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On this day in history: Civil War battle won in Waterville, Maine

04/01/2015
Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War played out in front of Union solider Pvt. Joseph French and he reported all the action in a diary he carried from battlefield to battlefield.

But perhaps the biggest Civil War battle he witnessed didn’t happen over a Virginia picket line with the “rebs.”

The battle happened 70 miles south of Bangor, Maine in a town called Waterville.

Waterville is where a 24-year-old French heard civil rights activist Frederick Douglass speak on April 1, 1864.

I’m transcribing the Pvt. Joseph French war diaries for the Bangor Museum and History Center and posting the daily entries on Twitter. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m learning more about the Civil War then I ever learned in high school or college. Reading the diary entries of a common foot soldier puts you right on the front lines and generates an amazing amount of curiosity. Where exactly were the troops? How did they move around? What did they do during down time? What the heck is a caisson?

And more importantly: Could a simple farm-boy like French really have heard one of America’s greatest orators and social reformers speak in a tiny Maine mill town on the Kennebec River?

Yes.

I did a little research. Douglass made multiple appearances in Maine. He first visited the state in 1855 and was invited to Waterville by the Waterville Library Association. The town may have been an attractive one to an ambitious reformer like Douglass, it was in the heart of the lumber industry and home to Colby College, one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the United States.

According to the Colby College Echo, Douglass spoke at the Baptist Meeting House and “was generally well received.”  He spoke again in Waterville in 1864, as French traveled from the front lines to his family farm in Chesterville on a 30-day furlough.

“I heard Frederick Douglass speak last night,” says French, in an April 2 diary entry.

No commentary. No description. No political posturing. The experience of hearing Douglass speak was enough.

We can only image what kind of impression Douglass made on French and his Maine neighbors in 1864. Douglass, after all, was a former slave, yet here he was in the middle of Maine dazzling a crowd with his oratory skills. He was a published writer, a world traveler and an advocate for radical social change. All of which was something few in 19th Century America were willing to allow a black man.

The intelligence, the accomplishment, the outstanding presence of Douglass helped open the minds of Mainers and inspired people like French into action.

An important battle was won that day in Waterville.

More than a year later the south would fall.

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