Spreading the Flames: The United States, Cuba, and the Fear of Africanization

By Savannah Labbe ’19

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the fight over slavery played out in many different arenas, notably in Kansas and Nebraska. While Bleeding Kansas was arguably the most well-known and violent clash over slavery before the Civil War, there were others as well. One flash point over the question of slavery resulted from political unrest in Cuba. In the 1850s, Spain owned Cuba, an economically prosperous island with an economy based on African slave labor. However, Spain was under pressure from Great Britain to end slavery in Cuba, and because Spain was in enormous debt and was financially reliant on the British, who were morally opposed to slavery, the Spanish government began to take steps towards abolishing it. They started the process by counting how many slaves were on the island and how many each owner possessed. They also let slaves find other jobs, as long as they returned some of their earnings back to their owners.

These measures and the issues in Cuba frightened some Americans, including many Southerners, who feared “Africanization.” Africanization, or the prospect of the island and its government coming into the hands of newly-freed black citizens, was seen as a threat to the island’s white landowners as well as the United States itself. This kind of unrest in Cuba could spread, like a fire, to the United States. In addition, as James Buchanan–then the minister to Great Britain–wrote in the Ostend Manifesto that discussed the US-Cuba situation, Americans would be “unworthy of [their] gallant forefathers” if they allowed “Cuba to be Africanized and become a second [Haiti], with all its attendant horrors to the white race.” The United States felt they had to do something. Military filibustering, a type of irregular warfare used to incite a revolution or some form of political change, was going on in Cuba already. However, these efforts to overthrow Spanish rule of Cuba by force were not producing results, so the government under President Franklin Pierce decided to pursue a more public policy-oriented approach to the issue. Pierce then directed three of his European diplomats to meet in Ostend, Belgium to discuss options.

Political cartoon depicting Buchanan as a bewildered old women, not knowing what to do with the Ostend Manifesto and the issue of Cuba. “The Bewildered Old Woman,” 1860, GettDigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 2/12/18, https://gettysburg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4016coll2/id/268/rec/12.

Buchanan, along with minister to Great Britain J.Y Mason and minister to Spain Pierre Soule, were the three diplomats who would eventually pen the Ostend Manifesto. They concluded at their conference that it was in the best interest of the United States to purchase Cuba for as much as $120,000,000. Cuba was important to the United States economically, and it was in an important position, “[commanding] the mouth of the Mississippi.” This would be an advantageous deal to all parties involved, as the money would help Spain with the “overwhelming debt now paralyzing her energies” and give her extra money to modernize her economy by building railroads. The manifesto also strongly suggested that if Spain was not open to selling, they would be in “imminent danger of losing Cuba, without remuneration.” In other words, the United States would take it by force. Neither the Spanish nor the American governments acknowledged this document or officially recognized it, and Spain was not willing to sell. However, the document is important because it is an example of the United States’ justifications for continuing imperialism and an additional U.S. government endorsement of slavery. It is also an interesting example of “gunboat diplomacy,” in which the United States threatened force to get what they wanted. While the Manifesto was endorsed by Pierce to begin with, the uproar that it caused between the sections of the United States made him unable to recognize the document and forced him to distance himself from it. In addition, Pierce’s interest in Cuba was overshadowed by domestic issues, such as the problems in Kansas.

An interesting question arises from this issue: why was the United States so interested in Cuba when they had so much going on at home? Perhaps the president and other politicians were trying to distract people from the domestic strife, but Cuba could have erupted into violence between the North and the South just as easily. Northerners were angered by the manifesto, as it was a clear attempt by Southerners to spread slavery and increase their power in congress. While the South could gain much from Cuba, the North saw little potential, as the island would mostly be divided into multiple slave states. It seems that this episode in our history was a result of a Southern-dominated government. The South feared that a neighbor so close to them being free would possibly, in the words of the manifesto, spread the “flames” of insurrection to “seriously endanger or actually consume the fair fabric of our Union.” The memory of the Haitian Revolution, in which slaves freed themselves and rose up against the French, ended in 1804 and was fresh in Southern minds. This was exactly what Southerners feared–a slave uprising resulting in a new government led by former slaves. Such an uprising could spread and produce disastrous socio-political results in the southern United States. The best way to prevent such a subversion of power was to control Cuba, and thus, Southerners pushed the American government to buy it.

