PEAKS ISLAND — Veterans love to talk with other veterans. There’s a language only they know, events they shared that others simply can never fully understand.

Civil War veterans were no different, which is why members of the 5th Maine bought and built their own “retreat” on Peaks Island 23 years after the war … a place now known as the 5th Maine Museum.

The 5th Maine, a regiment primarily of southern Maine volunteers existed from 1861 until 1864, and saw a lot of battles … Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Antietam. They also felt the need to see each other after the war, and by 1887, decided to build a place just for them.

“There are over a thousand people in a regiment. But, from what we can tell, they maintained that friendship, between lots of the men,” says museum curator Holly Hurd-Forsyth. “They maintained contact, and they had a regimental association, where they’d have regular reunions, and that’s not unusual. But the 5th seemed to be particularly cohesive, and by 1887 they were having a reunion on Peaks Island, and next summer they had this building, going from conception to construction in less than a year.”

“So in 1888 they had this building … and their families came with them,” she continues.

There are some stories of the wives coming and sleeping in tents at earlier gatherings, and the wives said, “We don’t want to sleep in tents anymore.” But, Hurd-Forsyth says in later reunions some of the veterans still slept in tents.

So this large building with a grand hall and a three-story observation tower overlooking Casco Bay became their own space. Fifty cents a night could get you a cot, while the most expensive room with an ocean view was available for $9 a week. Summer after summer, members of the 5th Maine brought their families to where songs were sung and many a story swapped, probably with some embellishment, but often with unspoken acknowledgment and understanding.

It was their place, so they donated memorabilia like wood with bullet fragments, uniforms, canteens, drums, or even something as simple as a tin cup. “It’s not that it’s particularly valuable, monetarily, but it was valuable to the soldiers,” says Hurd-Forsyth. “It was meaningful to the soldiers. So it’s a pretty humble assortment, but people really like it.”

The memorabilia remains today, as well as the pride of the regiment: Its battle flag, saved after the war and donated by someone when the building first opened in 1888. Hurd-Forsyth says it was professionally conserved 10 years ago, and the fragile silk flag nearly covers an entire wall.

As years passed, the number of Civil War veterans dwindled with the last 5th Maine vet dying in the late 1930s. Families and descendants continued reunions until 1954, when it became the Peaks Island Community Center.

Now, it’s a place for local gatherings year-round, as well as a rental venue for events and weddings while remaining a museum in the summers surrounded by gardens, honoring those 5th Maine soldiers and the island’s colorful past.

“There’s a volunteer guide or docent here the entire time we’re open,” says Hurd-Forsyth. “There’s a suggested donation of $5, and they could tour with the docent, or look around on their own.”

The Grand Hall is framed by stained glass windows, a panel for each company, and as a fund-raiser early on, veterans, families or friends paid to put up a soldier’s name.

Company D, with soldiers from Brunswick and Topsham has a panel. Topsham resident and great-great nephew Dana Cary takes particular pride in the pane marked “G.F. Cary.” His great-great Uncle George and great-grandfather Seth signed up and the two brothers served together.

“George came home from the Civil War with consumption, tuberculosis, as did many soldiers,” Dana says. “And he died in 1875.”

Dana believes it was his great-grandfather Seth and other siblings who made the donation for their brother’s glass pane. Nearly 110 years later, it remains a place of pride for Dana.

“I was just immediately connected with that building when I went in and saw that,” he says. “It was in George’s remembrance that Seth did that, and Seth probably spent time here, probably came to reunions … and it just made the whole thing a lot more realistic to me.”

The museum opens Sunday for the season. For more information, visit

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