Thursday, April 3, 2003

Cape and S.P. in the Civil War

Published in the Current

Paul Ledman is, in one sense, a strange person to have completed a history of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland during the Civil War. Born and raised in New York City, he has a background in geology and law. When he moved to Maine a few years ago, he got certified to teach science and social studies.

He is now the advanced placement U.S. history teacher at Scarborough High School and is taking history classes at the University of New Hampshire. As part of those classes, he became interested in what is called “quantitative history,” or history based in data and records compiled over time, like census data.

“You could use it as a tool to learn things you may not see” in personal records like letters or even old newspaper reports.

He wanted to “take a town and look at how that town responded to war,” Ledman said. He’s a Cape resident, so he picked his own town. He will be speaking about the results and his book, “A Maine town responds: Cape Elizabeth and South Portland in the Civil War,” at the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society meeting April 7, at 7:30 p.m., in the meeting room at Thomas Memorial Library.

Using computer databases, he compared the now-public 19th century census data for Cape Elizabeth with the roster of Cape residents who served in the Civil War.

He looked at how enlistments in the Union Army changed as the war progressed and also looked at the socioeconomic data indicating how different groups in town responded to the pressures of war.

In the South Portland City Hall boiler room, Ledman found original documents and photos from before the two towns separated.

“This stuff is incredible,” he said. One of the things that makes the story of Civil War enlistments interesting is that “at that time you could buy your way out of service” with the military, Ledman said. Rich people did not have to serve, but could choose to.

The book tracks the fortunes of the war and the role of Cape residents in it. A young man from Cape was killed at Gettysburg, Ledman said. And Scott Dyer Jordan served on a gunboat on the Mississippi River.

Letters home from those men and other soldiers “give you a human side to the war,” which is enhanced by the data gathering, Ledman said.

Reports from soldiers or newspapers about changing fortunes of war resulted in changes in enlistments, Ledman said. If things were going well, more people signed up. As the war faltered, so did recruiting.

National politics played in as well. After the Emancipation Proclamation, election results show a change of opinion in Cape. “A lot of sentiment turned against Lincoln when he made it about abolition,” Ledman said.

Also, Ledman found some early differences between the areas of town that are now Cape and South Portland. They weren’t as different as they became by the time the towns split in 1895, but farms were smaller in South Portland and there were more small-business people, Ledman said.