Life on the Home Front: Bethel During the Civil War


Life on the Home Front: Bethel During the Civil War


Bethel Historical Society


Winter 1983
[Fall/Winter 2010]




Full Text

Life on the Home Front: Bethel During the Civil War

by Stanley Russell Howe

Major Gideon A. Hastings (1821-1905), 12th Maine Battalion

Editor's note: Few events in American history have received more attention than the Civil War. A neglected aspect of the study of that conflict is its effect upon small towns far from the fighting front. This paper was originally presented at the monthly meeting of the Bethel Historical Society on November 6, 1983, and has been revised and enlarged for publication in this issue of the Bethel Courier.

Bethel, Maine, in 1860 was a town of 2,523 residents according to the federal census of that year, making it the second largest (next to Paris) town in Oxford County. It could boast 474 households, with an average size of five persons, and four vacant dwellings. Through the census (always bearing in mind certain errors), it can be determined that the average age of those living in the town in 1860 was twenty-six, with a wide variety of occupations represented. Not surprisingly, over eighty percent of the populace derived their livelihood from agriculture. However, as the decade of the 1860s progressed, commercial activity and manufacturing increased, particularly at Bethel Hill, "Skillingston" (just west of the Hill), West Bethel, and South Bethel (Walker's Mills).

Eighty-seven percent of Bethel's citizens in 1860 were natives of Maine. Most of the others had been born in neighboring states, but several were natives of Ireland, perhaps having remained here following the construction of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) during the 1840s and 1850s.

According to the 1860 census, the wealthiest head of a household (twenty-seven households were counted with holdings worth $5000 or more in real and personal estates) was Robert A Chapman, a merchant who in 1859 built the handsome brick block on Broad Street (owned in 1983 by BHS life members Gordon and Mary Gillies). His holdings were estimated to be worth a total of $27,000. Close behind were Ira Crocker Kimball, also a merchant, with holdings of $25,000, and Moses Pattee, a mill owner and proprietor of a hall on Spring Street that was the center of Bethel's social and political life during this era. Pattee had holdings worth $18,000. Most of the others were farmers, except for physician Joshua Fanning, whose property was valued at $8000.

In 1860, Bethel had one dentist, five doctors, twenty-eight teachers, eight clergymen, three lawyers and a wide variety of skilled and semi-skilled workers. Thirteen people were listed in 1860 as employed by the Grand Trunk Railroad. Two sailors were enumerated, as was one horse jockey. It was indeed an impressive number of skills and professions, but with none of the diversity that would be found in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

As in almost everything in this era, Bethel was perhaps quite typical of most Maine towns for its size and inland location. Throughout this study little appears to emerge that varied markedly from patterns prevalent in other communities. The town did not have any abolitionist groups established within its borders as did the Oxford County towns of Sumner, Paris, Peru and Norway, although there was a Male Antislavery Society founded in 1841 in Oxford County, according to Edward O. Shriver's book, Go Free: The Antislavery Impulse in Maine 1833-1855 (1970). Presumably some Bethel men may have belonged to this group, but none has come to light as yet.

To understand popular sentiment in Bethel regarding the slavery question is a difficult proposition. A review of the newspapers of the era and the holdings in the archives of the Bethel Historical Society reveals few specific indications of antislavery sentiment. Presumably there were abolitionists in Bethel and a few who may have sided with the South when war broke out. It seems safe to say that most citizens remained in the middle, not certain blacks should vote or have any rights, but assured they should not be slaves either. (For details of northern views, see Leon F. Litwick, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

One small insight which may or may not have meaning is the fact that a defense of slavery (George S. Sawyer's Southern Institutes: Or an Inquiry Into the Origin and Early Prevalence of Slavery and the Slave Trade, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1858) was owned by prominent attorney Enoch Foster Jr., who was later a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Of course, merely owning a book is no indication that Foster shared the South's sentiment, but it does suggest that he was at least familiar with some of its arguments.

The 1860 election, however, does provide some solid indications of political sentiment in Bethel, despite the fact that a son of Oxford -- Hannibal Hamlin -- was on the Republican ticket with Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln / Hamlin GOP stood for no further extension of slavery and won Bethel's endorsement with 206 votes cast in its favor. The Stephen A Douglas / Herschel V. Johnson Democratic ticket, which supported non-intervention with slave holding, garnered 101 votes. The Breckinridge Democrats, endorsed locally by former U.S. Congressman David Hammons (1814-1901), supported slavery in the territories and attracted 40 votes in Bethel. The ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett condemning sectional parties and upholding "the constitution of the country, the Union of the States and the influence of the law" received no support in this town.

