In proportion to its population, Maine sent more soldiers and sailors off to fight the Civil War than any other state in the Union. They came from cities and small towns, from farms and islands. In the end, as many as 70,000 men (and a far smaller number of women) marched or sailed away to the battlefields and naval engagements that took place as Confederate and Union forces fought over the nation’s future for the four years between 1861 and 1865.

The stories of a few of these Mainers (and some others from elsewhere in the country) are the centerpiece of Harry Gratwick’s newest history book, Mainers in the Civil War. There are the generals, heroes and politicians like Joshua Chamberlain, Abner Cony, Hannibal Hamlin, Israel Washburn and Harris Plaisted; other civilians-turned-military men such as Neal Dow who raised the “Prohibition Regiment;” two admirals, Henry Knox Thatcher (grandson of the earlier Henry Knox of Revolutionary War fame) and Thomas Craven, whose wartime court martial was later reversed; a marine, Charles Heywood of Waterville; several islanders; and a distinguished group of women including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothea Dix and Amy Bradley (an East Vassalboro native who worked in southern schools after the war). As if for good measure, Gratwick includes the exploits of two Confederates: Danville Leadbetter of Leeds, who became a Confederate general, and Charles Read, a Confederate naval officer who led a daring raid on Portland, at one point capturing a federal revenue cutter, the Caleb Cushing, which had been anchored in the harbor.

Mainers in the Civil War is thus more than a memoir of soldiers and sailors—it’s a series of brief biographies of notable and lesser-known persons who participated in what was surely the most calamitous event in the history of the United States.

Curiously, since Harry Gratwick himself has a strong island connection to Maine, the three islanders in his book are relatively small players. They are Charles Gray of Deer Isle, and Woster Vinal and Lafayette Carver of Vinalhaven. Gray was killed at New Bern, North Carolina; Lafayette Carver died in the battle of Cold Harbor; Vinal survived the war and lived until the 1930s, when he was Vinalhaven’s oldest surviving Civil War veteran.

Yet in a sense, these three represent the rest of us, the ancestors and forbears of contemporary Americans who put down their plows and tied up their boats, left their families and put their lives on the line to hold their country together. The fact that so many Mainers volunteered—in very different ways—when the call came is a striking contrast to our own time when wars and national crises can seem like faraway things. In 1861, the United States was a younger and very different country; the experiences of its people, well told in this book by a dedicated amateur historian with a passion for his subject, have much to teach us today.

David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.