Despite Northern concerns, the government, most notably Franklin Peirce and his secretary of state, intended to build upon the expansionist legacy of James Polk. Hence, they continued to pursue their course on Cuba, and it cost them. In the 1854 mid-term elections, the Democrats lost their majority in the House and now had no hope of getting Congress to appropriate funds for Cuba. In addition, the Cuba issue, along with Bleeding Kansas, caused a split in the Democratic Party between Northern and Southern Democrats over the issue of slavery. This split proved irreparable and would continue to deepen during the Buchanan’s presidency. It would then help Lincoln rise to power in 1860, as the Northern and Southern Democrats each supported a different candidate, splitting the Democratic vote and making it easier for Lincoln to gain a majority. Because of the split in the party and growing Northern hostility to the measure, the idea of acquiring Cuba was dropped. However, there was much potential for Cuba to become another Bleeding Kansas as filibusters continued to try to annex Cuba by force. If these efforts had worked, or if Cuba had been purchased by the United States, the Civil War may have taken a different turn, starting earlier and erupting over the issue of Cuba. Even still, Cuba played a significant, but often overlooked role in the coming of the war.  The Cuba question illuminates the valuable contributions that a more international or global approach to the study of the Civil War can reveal about this tenuous time in American history.


Ambacher, Bruce. “George M. Dallas, Cuba, and the Election of 1856.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 97, no. 3 (1973): 318-32. Accessed January 25, 2018.

Buchanan, James, J.Y. Mason, and Pierre Soule. “The Ostend Manifesto.” October 18, 1864. Accessed January 25, 2018.

Connolly, Michael J. ““Tearing Down the Burning House”: James Buchanan’s Use of Edmund Burke.” American Nineteenth Century History 10, no. 2 (June 2009): 211-221. Accessed January 25, 2018.

Urban, C. Stanley. “The Africanization of Cuba Scare, 1853-1855.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 37, no. 1 (1957): 29-45. Accessed January 25, 2018.

Too Little Too Late? The Introduction of the Spencer Rifle

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Spencer Rifle
Photo courtesy of Ron Perisho collection.

The photo above does not seem like much, but the story behind it is incredible. On August 17, 1863, a man named Christopher Miner Spencer entered the White House, gun in hand. He was let in past the sentries and ushered in to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. Spencer was at the White House to show the president his invention, the repeating rifle. He had been trying to get it adopted by the United States Army with little success, so he decided to go to the man with the most power. Spencer showed Lincoln his gun, and the president was impressed by how simple it was. One could take it apart and put it back together in only a few minutes, needing only a screwdriver. Lincoln invited Spencer back to the White House so that they could test the rifle.

The next day, Spencer arrived around 2 P.M. Lincoln, Spencer, and a few others went out onto the Mall, near where the Washington Monument stands today, to do some target practice with the Spencer rifle. Lincoln took the rifle and shot, missing the target a bit. This shot can be seen on the lower right-hand side of the photo. The rest of his shots were right on target. While they were shooting some sentries ran over to them, yelling for them to stop firing. They did not realize they were yelling at the President until he stood up and looked at them. They apologized and hurried away as Lincoln remarked that they could at least have stayed and taken a few shots. After this, the shooters returned to the White House, and Lincoln gave Spencer his target to keep as a souvenir. The picture of that souvenir can be seen above.

This episode might cause one to question why Spencer had to go to such lengths to get the army to adopt his weapon. By all accounts it was superior to the muzzle-loading weapons that were used for most of the war. It was shorter and could fire fifteen to twenty shots in one minute. This is five to seven times faster than muzzle-loaders, for which it was considered rapid fire if one could get off three shots per minute with a muzzle-loader. This rate of fire was not even really feasible, as it took a lot of time to reload, and the rifle was susceptible to over-heating. The Spencer rifle, however, could hold seven rounds, allowing one to shoot seven times before having to reload. Many saw the advantages of this. Spencer had shown his rifle to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, in May of 1861, and the navy quickly bought more and more of his rifle; by the end of the war, they had 10,000. General McClellan also saw the advantages of this rifle, requesting them for his troops in 1861. The War Department would only give them to one brigade, Colonel Berdan’s 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, as they were very expensive. Local newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, pleaded with the government to adopt the weapon, believing that it would save more soldiers’ lives and asking for “the ordnance department [to] please take notice.” Entire brigades even bought them for themselves. For example, Colonel John Wilder appealed to his men of the 17th Indiana to contribute money for the purchase of Spencer rifles.

