Bowdoin Library’s Special Collections has delved into its extensive trove of Civil War-era letters, diaries, artifacts, and newspaper clippings to create a new exhibition exploring Bowdoin during the Civil War. Called “Bowdoin Boys in Blue — and Gray,” the presentation focuses on those who fought, died, suffered through, or made their names in the war.
The exhibition is part of a yearlong series of programs, panels and exhibitions at Bowdoin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the famous defense there of Little Round Top by future Bowdoin president Joshua L. Chamberlain.
Bowdoin’s participation rate in the Civil War was 25% of the 1,125 alumni and students alive then — or 317 men, including 18 who fought for the Confederacy. While this figure was higher than any other northern college, the exhibition’s curator Richard Lindemann admits he was surprised the participation rate wasn’t higher. Lindemann is the director of Bowdoin’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. “We talk about the war being an all-consuming endeavor, but the record suggests it didn’t seem to have affected the pace or rhythm of Bowdoin much at all,” he said.
However, those students or graduates who did fight — and their families — were profoundly affected. A portion of the exhibition looks at how lives were changed and, in some cases, families shattered by the deep rift severing the country.
The McArthur family, who had three boys attend Bowdoin, was one such family. The eldest boy, “a problem child,” Lindemann said, enlisted in the Confederacy, angering his father, an established Maine politician. The boy was later killed in Virginia. Meanwhile, the youngest McArthur studied at West Point, and the middle boy fought for the Union Army. “If you go through the McArthur papers, there’s this sense of a mother in the background silently suffering from the abrasion in her family,” Lindemann said.
Besides these personal histories, the exhibition includes prints by Winslow Homer, who worked as a wartime illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. “He was an embedded reporter, to use the 21st-century term,” Lindemann said. Homer turned his sketches of the wartime scenes he witnessed into paintings, which were converted by craftsmen into woodcut engravings. “They’re really striking and beautiful,” Lindemann noted.
The exhibition also includes the history of Bowdoin’s Memorial Hall, a project instigated after the war by Prof. William Smyth, a Bowdoin math professor and ardent abolitionist. (Smyth lived in what is now Bowdoin’s Russwurm African American Center, where some believe Smyth sheltered slaves in the Underground Railroad.) The exhibition includes a fundraising letter by Smyth that articulates his grandiose dream for the building. Memorial Hall took more 17 years to complete, due to post-war financial difficulties, and was finally finished near the end of Chamberlain’s presidency.
A fair amount of the exhibition is dedicated to Chamberlain, who was one of just two Bowdoin faculty to enlist. Chamberlain received a Medal of Honor for his wartime achievements. “He’s become an icon of the Civil War for Bowdoin,” Lindemann said. Three other Bowdoin officers also received this medal, the highest award for valor. “There were a lot of significant accomplishments by Bowdoin soldiers, but also a lot of less spectacular stories of people getting sick and coming home,” Lindemann said.
Lindemann recommends that people interested in this slice of Bowdoin history take in the exhibition — which is quite dense and text-heavy due to Bowdoin’s extraordinary collection of Civil War-era papers — a little at a time. Most of the documents in the display cases on the second floor of the H-L Library were donated by alumni. “Savor a little bit, go away and come back for more,” Lindemann advised. The show is free and open to the public daily through June 1.
Photos courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives