Story posted June 06, 2006
Sometimes the search for history leads to your own back door. Matt Thomson '06 discovered that when he started researching the Fessenden family's contribution to the Civil War in Augusta, and ended up back at Bowdoin.
"I interned at the Maine State Archives this summer, doing some database work, and there was a fantastic Civil War collection," Thomson said. "A couple of men working there were excited to let me go explore."
Thomson, a history and economics major from Kennebunk, got hooked by an 1863 Maine Adjunct General's report that detailed the heroic death of Samuel Fessenden, an 1861 Bowdoin graduate and the son of Sen. William Pitt Fessenden, Class of 1823.
"I uncovered his obituary and saw that he was a senator's son, and found out he was a Bowdoin graduate," Thomson said. "I dug a little more, and I couldn't believe there were all these Bowdoin connections."
When he returned to campus, Thomson discovered that Bowdoin's own collections include Fessenden's personal correspondence and two biographies on the father, one written by his son.
"I basically hit the jackpot," he said. "I feel like I'm doing something that hasn't been done before."
Thomson said he immediately was struck by the fact that rich men were voluntarily enlisting in the war. He had believed the adage that it was "a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight." It wasn't just Samuel Fessenden; his two older brothers had enlisted earlier - one of them lost a leg in battle - and his younger brother desperately wanted to follow but was prevented by ill health. All four graduated from Bowdoin.
"You could pay $300 to get out of the draft," Thomson said. "My concept of war is that the sons of senators and representatives aren't the ones fighting. I thought I had an interesting story there: Why do men fight? In general, what makes men go to war?"
In the Civil War, Thomson learned, men of all classes were motivated equally by a sense of honor to preserve their young country and to defeat the traitors who sought to divide it. But in war, as in life, the elite would gain more from the experience. Their connections influenced their advancement during the war; their desire to serve the greater good was combined with the knowledge that their participation in the war could add to their already considerable prestige when they returned.
"The most surprising thing overall was how much politics and the patronage system dominated the way the military was established in Maine," Thomson said. "In the official military correspondence I found letters of recommendation for men working to raise a company. There was a constant use of connections."
Thomson also explored how the participation of the elite in the war shaped the society they would return to.
"What are the implications of these upper-class men who are going into the war and will emerge the generals?" he asked. "How does that influence society when they get back? They led veteran's organizations and had a large say in how the war would be remembered. They formed an aristocracy of heroes. It says something about the connection between the military and politics and the power it gives you."
Thomson, who hopes to become a high school history teacher, said that he found the subject so compelling that it was difficult to stay on topic once he began his research.
"I always spend far too long reading about things that have nothing to do with my project," he said. "There are so many stories and so many points of view."