Just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the Republican party in Bethel had grown to be the dominant one. The Oxford Democrat of March 1, 1861, noted that all the town officials were Republican except Second Selectman Oliver H. Mason (a nephew of Dr. Moses Mason, a Jacksonian Democrat who had served in Congress in the 1830s) and Samuel F. Gibson, the town agent who, it appears, became a "Copperhead" Democrat as the War progressed. Throughout the War, Bethel favored Republican candidates by comfortable margins. By 1864, Lincoln running with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee on a National Union ticket garnered 268 votes in Bethel compared with 208 for the Democratic slate of George B. McClellan and George H. Pendleton, a much closer vote than was usually the case. There were several reasons for this, but there may have been resentment against Lincoln for dropping Hamlin from the ticket.

Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, the call went out for 75,000 volunteers to protect the national capital. Maine was asked to furnish one regiment and Oxford County one company. There was only one military unit in Oxford County at the time and that was the Norway Light Infantry. This unit at once volunteered and requested additional men to fill up its ranks. Bethel sent eight men to join the troops of the Norway infantry to fight what the Oxford Democrat termed "the putrid venom of secession."

The Bethel men who went to Norway were described by local newspaper editor and Gould Academy principal Dr. Nathaniel T. True (1812-1887) in the Bethel Courier for April 26, 1861, as "fine, athletic, noble-looking fellows." They were Solon Robertson (4th Me.), Alfred True (son of Dr. True; 1st Me.), A. E. Seavey, Charles P. Stearns (1st Me.), Edward P. Stearns (1st Me.), H. Dolloff, Albert Grover (12th Me.; killed at Ship Island April 4, 1862), and Timothy M. Bean (12th Me.). Before leaving Bethel they were reported to have made the rounds of various businesses to say "adieu" to all. At the depot, where they were to depart, a Gould Academy student, E. M. Wight, mounted a carload of wood and made a patriotic speech that Dr. True described as "appropriate and acceptable" for the occasion.

A second call from Washington soon followed for 300,000 men for three years. The Bethel Courier described the military fervor of the town as "aroused." On May 31, 1861, the Courier reported that forty-one men had enlisted and a company of men would soon be organized. The company (the first organized in Oxford County after the call) was soon formed by Clark S. Edwards (1824-1907) and called the "Bethel Rifle Guards." (Later, Edwards would lead Company I, 5th Me., serving in the major engagements of the Army of the Potomac, including Gettysburg. His war record would be a major factor in his selection as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Maine in 1886.) Its officers, besides Edwards, were John B. Walker and Cyrus M. Wormell. Major William P. Frye was at the organizational meeting and made what Dr. William B. Lapham (1828-1894) called in his History of Bethel, "a very eloquent and patriotic speech."

By the end of May the eight Bethel soldiers were in Portland and "in good spirits," according to the report in the Courier. They were "eager to get into active service" and had all taken the pledge to abstain from intoxicating liquor, one of the many temperance efforts made by Neal Dow's forces. A former resident of Newry living in Portland at the time presented these Bethel soldiers with various necessities, and a farmer in Westbrook provided them with milk and apples.

In Bethel, the erection of what the Courier termed "a fine flag staff" was placed on the common symbolizing the town's commitment to the war effort. A company of home guards was organized in May of 1861 by Gideon A. Hastings (1821-1905). Hastings, grandson of a founder of Bethel and later the leading spirit in the extensive Hastings Lumber Company operations on Wild River near Gilead, in the fall of 1861 became Captain of Company A, Twelfth Maine Volunteers. During the War he was promoted to Major and was present at the capture of New Orleans, serving in all the campaigns in the Gulf Department. He also served in the Shenandoah Valley under General Sheridan, and after the War became Provost Marshall of West Georgia and detailed to the Freedman's Bureau. Always a Democrat in politics, upon his return to Bethel he became town clerk, selectman, county commissioner and representative to the legislature.

Despite this distinguished record and impressive role during the War, a letter to Governor Israel Washburn in October 1861 was not so reassuring. C. J. Talbot of Portland, who apparently was no admirer of Hastings and his brother-in-law, William K. Kimball of Paris (who also compiled an outstanding war record), wrote that they did "not care about the principle" of the war and would certainly "sell out to Jeff Davis if found that to be the best." Talbot accused Hastings and Kimball of being "Peace Men" and "Dana Men" with "no heart for the war." (John W. Dana was the "Copperhead" candidate for Governor of Maine in 1861 and received a substantial share of the Democratic support of Bethel -- 129 votes.) The Governor's correspondent went on to urge him to deny them commissions, arguing "the public will sustain you in standing up firmly and refusing to commission them." Governor Washburn was apparently not moved by these pleas, since both men received their commissions and served the Union cause with distinction.

