Sarah Sampson went to war as an officer’s wife and returned home as a life-saving heroine whose kindnesses her “comrades” from the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment never forgot.
Born in 1832, Sarah married Charles Sampson in 1855. The childless couple lived in Bath, where Charles sculpted ship figureheads. In spring 1861, he accepted a captain’s commission in the 3rd Maine Infantry, and commanded Company D.
Sarah accompanied her husband when the regiment left on June 5 for Washington, D.C. After a month’s training, the 3rd Maine crossed the Potomac River to join the Union army coalescing in Fairfax County, Va. The army, commanded by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, fought and lost a savage battle on July 21, 1861, at Manassas, Va. Marching with the last Union regiments to deploy against the stubborn enemy that hot Sunday, the 3rd Maine suffered 49 casualties, including eight men killed.
When the shattered Union army reached Washington, wounded and dying soldiers overflowed the local hospitals, spilling into churches, barns, stables and private homes. Overwhelmed Army doctors amputated bullet- and cannonball-shattered limbs and spread infections by wiping their bloody hands on bloodstained aprons before operating on their next patients.
Of the approximately 620,000 men killed during the Civil War, accidents and disease claimed at least 414,000 lives, including 6,214 Mainers. More might have died except for women like Red Cross founder Clara Barton of Massachusetts, humanitarian and nurse Dorothea Dix of Hampden and Sarah Sampson, who all learned about nursing and sanitation while changing bandages, cooling feverish foreheads with clean wet cloths, and holding hands with fearful dying youths.
For four years, Sarah Sampson would care for wounded Maine men, sailors and soldiers alike. Among them was a 17-year-old Waterville soldier stricken with diphtheria in November 1861 at Camp Howard in Virginia.
Quoted years later in the Lewiston Journal, the unnamed soldier recalled that “a great sac formed on my throat” and two 3rd Maine surgeons “told me I must die.” The disease gradually left the youth unable to move, blink or breathe very well. After checking the soldier’s pulse one day in January 1862, a surgeon said, “The boy is dead … take him out.”
After the funeral, a surgeon performed an autopsy that started with slicing “the sac at my throat,” the soldier remembered. “The skin on my face relaxed,” and the surgeon “saw my eyes open and saw me wink.”
The surgeon immediately hustled the “corpse” to the recovery tent, where “Mrs. Sampson … took a kind interest in me, and her nursing saved my life. She watched over me and fussed with me like a mother,” he recalled. “The other invalids as well as I, received her attention, and I tell you she seemed like an angel to all of us.”
By now Charles Sampson was a lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Maine. In spring 1862, the regiment fought in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Wherever the 3rd Maine advanced, so did Sarah Sampson and the field hospital at which she volunteered.
During the June 29 Battle of Savage’s Station, Confederate infantry overran the field hospital. Wounded 3rd Maine soldiers “were lost with all my possessions at the ‘skedaddle,’” Sarah Sampson wrote, referring to able-bodied Union soldiers and civilians hastily retreating to the Federal base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
There the Sampsons boarded the steamship Molly Baker. Arrested by Gen. David Birney after leaving the field without permission during the June 25 Battle of Oak Gr0ve, Va., Charles “has resigned his Commission … and we are now homeward-bound,” Sarah wrote on Wednesday, July 10. Escorted by the gunboat USS Galena, the steamship sailed downriver. “There is considerable excitement on board,” noted Sarah, busy below decks caring for wounded men. “Later I am told we have been fired at by quite a number of [Confederate] guns [hidden along the shore], but as yet none has hit us.”
The Sampsons returned to Bath; Sarah soon returned to the war.
Now belonging to the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Association, she arrived at Gettysburg by mid-July 1863. While remaining “there with our wounded four weeks,” as she wrote to Maine Gov. Abner Coburn on Aug. 17, Sampson identified Maine men “who have died there” in military hospitals; “this list I will send to Maine for publication as soon as I have time to copy it.
“I left our soldiers very reluctantly at Gettysburg; they needed my service much, and urged me to remain, but I had no instructions to remain,” she informed Coburn.
Sarah Sampson particularly ministered to sick or wounded 3rd Maine Infantry soldiers. The regiment fought at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor battles in late spring 1864. Its ranks and battle flags literally shot to pieces, the 3rd Maine left Cold Harbor on June 5 and disbanded 23 days later.
Sarah Sampson worked at a field hospital during those bloody battles. Among her patients that June was a mortally wounded 3rd Maine soldier wanting to die at home, not in Virginia. Sampson completed his paperwork and sent him by ambulance to the road along which the 3rd Maine marched from Cold Harbor. “The little band of men, barely 100 strong, stopped and helped their comrade from the ambulance, and bore him on his litter with them [to] the train station, there to board the cars that would take them all home again,” reports Murdochonline.net, referring to Sampson’s memoirs.
With her “boys” gone, Sarah Sampson took her skills to Washington, D.C., where she assisted wounded Maine men, fought off a life-threatening fever, and by summer 1865, cared for soldiers wounded late in the war.
Sarah rejoined Charles at their Bath home in October 1865, and the next year, she helped establish the Bath Military and Naval Orphan Asylum. After Charles died in 1881, Sarah worked at the Pension Bureau in Washington, D.C.
No civilian cemetery would suffice for Sarah Sampson when she died on Dec. 22, 1907. Upon learning of her death, members of the 3rd Maine Regiment Association swiftly lobbied for her burial in Section 1 at Arlington National Cemetery.
There, at Site 1261, her surviving comrades in the 3rd Maine placed on her gravestone a tablet honoring her as “Sarah Sampson, Volunteer Nurse, Civil War.” The tablet also bore the inscription, “This tablet is dedicated in loving memory of Sarah S. Sampson by the 3rd Maine Regiment Association, Civil War.”
The angel from Bath was at rest.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Brian may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.