f everybody saw the advantages of these weapons, why were they not adopted much sooner? The answer lies with the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, James W. Ripley. Ripley was a veteran of the war of 1812 as well as the Mexican-American War. He was used to muzzle-loaders and resistant to change, thinking that smooth-bores and muzzle-loaders were much better than rifled muskets and breech-loaders. After all, as he remarked to Lincoln, “men enough can be killed with the old smooth-bore and the old cartridges, a ball and three buckshot.” He dismissed the Spencer as just another newfangled weapon, which was why Spencer had to go to Lincoln to plead his case. Lincoln quickly endorsed the Spencer rifle after he tested it and replaced Ripley with George D. Ramsey, causing orders for Spencer rifles to skyrocket.

While the army did start to adopt the Spencer rifle, it was mostly used by the cavalry. In addition, it was adopted in 1863, when the war was half over, even though it had been available since 1860. If it had been adopted before, how many lives could have been saved? The war may have ended earlier, and the causality rate could have been lower, as these kinds of rifles may have deterred the devastating charges seen so often in the Civil War. For example, there were 2,655 casualties as a result of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. This devastating charge may have been prevented had all of the Union troops been armed with Spencer rifles. The charge would have been seen as futile, and the men would not have been able to get so close to the enemy–as was often the case–because of the rapid and intense fire that the Spencer was capable of.

On the other hand, this type of gun had the possibility to increase casualties, as it could fire more shots quicker. It would also be difficult for the Confederates to use the Spencer if they captured it because it used a type of bullet that the Confederacy did not produce. It is impossible to tell what kind of difference the Spencer rifle would have made if it had been used earlier in the war, but this story could have important implications today. The United States Military has been using essentially the same rifle, the M4/M16, for over fifty years. This rifle really first saw action in the Vietnam War and has been around ever since. The M16 had a lot of problems in Vietnam as Robert Scales, a Vietnam veteran, describes. These problems were due to the gas system that the M16 has and that the M4 (a lighter version of the M16) still has today. The gun uses a gas-pressured system in which the gas produced from the fired bullet pushes the bolt back and causes the next round to cycle into the chamber. Since the bolt is a freely-moving part, any dirt or dust that gets into the rifle can cause the bolt–and consequently the rifle–to jam, which is very harmful when fighting in the types of environments that we do today. Is there something better out there, or is the army just resistant to change like it was during the Civil War?

Robert Scales believes there is something better out there. The AK-47 uses a piston-driven operating system in which the bolt is not a freely-moving part of the gun, so dirt or dust will not hamper its effectiveness. The AK-47 cannot just simply be adopted by the United States, as Russia is the only country that has perfected the manufacture of AK series rifle. The United States would have to buy them from Russia and rely on Russia for parts, which could be disastrous if the political situation soured and Russia cut off exports. However, it does show that there is something better out there. Can something similar be made in the United States? It is evident that the gun the United States Military uses today could be improved upon to be better suited to the type of fighting we see today. However, the question that remains: is the military resistant to change and all the costs that come with it, or are they just unable to find anything better made by United States manufacturers?


Colonel Berdan’s Sharpshooters to be Armed with the Spencer Magazine Rifle.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 26, 1861.

Buckeridge, J. O., and Ashley Halsey Jr. “Abe and His “Secret” Weapon.” Saturday Evening Post 228, no. 40 (March 31, 1956): 44-98. Accessed November 26, 2017.

Guttman, Jon. “Spencer Carbine.” Military History 24, no. 8 (November 2007): 27. Accessed November 26, 2017.

Scales, Robert H. “Gun trouble.” The Atlantic, 2015., 80, Literature Resource Center. Accessed November 26, 2017.

Stoddard, William Oates. Inside the White House in War Times. New York: Charles and Webster Company, 1890. Accessed November 26, 2017.

The Spencer Rifle.” Macon Daily Telegraph and Confederate. December 26, 1864.

Remembrance Day: History, Memory and the 20th Maine

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Every November, on the Saturday closest to the 19th, the town of Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day. This day is held in memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg and during the Civil War as a whole. On November 19th, crowds gather to celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. These events pose a few very important questions: why do we still remember the Civil War in this manner? Why do we find it so important to have an entire day dedicated just to Civil War soldiers? Why does Civil War memory matter?

