, the Game Loft, and Belfast Senior College, will be presenting programs and exhibits related to the war. Sources used in the preparation for this series include "History of Belfast," by Joseph Williamson, "This Republic of Suffering," by Drew Gilpin Faust, and back issues of two local newspapers, The Republican Journal and the Progressive. Frequent reference to Fact Checker on the Internet proved helpful.
When Fort Sumter was attacked In 1861 it had been 15 years since the war with Mexico. The Mexican War had affected few men from our area and had been over within a year of the beginning of hostilities. Fewer still alive could recall the War of 1812 nearly a half century earlier. A wave of patriotic indignation following the outrage in Charleston Harbor spread across the northern states. Events such as storms, fire and floods created excitement, but war provided the ultimate thrill, especially to those who had not experienced its horror and destruction first hand.
The President’s call to arms to defend the Union fell on eager ears. Waldo County farm boys as well as young men in town, like their counterparts in other states opposed to a breakup of the Union, saw an opportunity for adventure, a chance to prove their manhood by defending the nation. War would provide a break in the routine life of planting and harvesting. To “go for a soldier” promised an experience like no other. Further inducement was provided by broadsheets and ads in the local newspapers. “Wanted, 100 recruits for the 4th Maine Regiment. Pay from $13 to $21 per month with $100 paid on discharge.” This was indeed appealing to many young men. In 1861 the average wage for farm workers and general laborers was $6 per week. The more skilled blacksmiths and carpenters could make up to $10 for a week’s work. In 1860 the average income for all American workers was $600.
Local businesses were quick to help spread the war fever with ads like the one created by A.J. Stevens Co., at corner of Washington and Pleasant streets. “WAR, WAR, WAR! The people are bound to preserve the Union, they are also bound to preserve their money.” Thus was a bargain advertised.
Women also were in demand. Messers Gilbert Curtis and Sam Dillanay of Winterport put out a call for “coat makers for a large lot of military coats and soldiers drawers.” The people of Waldo County, like most in other free states, were committed to the preservation of the United States. Most believed the southern insurrection would be over soon.
Upon becoming a state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise it was necessary to reorganize militia units that had been governed by Massachusetts. Militias had been essential since colonial times as there were no municipal police until Boston, and then New York, provided for law enforcement in the 1840s. The federal government did not provide a large standing army during peacetime, calling up state militias as the need arose. In 1847, prior to the Mexican War, the U.S. Army consisted of fewer than 7,000 men, most stationed west of the Mississippi in cavalry regiments. The Belfast Greys, the local militia company, had been called to action only once. In 1839 they were sent to Aroostook County due to a border incident involving British Canada. Loggers from New Brunswick and Quebec had come into Maine near the Aroostook River to harvest Maine timber. Maine, backed by the Federal Government, wanted them out, claiming the area was part of the United States. The so-called Aroostook War was settled peacefully, no shots fired and no casualties incurred.
In 1847 the Belfast Militia Company was reformed as part of the 9th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “New Englanders”. Volunteers from all the New England States contributed to its roster. They were to prepare to go to Mexico. At the time a company of militia consisted of 100 men with officers elected by the troops. Few of the soldiers or officers had any formal military training. Logistical problems, like providing shelter, food for both men and animals, medical care, and general sanitation, were learned on the job. Tactics were adapted from whatever could be learned from reading about previous military encounters. A few men from the Belfast unit saw action in Mexico, suffering 13 casualties from wounds and illness. Following the adventure in Mexico the local militia company was renamed the Belfast Rifles with a complement of 70. Later, in 1857, an artillery company was added. These units were locally maintained, the men having to purchase their own uniforms. Stipends for service were paid. Most arms were provided by the Federal government. Militia companies would be a major part of the Union Army.
In August 1858 a muster of area militia companies was held in Belfast. Dignitaries attending included the mayor, the governor, and special guest, the honorable Senator Jeff Davis of Mississippi. Davis, a West Point graduate holding the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army, reviewed the massed troops and then spoke to the assembled crowd. “With such troops as I see before me we may defy the combined forces of the world and chant the song of freedom forever.” Three years later Davis would look over a different army and perceive a different concept of freedom.