A new exhibit on the second floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow (H-L) Library pays homage to the American Civil War from a unique historical perspective: that of the Bowdoin students who fought in the conflict.
The exhibit, called “Bowdoin Boys in Blue—and Gray,” seeks to document the participation of Bowdoin students in this pivotal historical event through personal letters, journals, drawings, newspapers and official documents, all culled from the College’s extensive Civil War archive in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections.
The exhibit is one of several other programs that Bowdoin is offering to commemorate the sesquicentennial, or 150th, anniversary of the Civil War.
Since the start of 2013, H-L Library has been keeping a daily blog called “On This Day in Civil War History…” that offers digital selections from various civil war manuscripts, mostly diaries of Bowdoin soldiers and their letters to Bowdoin students and alumni. The journals in particular offer an insider’s perspective of daily military life in the 1860s.
In addition, Bowdoin will be hosting an Alumni College series on the sesquicentennial August 8-11 featuring guest speakers and talks by Bowdoin faculty.
The College’s sesquicentennial celebrations mark the 150th anniversary of Civil War accomplishments by a Bowdoin alumnus in 1863, rather than the declaration of war in 1861.
“We chose to use 2013 as the sesquicentennial year largely because 1863 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and because Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had such a central role at Gettysburg and Bowdoin,” said Richard Lindemann, director of the Library’s Special Collections.
Chamberlain, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1852 and taught at the College in the late 1850s before joining the Union army, is probably the most recognizable alumnus featured in the exhibit. He received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg, served four terms as the Governor of Maine after the war, and was President of Bowdoin from 1871 to 1883. Chamberlain’s accomplishments have established him as a key part of Maine and Bowdoin’s history.
The exhibition sprung from a desire to highlight the abundant Civil War materials in Special Collections. Lindemann noted that Bowdoin has a unique ability to document this important time in the nation’s history.
“We have so much Civil War material because so many Bowdoin men participated in the Civil War,” he said.
According to the exhibit, 317 out of Bowdoin’s then-living 1,125 students and alumni served in the Civil War. Only 18 fought for the Confederacy.
Most of the documents located in the two display cases on the second floor of the H-L Library arrived at Special Collections via donations from alumni. The first half of the exhibition represents the experience of Bowdoin soldiers, focusing on four alumni families that were prominent in the war and at Bowdoin through photographs, letters, and some Civil War memorabilia.
Viewers will recognize the name of Chamberlain in a display case entirely devoted to his memoirs, letters and notes, as well as his signature in a student’s copy of what could be called the 1860’s version of a yearbook.
Students will also recognize the name of Thomas H. Hubbard, Class of 1857, after whom Hubbard Hall is named. Hubbard served as Brevet Brigadier General in the war. He also raised money for Memorial Hall, originally constructed to commemorate the service of Bowdoin students in the war.
The other two families featured in the first half of the exhibit, the MacArthur and Howard families, sent a number of their sons to the College, all of whom went on to serve in the Union military.
The second half of the exhibit uses manuscript materials to present several topics: life on the home front, the role of “Bowdoin Boys” in the Confederacy (which the “—and Gray” of the exhibit’s title refers to), and other notable alumni that didn’t make it into the separate family section.
A point of interest in the second section is a series of pictures and engravings by the artist Winslow Homer depicting contemporary scenes of military camp life and activities on the home front that were published in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly. The pictures, some which began as woodcut engravings, offer a good counterbalance to the vast amount of handwritten text, which makes up the majority of the exhibit.
“We wanted to feature Winslow Homer, who doesn’t have any ties to Bowdoin, except that his papers are at the art museum. He was a renowned artist with Maine connections, and the College claims him as a Maine son, if not a Bowdoin son,” said Lindemann.
He admits that the exhibit is a lot to absorb in one viewing.
“I don’t expect that anyone is going to go through that exhibit and read every card from beginning to end, but there’s a story there if you do that. You have to savor it. Get a little flavor, go away, and come back. It’s a great exhibit to take a little piece at a time.”
The exhibit will be on view through June 1.