Veterans Day

By Rob Wasserstrom | Oct 31, 2019
Source: Rob Wasserstrom

On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, take a look at one of those Civil War statues and ask yourself: What did those men fight for?

We should all be grateful for Maine’s role in freeing our country from slavery. Before the war ended, 70,000 farm boys and lumbermen and sailors and shopkeepers – including one-quarter of Knox County’s population – went off to defeat the Slave Power. Today, we need to recall their sacrifices.

In 1861, Rockland’s fourth Volunteer Infantry Regiment departed for the battlefield with 996 men. Three years later, only 145 came home. In all, according to local historian John Bird, 3,184 men from Maine were killed and another 5,257 died from disease. Who were these soldiers and sailors?

Here’s a key part of their story. In 1862, a Bowdoin language professor named Joshua Chamberlain enlisted in the Union army. On Sept. 1, 34-year old Chamberlain, without military experience, over the objections of his family and the Bowdoin trustees, became second-in-command of 1,621 men in Maine’s 20th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. A few weeks later, they were fighting Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

All that dark year, President Lincoln had waited for a major Union victory to declare Emancipation. But he agonized over whether the army was ready to fight for African-American freedom. In a letter to his field commanders, he asked for their advice. One officer sent back an answer written by his infantry regiment. They had suffered more than they could have imagined, they said, and they wanted nothing greater than for the war to end. But now they needed to finish what they started. 'We do not want the Slave Power to win at the negotiating table what it has lost on the battlefield,' they wrote. 'We’re in it until slavery is destroyed, whenever that comes.'

In September 1862, Union forces turned back a Confederate advance into Maryland, allowing Lincoln to proclaim Emancipation on Jan. 1, 1863. But in July, 1863, Lee launched another attack against the North, designed to scare Northerners into making peace and leaving slavery intact.

Col. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteers found themselves at the Battle of Gettysburg, defending a hill called Little Round Top. By then, only 266 men remained from the original regiment, reinforced by a few survivors from other units. For them, the stakes at Gettysburg were almost unimaginably high. If Confederate attackers took Little Round Top, Union forces would almost certainly have retreated.

On July 2, 1863, 4,900 Confederate infantrymen advanced toward Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s men held them off but soon ran out of ammunition. Fixing bayonets, the 20th Maine Volunteers charged Confederate lines, taking more than 800 prisoners. Modern historians credit their desperate counterattack with winning the battle at Gettysburg and “setting the South on the long, irreversible path to defeat.” Slavery was dead.

Abolition cost 620,000 American lives, roughly as many as all of our other wars combined. But things soon went terribly wrong. Within a dozen years, Northern Republicans ended Reconstruction and handed the South back to former Confederates, reconstituted as the Democratic Party. Their reasons were simple. After the Civil War, America’s industrial economy began to take its modern, ugly form. Southern cotton growers and Northern mill owners became business partners again. New kinds of inequality emerged alongside the old ones: owners versus workers, railroad tycoons versus farmers, white versus black.

Even Joshua Chamberlain, by then a powerful figure in Maine’s Republican Ascendancy, “failed the former slaves utterly and allowed evil to fall upon them and prevail,” according to his biographer, Ann Rains Trulock. “The white man’s country it was, and the white man’s country it remained.” Our leading historian of Reconstruction, Eric Foner, calls it “America’s Unfinished Revolution.”

We’re still living with the dreadful consequences of this betrayal. Once unleashed, racism – either overt or in dog whistles – has become a powerful tool for maintaining elite control. It’s also infinitely pliable and can be stretched to almost any group that challenges our political or economic order. In my parents’ day, for example, lumber barons in northern Maine unleashed the Ku Klux Klan against Franco-American workers trying to form a union. Maine is Protestant, the Klan declared, not Catholic. Now we hear similar things about immigrants, about minorities, about whoever opposes our society’s worsening inequalities.

Next time you pass one of those Civil War statues, ask yourself this question: What am I doing to build the world they fought and died for?

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 31, 2019 18:05

Good question! I remember marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston arm and arm with my black friend. I was 10 years old and to me we were "friends". In those days we called them our colored friends and as an adult learned it was not a proper term. Times change for the better. We had a wonderful president of color with "Obama". Where has all this bigotry come from? I hope it goes away. I am 84 years young and hope our country does not backtrack.

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever ...+:0).....



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