In July, 1861, the battle of Bull Run resulted in a complete route of Union forces. The Oxford Democrat for August 2, 1861, urged that no one lose hope in this loss but that the Fifth Maine was "all cut up." No Bethel soldier, as far as was known, had been lost, although one, Sergeant Scribner, had been wounded. In addition, the Captain's water boy, thirteen year old Charles Freeman, was missing.

The next week, the Democrat brought further news of the War for Bethel. Young Charlie Freeman had been taken prisoner and was incarcerated in Richmond (he was released as a result of a prisoner exchange and returned to Bethel). Washington Robertson of Bethel was now reported missing. (Later it was determined that he had deserted.) Bethel men seem to have been, the newspaper reported, "utterly exhausted from want of sleep, food and a long march on the double quick before they arrived at the scene of the action." Taking up a contention to be repeated in this newspaper and many others during the War, the Democrat added: "There has been some outrageously bad management in that battle." This underscores the point made by the famed Civil War historian Bruce Catton concerning the weapons used. He contended these changed, but the tactics employed remained the same as in the American Revolution. Catton cited the fact that the rifle had become decidedly more deadly, but the strategy employed assumed these weapons to be far less accurate. As a result, many men were killed or wounded who might have otherwise survived without injury. Another factor to be considered in the management of war was that the troops on both sides were rather casually organized. In many cases, discipline depended heavily upon the popularity and calibre of the commanding officers. This situation caused the great Prussian general Von Moltke to consider the American Civil War of little interest to military tacticians since it was in the opinion merely "the movement of armed mobs."

These "armed mobs," in Bruce Catton's view, caused the Civil War to be more like World War I since each side considered that anything which would assist the other in prolonging the War was a target and should be dealt with accordingly. This "total war" outlook meant in the North's case, for instance, that if a bridge, railroad, farm or factory allowed the South to continue the War, it was a target for destruction. Regular reports of such destruction filled the pages of the Democrat, and while we have no firm first-hand views of Bethel citizens who read these pages, their reactions must have been obvious.

Equally compelling were the reports of wounds and deaths. These were described in detail as they happened and could not have helped but have had the effect of bringing the War graphically to the home front, especially when one considers the numbers who attended funerals in Bethel for dead soldiers. Twenty-eight Bethel men were killed or died as a result of wounds received during the War, and their funerals were frequently characterized with sermons strongly supporting the Union cause.

Even more poignant were the reports of returned soldiers who survived the War in southern prisons. One such example was Peter T. Bean of the Sixteenth Maine who was captured and spent nearly a year in the notorious Libby Prison. He described an ordeal where he was "glad to get a lean dog to eat." His clothes were all worn off below the waist and his survival was in part due to his ability to stand for long hours, as he "did not want to lie down among the filth and vermin."

As grim as this news was to read, there is evidence that Bethel was indeed becoming increasingly prosperous as the War progressed. By the middle of 1863 the Democrat was reporting that the steam mill recently established to the west of Bethel Hill seemed "destined to do a good business." Summer visitors appeared to be increasing each year since additional facilities, including the three-and-a-half story Chandler House hotel on the common, were being built to house them. Prosperity even extended to farmers, since Dr. True, also a keen observer of agricultural developments, noted the high prices farmers were getting for crops -- particularly for hops. (True, later editor of the Maine Farmer, was also founder of the first Farmer's Club in Maine, a state-wide predecessor to the Grange.) As the War continued, consumer prices rose and the Bethel column in the Democrat occasionally complained of the high prices paid for goods and services.

The second year of the War brought more and more reports of wartime activities in the pages of the Democrat. In early 1862, a soldier from an Illinois regiment wrote to a Bethel acquaintance that he had received three balls through his cap, one more struck his ear "just enough to draw blood," and another just grazed his head. The Democrat called the latter "pretty close grazing." On the fourth of July the Democrat reported on Bethel military processions followed by a gathering in Dr. Moses Mason's grove where the Declaration of Independence was read by A. S. Twitchell. Next came an adjournment to the Congregational Church where a "fervant" Union speech was heard. In the evening, fireworks were set off at West Bethel.

