Credit: George Danby

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Eben Miller is a professor of history at Southern Maine Community College.

On June 17, 1864, hundreds of Bangor citizens and prominent Maine officials joined in procession to Mount Hope Cemetery. They gathered there to dedicate the new Soldiers Monument, the first of its kind in the state, a 20-foot granite obelisk commemorating men from the city who had perished during the Civil War.

Choosing the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill to consecrate the memorial was fitting. Mainers understood the conflict then rending the nation within a longer struggle for independence. Events like George Washington’s birthday and Independence Day frequently served as moments to contemplate the legacy of the American Revolution.

Their forerunners had fought to establish the republic; they were fighting to sustain it.  As Gov. Samuel Cony wrote for the occasion, the Soldiers Monument embodied “the enormous sacrifices which Maine has made in the prosecution of this war for the preservation of the republic.”

The anniversary of Bunker Hill seemingly offered a date around which all patriotic Mainers could unite. But the prosecution of the war and the sacrifices it entailed divided many in the state, with both proponents and opponents invoking the memory of the American Revolution.

The discord distilled down to a fundamental dispute, an unresolved contradiction from the revolutionary era: the presence of human enslavement in a republic of liberty.

Slavery polarized Mainers in 1864. Supporters of the war believed emancipation a practical military measure and necessary for the future integrity of the nation. Opponents deemed emancipation a threat to white liberty. Each considered their view the proper patrimony of the American Revolution.

The dedication of the Soldiers Monument prompted the espousal of each of these perspectives.

During the celebration, Edward Kent, eminent Bangorian and justice of the Maine Supreme Court, argued that “universal emancipation” should be welcomed. His remarks are recorded in the June 21, 1864 issue of the Bangor Whig & Courier. Locating Bunker Hill in the long arc of national freedom, Kent perceived divine intervention operating through the Civil War, purifying the nation from its original sin.

Judge Kent’s remarks  elicited a rebuttal from William Simpson, editor of the Belfast Journal. It was not God but abolitionists – a term he intended as an epithet – who were responsible for the miseries of the ongoing war. Abolitionism was the equivalent of the British tyranny that patriotic colonists fought at Bunker Hill. It had provoked southern rebels to demand their independence and was jeopardizing the liberty of white northerners by imposing taxes and enforcing conscription to wage an endless war for Black freedom. “Hecatombs of slain white men are nothing” to the abolitionist, the Belfast Journal fumed, “twenty millions of white people robbed of their liberties is nothing.”

While white Mainers debated the legitimacy of emancipation, women and men of African descent in the state laid claim to another legacy of the American Revolution. As they had during the War for Independence, Black Mainers joined the Civil War as a fight for freedom.

In January 1863,  African Americans in Portland rejoiced with a celebratory levee in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer prohibited from service, dozens of Black men enlisted in segregated units. Though Maine sponsored no such regiment, many joined the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.

George Gillispie was among them. A 21-year old seaman born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Gillispie stood just over five feet tall with “black eyes, black hair, dark complexion.” He enlisted in Bangor at the end of January 1864. Marking his enlistment papers with an X, Gillispie left behind no eloquent oratory, he wrote no scathing editorials. He simply joined the freedom fight.

While the Soldiers Monument was consecrated in June 1864, Gillispie’s regiment stood on duty in New Orleans. As arguments over the legacy of the American Revolution roiled on the Maine home front, men like Gillispie contributed to a rebirth of national freedom that – though imperfect, though contested – both reaches backward to the era of independence and continues to shape our competing understandings of liberty, of freedom, today.