Over the semester, I have been working on a project in which similar questions have arisen. I am working to create a new wayside for the 20th Maine on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one that currently sits there is more a wayside to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain than it is to the men of the regiment. Why do officers seem to loom so far above regular soldiers? During Remembrance Day, the ordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives are remembered, which is very important because without them, the generals who are usually highlighted would not have been able to accomplish the feats they are best remembered for. Something I have been attempting to do in developing the text for the wayside is remember the ordinary soldier and shift the 20th Maine’s story away from only being about Joshua Chamberlain. This has proved a challenging task, as the ghosts of the movie Gettysburg that propelled Chamberlain to fame do not seem to want to leave.

20th Maine memorial on Little Round Top. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

As I am from Maine, this project has been a special one for me. I am helping shape the legacy of fellow Mainers. I am also working to write a text that will influence visitor’s perceptions of the battle and Maine’s role in it. While Maine did have many other regiments at Gettysburg, the 20th is the one that is best remembered and most likely offers battlefield visitors’ only glimpse of the state. I want to do my fellow Mainers and their sacrifice at Little Round Top justice while at the same time making sure I am not being plagued by Chamberlain’s ghost and the idea that the 20th Maine saved the Union. In addition to all of this, I am left with the question of why this matters. Why is the 20th Maine so important, and how will the words I write shape their memory? This is not an easy question to grapple with, but as a history major, I believe that history matters and  the way we remember it is important.

History helps us learn from our past and gives us context for the problems in the present, and thus, how we tell this history and how we shape the past has important contemporary implications. Do we present a past that paints the Maine men as noble and dedicated heroes, or do we portray them as men who had flaws and may not even have wanted to fight? I believe the solution is a combination of both. The 20th Maine was made up of regular men, but they did do something heroic and important. Theirs was a critical position in the Union line but, at the same time, the battle raged on for another day and the war for another two years, so by no means did the 20th Maine save the Union. This question of how to best remember is an important one, and I believe it is raised in both my wayside project and on Remembrance Day. Is it right to remember the men who died through reenactments and parades? How do we shape memory in a way that is true to history, and how do we do justice to the men that died at Gettysburg while at the same time being careful not to make them akin to gods?

A Legacy of Bravery: The Indian Home Guards in the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Many may not realize that Native Americans played a part in the Civil War, just as they did in many previous American wars. Some Native Americans enlisted with regular infantry units, alongside white Americans. These Native Americans believed they could achieve better treatment by the government and keep their land if they enlisted. They also got paid and fed regularly in the army. They did face discrimination by white soldiers, who believed that these Native Americans exemplified the stereotype of the lazy, drunk Indian. However, such stereotypes were often proved wrong. The most notable example of this is Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, made up mostly of Native Americans, who showed their courage and strength in the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Petersburg, among others. In the South and West, most Native Americans tended to fight as separate auxiliaries. It was in this part of the country that most Native Americans had been forcibly relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Foremost among these Native Americans were the five “civilized” tribes, called so because they, for the most part, attempted to integrate into American society to gain respect and stop encroachment on their land. These tribes were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee or Creek, and the Seminole, and they would come to play the biggest role in the Civil War among Native Americans, mostly because they could not escape it.

After the war started in 1861, the United States pulled all of its white troops out of the forts in Indian Territory to provide more manpower for the war in the East, leaving the Native Americans unprotected. In addition, when the government had relocated the Five Civilized Tribes, it had signed treaties promising to pay them a yearly amount of money. The tribes relied on this money to survive and provide services to their people, but in 1861 the government refused to pay them. This caused an ideological civil war within the tribes over which loyalty would serve them best. Some believed they should still keep their end of the treaty and side with the United States, even though the government had broken its promise. Others held that the treaty was now void and they should instead fight for the Confederates, as they had not broken any treaties. The Creeks, for example split in half.

Those with Union sentiment looked to Opothleyahola, who had been a prominent spokesperson and leader of the Creeks since their removal in 1830. Before the removal, he had been an advocate of the traditional ways of the Creeks and had opposed removal, but he eventually came to see that it was inevitable. He urged neutrality and encouraged the tribe to uphold its end of the treaty. Others, called the McIntoshes, disagreed and took a pro-Confederate stance. This group was named after William McIntosh, who was the son of a Scottish man and a Creek woman. Even though McIntosh had died many years before the Civil War, his descendants carried on his legacy and fought for the Confederacy.

In addition, many of the tribes that came to support the Confederate cause were originally from the South and had shared cultural ties. Some Native Americans even owned black slaves, believing this could help them assimilate into American society. Their slaves were forbidden to intermarry and were generally treated similarly by Native Americans as they were by whites. This still poses a problem today because many people of African American and Native American descent claim to be Native American, but some tribes do not accept them or recognize their status. In addition, a lot of these slaves were not freed at the end of the Civil War because the United States still, to some extent, saw them as separate political entities that did not have to abide by the Thirteenth Amendment. They became freed a year later when a treaty was signed between some Native American tribes and the government in which the Native Americans agreed to free their slaves. However, this did not stop these Native American nations from passing discriminatory laws, similar to Jim Crow laws and Black Codes, aimed at the newly freed African Americans that lived amongst them.

After the Union had abandoned Indian Territory in 1861, Confederates were quick to move in, scattering the remaining Native Americans who sided with the Union. They attacked Opothleyahola and his followers on December 26, 1861. Opothleyahola fled, reaching Kansas with no food and water and leaving the Confederates with control over Indian Territory. Those who had fled wanted to get back to their homes, and the United States saw its opportunity. Thus, the Indian Home Guards were formed. The Union did not have enough men to spare to fight the Confederates in Indian Territory, so they took advantage of the Native Americans who wanted their home back and had them fight for it in order to win the war. This decision did not come without controversy, however, as many in Kansas were afraid that giving weapons to Native Americans would cause them to turn against the state’s white citizens. They also thought Native Americans were inferior and would not be able to fight in the army.

Indian Home Guards being sworn in. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, the Indian Home Guards were under the overall command of a white officer, while individual companies had Native American leaders. Later, white leadership took over, as the majority of Native Americans were illiterate and unable to do the paperwork required of officers. However, they were still often used to lead their men in battle, as Native American soldiers were more likely to follow a fellow Native American leader. There were other problems with these units, though. Many had trouble adjusting to the army’s way of conducting warfare, which was much more regimented than they were used to, and there were a lot of desertions. In addition, some Native Americans treated their army-issued guns as their personal property and used them for sport or hunting. This lead to ammunition shortages in the already ill-supplied ranks, and the government had to take the cost of ammunition used for personal reasons out of the Native Americans’ pay.

Despite all these problems, the Native Americans fought hard for their homes, leading their white commander, William A. Phillips, to remark in his reports that he was “very much pleased with the conduct of the whole Indian force.” On July 17, 1863, at the Battle of Honey Springs, the Indian Home Guard, along with other troops, gained a foothold in Indian Territory. The battle, fought between 5,700 Confederates and 3,000 Union troops, is often termed the “Gettysburg of the West” because it was the last real Confederate effort to protect this territory. This made it much easier for the Indian Home Guards to eventually take back the whole area.

The capture of the Indian Territory was important to the Union effort, as it helped them take back land that had been lost to the Confederates, but despite the important role that the Indian Home Guards played in this effort, the treatment of Native Americans after the war was not reflective of this. No matter what side the Native Americans fought on, they were all treated alike and pushed off their land as Manifest Destiny and increased settlement took hold after the Civil War. Those who had fought for the Union cause were treated just the same as those who had fought for the Confederacy. Their land was increasingly shrinking and they became the target of U.S. military action. These Native Americans fought for their homes during the Civil War, only to lose them and be pushed off of them afterwards.

The Native Americans soldiers are not remembered and their contributions are not recognized. Instead, the Civil War’s end led into the Indian Wars, in which many of the tribes that had helped the Union win were slaughtered at the hands of the United Sates military. There are no monuments to these Native Americans. The only monument which is remotely related to Native Americans is that of the 42nd New York on the Gettysburg Battlefield. It has a teepee on it, but only because the regiment was supported by Tammany Hall, which was named after a famous Native American leader. While their legacy is not remembered by white Americans, it is no doubt remembered by the Native Americans themselves, who will always know how bravely their ancestors fought for their homes. Non-natives should also keep in mind the importance of the Indian Home Guard’s bravery, for they ultimately contributed to Union victory do but not receive the recognition they deserved.


Fischer, LeRoy. “Battle of Honey Springs | Oklahoma Historical Society.” Okhistory.Org. Last modified 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Forgotten Warriors – Fort Scott National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service).Nps.Gov. Last modified 2017. Accessed October 23, 2017.

Parker, Nakia. “Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, And Citizenship in the Native American South, By Barbara Krauthamer (2013)“. Notevenpast.Org. Last modified 2013. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Rein, Chris. “The U.S. Army, Indian Agency, and the Path to Assimilation: The First Indian Home Guards in the American Civil War.” Kansas History 36, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 2-21. Accessed October 22, 2017.

 The War of The Rebellion, A Compilation of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880. Accessed October 22, 2017.

Warde, Mary Jane, and Sarah Richardson. “A Civil War Within the Civil War.” Civil War Times 54, no. 2 (April 2015): 24-25. Accessed October 22, 2017.

We All Bleed Red: African American Soldiers and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Years before the United States military was officially desegregated in 1948, African Americans fought alongside white men in the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. Most African American men that fought for the Union in the Civil War did so in United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) units, separated from white men. Because of this segregation, many black men, such as Andrew J. Williams of Industry, Maine, left home to find and fight with a U.S.C.T. regiment. Williams would not be accepted into a Maine regiment, or at least so he thought. His brother, Aaron E. Williams, decided to try his luck with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a white regiment. He mustered in on December 26, 1863 and served in Company G. He was not the only African American to join the 1st Maine, either. Lemuel Carter and Franklin Freemont from Bath joined, as did George Freeman from Brunswick. Carter and Freeman enlisted on January 5, 1864, while Freemont enlisted the day prior. They were all members of Company M.

These African American soldiers fought alongside white men in the fierce battles that the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery took a part in. The 1st Maine started off as an infantry regiment, the 18th Maine. However, they had spent so much time drilling with artillery that they were re-designated as an artillery regiment on January 6, 1863. While the 1st Maine had been mustered into service on August 21, 1862, they had not left the state come May of 1864. They finally left later that month and saw their first action near Fredericksburg on May 19, 1864. The 1st Maine was involved in many of the well-known battles of the later war, but they are best known for their efforts at Petersburg, where they were responsible for breaking through the center of the Confederate lines on the first day of the siege. They did not have much battlefield experience and had little idea what it would mean to charge towards the center of a heavily fortified line. They soon found out. The 1st Maine lost over 50 percent of its men, killed and wounded, in this charge, the single greatest loss of any regiment in one action; 632 out of 900 men became casualties. The regiment also participated in the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, the last major battle of the war in Virginia, where they captured many prisoners three days before Robert E. Lee surrendered. They returned to Bangor and were mustered out on June 6, 1865, with only 1,761 men returning from the original 2,202.

Soldiers surround a bombproof shelter during the siege of Petersburg, 1864. Photo via Library of Congress.


One of the men that did not return with the 1st Maine was Aaron Williams. He fought at Petersburg and took a gunshot wound to the arm on June 18, 1864. He survived these wounds only to die on January 21, 1865. Sources differ on how he died. According to the history of the 1st Maine, entitled The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865, Williams died of “exhaustion from overwork.” Other sources report that he died of disease. Lemuel Carter survived the war, dying in Brunswick, Maine on January 31, 1891. Freeman also died in Brunswick, Maine on January 8, 1887. He had survived gunshot wounds to the hand and foot at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Freemont survived the war as well. While these men “were of African descent,” as the history of the 1st Maine puts it, they were still allowed to fight alongside white men, and one even sacrificed his life for the Union cause. The white men of the 1st Maine were aware that Williams and the others were African American but accepted them anyways, knowing that they would fight and die just like any other man in the regiment. The story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery is a curious and rare one, but it is proof that men of all races fought alongside each other in the Civil War, and that race does not make a difference in a soldier’s ability to fight and die for his country.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the 1st Maine provides a lot to think about in terms of race relations during the Civil War. Although some African Americans could pass as white and join white regiments, this was not the case with the men of the 1st Maine, as their enlistment papers listed their complexions as dark or black. The recruiter knew they were African American, as did the men who fought alongside them. These African American men served in a combat role and were not simply laborers, as two of them were wounded. Regardless of whether or not they were strictly combat soldiers, however, they still shed blood or otherwise sacrificed for the Union cause.