As the summer continued, recruiting offices were set up in Bethel with A. P. Knight as recruiting officer. Toward the end of July, 1862, more than one hundred men had enlisted. Fervor for the Union cause apparently reached a new level of intensity that month when General Oliver Otis Howard addressed a group of local soldiers from the porch of the Bethel House, a large hotel on the west side of the common. Attending were men from the West Bethel Company (Eldridge Wheeler, Captain) and East Bethel Company (John Decatur Hastings, Captain). Later, many citizens gathered at Pattee's Hall for a meeting chaired by Dr. True, where Rev. David Garland offered a prayer for the safety of Bethel soldiers. General Howard also addressed this gathering. He made a stirring Union speech and praised the efforts of Bethel soldiers on the Potomac campaign. Colonel Edwards was selected for special commendation, and cheers were given for the Union, for the Bethel soldiers, for President Lincoln and General McClellan. Seven citizens were selected from this meeting to assist the Sanitary Commission in meeting the needs of the War, with D. F. Brown chosen as chairman.

The United States Sanitary Commission, a private agency organized at the beginning of the War, was responsible for assisting the War Department with the comfort of its soldiers and for the care of the sick and wounded. Many communities on the local level had established an organization to help with the national effort. In Bethel, the Ladies Union Aid Society founded in late 1861 fulfilled this role. Even before the Aid Society was formed, Bethel citizens had sent the U.S. Sanitary Commission $185 in contributions, plus twenty-nine barrels of vegetables and two of dried apples. The Union Aid Society was undertaken with contributions totaling $413. It met weekly, usually at Pattee's Hall, but occasionally at a member's home, and was composed of some fifty ladies (several of whose husbands were in the War). Attempting to assist in meeting the needs of the men in the war zone, the Society sent food and supplies to Portland by train for delivery to the Commission in Washington. A typical shipment might include the following, which is recorded in the secretary's minutes for October 28, 1862: one bed sack, four hop pillows, twelve pillow slips, one vest, eight cravats, two pair socks, five cotton shirts, ninety-nine handkerchiefs, ten pair of slippers, fifteen towels, one roll of linen, two and a half pounds of lint, two hundred yards of bandages, one bag of bags, one bag of dried apples, one bag of dried blueberries, four packages of compresses, and one bag of beef tallow. Most work was done by hand, but on June 6, 1862, the minutes record that "two ladies came in with sewing machines, aiding greatly in forwarding the work of making shirts and drawers." The Ladies Union Aid Society is perhaps one of the best indicators of sentiment relating to the support for the Bethel war effort. These industrious ladies certainly produced large volumes of supplies and not an insignificant amount of money to support the Union cause.

Another good indication of sentiment during the war years was voting at town meetings. The regular annual meeting was held in March, but other special town meetings were called to deal with wartime issues. In July, 1862, a special meeting was held to authorize the Selectmen to borrow $1500 to pay the bounty for soldiers and care for their families. Apparently, this amount appeared too generous to some citizens, for in September, 1862, it was voted on a motion by Mighill Mason to "pay a bounty to volunteers of twenty dollars and five dollars a month for the next six months." The $1500 raised earlier was then reduced to $900.

The following year the town voted to raise $2000 for families of volunteers. A special town meeting in July, 1863, resulted in the passing over of an article to pay bounties to drafted men and conscripts. Discussion on this question, according to local historian William B. Lapham, was "very animated." In August of the same year, those who had opposed passing over the article lost again by a vote of 74 to 16, but in a second meeting later in the day won approval in providing bounties of $50 each, and the Selectmen were instructed to borrow money for this purpose if necessary.

By 1864 the draft had been instituted and it was voted to establish a recruiting committee of Israel G. Kimball, Gilman L. Blake and Timothy Bean, with $1000 to be paid for bounties. Apparently not enough recruits were forthcoming, so that a special meeting in December named I. G. Kimball as agent "to procure either enlisted men or substitutes to fill the town's quotas." The town treasurer was authorized to borrow $3000 for this purpose. By 1865, the last year of the conflict and with the end in sight, the town, without extensive debate, raised $1500 to aid the families of volunteers. It appears throughout these years, as far as town meetings were concerned, there was no broad consensus as to how best to support Bethel soldiers and their families.

Criticism of the war's conduct was found in the pages of the Democrat. A Mrs. Goddard, who was present at Harper's Ferry when Union forces surrendered to an inferior force, spoke in Bethel about her belief that the War was being mismanaged. No further details are available as to the impact of her speech upon the town, but several Bethel soldiers in the Seventh Maine shortly afterward reported that they had full confidence in General McClellan.

Morale is always important in wartime and the Democrat frequently urged those back home to remember the men in the war zones. "Write to the soldiers," urged the newspaper, for "many a rough cheek has been wet with tears when a letter has been received from those at home and who by their letters gave a pledge they were not forgotten." A Bethel soldier, Simeon Sanborn of the Fifth Maine, wrote his mother from Camp Franklin, Virginia, December 16, 1861, that he had "some footings, mitten gloves and quite a number of other things sent me so I am not in any particular want at present." He also reported that he received "about all the Maine papers" and that it was a "good thing to have friends especially when you are in the army."

