After Sarah Long kissed her husband, Hezekiah, goodbye in late summer 1862, he seldom penciled romantic prose to her.
The 37-year-old Hezekiah joined the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment in August 1862. Sarah relocated their children (ages 14 months to 13 years) from South Thomaston to Rockland after he left.
For the next 33 months, the war separated Sarah and Hezekiah, except for a tragic 20-day furlough in 1864. They communicated only by letter, and Hezekiah wasted little pencil lead on amorous passages.
Yet, in his taciturn way, he reminded Sarah that he loved and missed her.
“Hard Times, Hard Bread, and Harder Coffee,” published by Richardson’s Civil War Round Table, collates the 128 letters that Hezekiah wrote to Sarah. Her letters to him vanished long ago. In references to her letters, though, Hezekiah revealed Sarah as a brave, lonely woman raising seven children on her own.
His initial letters reveal the excitement inherent with his new profession. But what did Sarah think upon reading his letter written on Sept. 23 after the Battle of Shepherdstown, Va.?
“I supposed you would like to know how I felt when the bullets were whistling around my head,” Hezekiah told her. “I never felt so perfectly indifferent in my life.”
War’s novelty was fading by late November as cold weather in Virginia reminded Hezekiah of Maine. On Nov. 9, he acknowledged receiving “two letters from you yesterday,” correspondence that brought news about family colds. He warned Sarah that he would not be home soon.
“Keep a good heart and lay as warm as you can this cold winter,” he urged her.
Then the telegraph wires hummed with news about Fredericksburg. Did Sarah nervously tear open an envelope to read her sweetheart’s Dec. 28 letter, in which Hezekiah recalled “laying full length on the ground” before Marye’s Heights? Cowering behind dead or wounded men, the 20th Maine boys dared not “to stand or even to set up for fear of getting a bullet in our heads.”
Writing on Jan. 4, 1863, Sarah told Hezekiah that the children had chicken pox.
“I did not sleep much last night for thinking of you,” he responded five days later.
In an April 3 letter to “Old Girl,” Hezekiah added a postscript to “Dear Girls,” his older daughters Abbie and Emma.
“You do not know how much I want to see you and the rest,” their father wrote.
By now Hezekiah routinely closed his letters with “affectionately yours,” a tonal change subtly reflecting a longing for Sarah — and she missed him, too. “You say you have never been so lonesome since I left as now,” he wrote her on April 26. “That is about my case, but we must grin and bear it.”
In his June letters, Hezekiah wrote about mundane matters, especially about that portion of his pay that never seemed to reach Sarah on time.
“I hope you have got your money before this time,” he wrote on June 13 before suggesting that Sarah “pay 25 dollars rent” on the Rockland house to which she had moved the children.
Then Hezekiah was away, marching north as first sergeant of Company F, the color company. A 14-day gap opened between his letters of June 28 and July 12, with the latter written in “Camp near Antietam.”
Sarah likely rejoiced when she received this letter; not so other women associated with Company F soldiers involved in that epic stand at Little Round Top.
“We [the regiment] went into battle on the 2nd with 360 men and lost in killed and wounded 144,” Hezekiah wrote. “We [Co. F] went into the fight with 43 men. We had 8 killed and 14 wounded, so it left us with only 21.”
And that’s all that Sarah heard about Gettysburg.
“A kiss for all hands. Write often. Affectionately yours, H. Long,” Hezekiah concluded.
In an Aug. 9 letter to Hezekiah, “You say that it has been a long year to you and you wonder if it has been to me. It has not been so very long to me as there has been considerable excitement which has helped to pass the time if not so pleasantly,” he responded to Sarah 10 days later.
And did his Sept. 3 letter hint at antebellum marital troubles? “It was a year yesterday since we left the state of Maine,” he reminded Sarah. “I … do not regret that I entered the service when I did. And I think that it has been better for all of us than it would if I had not.”
Did he mean that absence had made hearts grow fonder? Definitely. He closed a Nov. 1 letter with, “Give all hands a kiss for me, and imagine one for yourself to your own liking.”
Hezekiah let his guard slip on Dec. 5. “You have proberbly (sic) seen the accounts of our excursion in the papers before this,” he wrote “Dear Sarah.” “I did not freeze any part of me that I know of but I think if I had been in Rockland hugged up with S____ I should have enjoyed it.”
He missed Sarah — “you say you would send me your love if I would receive it,” he wrote on Feb. 24, 1864. “I know of no reason why I should not now as well as any time and I was always happy in believing that I had it, and in returning you mine in my rough way.
“As far as kisses are concerned I will pay you with interest if I live to come home,” he concluded.
Lamed by rheumatism, Hezekiah reported to the Finley Hospital in Washington, D.C. in early May 1864 and finally went home on furlough, intended as a perfect 20 days stretching from June 10 to July 1.
On June 26, 11-year-old Fred Long drowned while swimming in a Rockland lime quarry. His father did not mention this horrible loss on paper after returning to Virginia.
“You spoke of being lonesome,” Hezekiah wrote on Aug. 7, referring to Sarah’s letter written five days earlier. “What do you think of me?”
Sunday, Sept. 18 dawned “cloudy and quite cool,” and “I should like to be at home this morning. But there is one thing about it. I have not got half as long to serve as I have served, as we have commenced on our last year,” Hezekiah wrote.
One year to go, then home. Home, where Sarah slept alone every night; “I shall also have to lay alone,” Hezekiah wrote on Sept. 20, “but then you know that is not a hard job unless I have the choice of bed fellows, which I cannot here.”
Another Virginia winter approached as Hezekiah wrote “Well Old Girl” on Nov. 15 that “I am lonesome as ever.”
Thursday, Dec. 15 brought great news.
“I had a commission as 2nd Lieutenant come the 6th …so I shall commence to draw pay from that time,” Hezekiah informed Sarah. He was an officer. For the holidays, “as I have nothing to send you as a Christmas present but my love, I will send that,” he wrote on Dec. 26.
Sarah’s letters kept coming in January 1865. Always she relayed information about her and the children’s’ health. Then the Union camps stirred outside Petersburg, Va. in late March. As the 20th Maine prepared to march west, illness sent Hezekiah to the 5th Corps Hospital on April 2. On April 12, he told Sarah about the fall of Petersburg and Richmond.
Then came that last letter, written at Sutherland Station, Va. on May 2. “Dear Sarah,” Hezekiah wrote, not realizing how soon the 20th Maine would arrive home, “Yours [letter] of the 27th was received last night and I was glad to learn that you were all well. We are expecting to march tomorrow,” some 200 miles to Washington. “My love and a kiss for all hands.”
The next kiss he delivered personally to her in June.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.