It is hard to tell how the white men of the 1st Maine felt about having African American men in their regiment; just because they were allowed to fight does not mean they were liked or respected. In addition, Northerners could be just as prejudiced and racist as Southerners during this time period. For example, Walt Whitman, a prominent New York poet, believed that African Americans were less evolved and did not deserve the right to vote, even comparing them to baboons. The Maine men might have welcomed African Americans into their ranks if only in the hope that they would be the ones to take a bullet first. Thus, the fact that the 1st Maine was unique in allowing African American men to fight does not necessarily mean these soldiers were necessarily more tolerant and accepting than the rest of the country.

However, it may be the case that the Maine men were more progressive than the rest of the country. Perhaps because there were so few African Americans living in Maine at the time race was not as big of an issue. Either way, it is important to ask just how these men managed to be accepted into a white regiment at a time when this was strictly forbidden. What made these men so different and special that their recruiting officer was willing to risk going against policy and potentially threaten the cohesion of the regiment by allowing them into the ranks? One may never know how these four African Americans became part of a white regiment, but these questions are important ones to ask, and they complicate the traditional narrative of African American involvement in the Civil War.


Frank, Michael. “Whitman’s Multitudes, For Better and Worse.” Nytimes.Com. Last modified 2005. Accessed September 27, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/18/books/whitmans-multitudes-for-better-and-worse.html?mcubz=0.

Hudziak, Mark. “On June 18, 1864, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Suffered the Greatest Single Loss of Any Federal Unit.” America’s Civil War vol. 10, no. 2 (May 1997): 8. Accessed September 9, 2017. http://ezpro.cc.gettysburg.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9703301614&site=eds-live.

Shaw, Horace H, and Charles J House. The First Maine Heavy Artillery, 1861-1865. Salem, MA: Higginson, 1903. Accessed September 10, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=G50dAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA330&lpg=PA330&dq=aaron+williams+first+maine+heavy+artillery&source=bl&ots=_DqHEjMp75&sig=CuKJnxLMPjKofZKbteu6bfzTEvs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR2Ir-oYnWAhWJx4MKHQ8CDikQ6AEIRjAI#v=onepage&q=aaron%20williams%20first%20maine%20heavy%20artillery&f=false.

Swartz, Brian. “Some Mainers Broke Racial Barriers In ‘White’ State Regiments.” Bangor Daily News. Last modified 2014. Accessed September 10, 2017. http://bangordailynews.com/2013/12/11/news/some-mainers-broke-racial-barriers-in-white-state-regiments/?ref=comments.

The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Healing the Divide? 

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Larkin Woodruff, 50th USCT. 75th Anniversary of Gettysburg medals. Veterans attending 75th Anniversary commemorations wore medals like these full of symbolism. The bundle of wooden rods surrounding an axe is a classical symbol called a “fasces.” In Roman times, it stood for martial strength through unity and brotherhood and brotherhood. Sadly, Larkin Woodruff died just weeks before the 75th Anniversary Commemoration in Gettysburg, PA. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

Between June 29 and July 6, 1938, approximately 1,870 Union and Confederate veterans gathered at that fateful battlefield where many of them had fought 75 years earlier. The veterans stayed in camps and took part in various ceremonies and parades, including a parade of veterans from all wars since 1863, as well as a military flyover. The highlight of the ceremonial events, however, was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Hill outside of town. President Franklin Roosevelt made the dedication speech on July 3, 1938, around the same time Pickett made his charge 75 years before. More than 200,000 people attended, watching the friendly reunion of men who had once been enemies. Together, two men—92-year-old Union veteran George N. Lockwood of Los Angeles, CA, and 91-year-old Confederate veteran A.G. Harris of McDonough, GA—undraped the flag covering the memorial.

Continue reading “The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Healing the Divide? “

A Home for Volunteers: Togus and the National Soldiers’ Homes

By Savannah Labbe ’19

The current U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs traces its origins to the Civil War. Before the Civil War, there had been some attempts to provide services for veterans but these benefits were solely for career military veterans and not volunteers. Since Civil War veterans were mostly volunteers, this became a problem. The services provided before this had been mostly in the form of homes like the U.S. Naval Asylum in Philadelphia where veterans could receive long-term care. Many felt that homes were the best way to care for soldiers and so, in March of 1865, legislation passed to create a national asylum for disabled volunteers. On November 10, 1866, the first branch of three national homes was established. At first, the branches were open to all Union soldiers who could prove a connection between their service and their injury. They then later welcomed veterans of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War as long as they didn’t fight against the Union in the Civil War. Confederate veterans were never allowed. Each home had a barracks, dining halls, hospital, cemetery, and recreational facilities.