By late 1862 the Democrat itself provided visible evidence of the effect of the War by reducing its size due to inflation and the scarcity of materials. As another indication of the effect of war, there appeared in this first reduced-size issue an advertisement from Bethel attorney David Hammons indicating that he would assist soldiers having claims against the government.

The War was brought home in a dramatic manner in February, 1863, with an epidemic of smallpox at North Bethel. The Democrat reported that the disease had been carried home by a returning soldier. Despite this unpleasant news, Dr. True, in writing his column for the Democrat, was not always serious. In June, 1863, responding to the abundance of mosquitos in Bethel he wrote that "the Southern rebellion has been entirely forgotten in the fight to keep them away from body."

By July, 1863, the draft had been imposed and a list was published in the Democrat of sixty-four Bethel men who were to appear for induction. The newspaper reported that the young men who have been drafted "take the matter very heroically and cheerfully." In this call-up, only one "professional" man had been drafted, and that was Samuel F. Gibson, the "Copperhead" Democrat, lawyer and town agent who served as a captain from May 23, 1864 to May 7, 1865.

Few letters from Bethel soldiers have come to light to date, but one of particular interest is that of William L. Grover who was a Sergeant in Company B, Twenty-third Maine Volunteers, who served in the Union army from September 29, 1862, to July 15, 1863. Grover was apparently quite religious, as his letters are filled with references to God and church services. He was obviously quite content with his lot as a soldier, writing his sister from Muddy Branch, Maryland, in March, 1863, that he was "well, fat and homly (sic) though the boys tell me that I am growing handsome." Even though his letters were largely positive, he could not resist occasional references to home: "I hope Mr. Fernald [Gould Academy principal who later became the second president of the University of Maine at Orono] will prove a good teacher & build up the old academy school once more."

Simeon Sanborn, another Bethel soldier mentioned earlier, was similarly upbeat in his report from Camp Vernon, Virginia, in September, 1861. Writing to let the folks back home know that "Old Jeff has not gotten me yet," he described his situation: "We have plenty of peaches, watermelon and muskmelon and any quantity of grapes. I have eaten about a half bushel today. Have got a nice place for camping. It is on a high hill [where we] can see all the ships and steamers pass up and down the river. We have plenty to eat and drink whiskey twice a day if we want. I don't draw my ration very often and I think if the rest of the boys did not draw so much of theirs it would be better for them."

In June, 1864, some excitement was generated by Deputy Sheriff Cyrus M. Wormell, who, assisted by G. L. Blake of Bethel and a company of local men, attempted to arrest a deserter, John E. Bean of Albany. They successfully surrounded the house he was hiding in, but when Bean came out the back door into the shed, he fired his revolver at two of the posse outside the house. A bullet went through the brow of Calvin J. Kimball's hat, then struck Lyman Russell, the carriage painter, in the chin passing into his shoulder where he, in the words of the Democrat, "picked it out." He was only slightly injured. Bean then sprang for the woods. Twenty shots were fired at him, but he managed to escape into the night.

Bounty jumpers were not always so lucky. In December, 1864, near the end of the War, the Democrat reported that two men were arrested attempting to pass through Bethel on their way to Canada. Apparently, this town was a familiar route for those trying to collect the bounty paid for enlisting and then deserting, for the Democrat periodically recorded attempts to stem this flow of lawbreakers.

Probably no event has more human interest that the case of Sergeant John Cooper. His story was perhaps repeated dozens of times throughout the country. He had been reported killed and buried following the battle of Cedar Creek. By the fall of 1864, he returned home (much to the joy of his family) to read his own obituary.

In summary, the Civil War years were important in Bethel for they marked the greater industrialization of the town, the growth of the summer tourist trade with many hotels and boarding houses being established throughout the town, and the increased importance of Bethel Hill as the commercial center of the community. It is obvious that in Bethel, as in the North in general, not everyone agreed with the conduct of the War or how those who went off to fight it should be compensated. There were many differences of opinion reflected in the town meetings, election results, and activities -- for example -- of town agent Samuel F. Gibson, who ran as a "Copperhead" candidate for Oxford County Clerk of Courts in 1863. Probably the most important result of the War upon Bethel was its effect on her loyal sons. By examining the 1870 federal census it can be determined that five years after the War ended only 53 of the approximately 180 soldiers that the town sent to the War were still here to be counted. Besides those killed in the War, a few had died in the intervening years, but apparently for one hundred of the survivors’ other locations were more promising for earning a living and raising a family.