The eastern branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Togus, ME. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “A Home for Volunteers: Togus and the National Soldiers’ Homes”

Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

Gettysburg National Military Park is an immense park, encompassing and preserving a large section of the battlefield. What many don’t realize, however, is that the battlefield was not confined only to the areas that have been preserved, but also to a much larger section of the greater Gettysburg area. Where now stands the Giant supermarket was once home to land that the Confederates retreated over and also, more importantly, to a large battlefield hospital, Camp Letterman.

Tents at Camp Letterman
Tents at Camp Letterman in August, 1863. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, most of the wounded and the medical staff moved on with the army. However, some wounded couldn’t be moved due to the severity of their injuries. All these men were consolidated into the general hospital that became known as Camp Letterman, which housed around 21,000 badly wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. It was the largest field hospital of the Civil War with 500 tents and the capacity to house 21,000 wounded. About 1,200 soldiers died there, but that number could have been much higher if not for Major John Letterman’s advanced triage system. His system became the gold standard of medical practice during that time period. Since Camp Letterman treated both Union and Confederate soldiers, they were able to interact and help begin to heal the divide that was crippling the nation. For example, there was a picnic at Camp Letterman in which both Union and Confederate soldiers ate and played games together. Camp Letterman was also involved in the First World War, providing housing for soldiers in the wake of the Spanish flu epidemic. Continue reading “Battlefields and Supermarkets: The Importance of Battlefield Preservation and the Case of Camp Letterman”

A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

There are few ways to better immerse oneself in the past than through food. It is relatively easy to follow a recipe from the Civil War era and enjoy the same cuisine as Union and Confederate soldiers. In this way, one can experience the past in a most interactive way. Experiencing the past was accomplished in the lecture “Hearth, Hardtack, and Hospital: A Close Look (and Taste) of Civil War Era Food,” given by Gettysburg National Military Park education specialist Barbara J. Sanders. The lecture focused on the topic of the interaction between history and food, specifically in the Civil War.

Many soldiers would fry their hardtack to make it more appetizing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sanders’s lecture, while directed at an older audience, was just as interactive as one she might give to a younger audience. She provided samples of food from the Civil War era for the audience to try and showed the audience how rations were issued, having an officer stand with his back to the rations, randomly reading off names of the soldiers to make sure that no soldier was purposefully getting a larger ration than another. She also ground up some coffee beans with a bayonet, as the soldiers would have done. All of these activities helped the audience better experience and imagine what a soldier’s diet and food preparation habits would have been. Continue reading “A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food”

Bringing the Past into the Present: Joshua Chamberlain’s Legacy in Maine

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

In recent years Maine’s role in the Civil War—especially in the Battle of Gettysburg—has gained increased renown due in part to movies and books such as Gettysburg and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Maine’s fame has grown mostly due to one famous figure: Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain has become almost a legend in Maine, a historical figure that most Mainers are familiar with and are proud of. His legacy can still be felt in the state today and provides a way for people from Maine to connect with the past. History is often the cause of boredom for many, but when the past can be brought into the present, and when people can really connect with history on a personal level, that’s when it becomes more tangible and enjoyable.

A statue of Chamberlain in Brewer, Maine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Chamberlain provides a way for Mainers to interact with the past and to enjoy learning about it. His importance and his legacy in the state are easily seen. For example, one can take a walking tour of Chamberlain’s home town of Brunswick, stopping at all the places that were meaningful to him or had something to do with his life—from the dorm he lived in while at Bowdoin College to the cemetery in which he was buried. There is even an entire museum dedicated to Chamberlain, reflecting how important his legacy is to the town of Brunswick and the state of Maine as a whole. Walking tours and museums are the kinds of things that make the past more tangible and allow people to connect with and interact with it. They are able to go and actually see the dorm room that Chamberlain stayed in and imagine him in there, bringing the past into the present by allowing people to visualize what it would have been like to see Brunswick as Chamberlain saw it. Continue reading “Bringing the Past into the Present: Joshua Chamberlain’s Legacy in Maine”