June 19, 2018
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Morris Leach was ‘sweet’ on Flora Gray

Library of Congress photo | BDN
Library of Congress photo | BDN
Women played key roles in supporting the Union war effort during the Civil War. Local women's groups sewed clothing for soldiers (top), and each Union regiment hired a few soldiers' wives to work as laundresses (center). Other women working as nurses in military hospitals often wrote letters dictated by ill or wounded soldiers (bottom). Confined by a debilitating illness to a Washington, D.C. Army hospital by September 1862, Corp. Morris Leach of Penobscot expressed his pleasure at seeing women nurses and volunteers in a letter that he wrote home.
By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

Morris Leach left his heart in South Penobscot when he went off to war.

The fourth child and third son of Capt. Rufus Leach and his wife, Ruth, Morris Leach was born on July 18, 1841. He grew up on Winslow’s Cove, a Northern Bay indentation that lies just west of the Southern Bay and Western County roads intersection in modern South Penobscot.

Among his neighbors were cobbler John Gray and his wife, Joanna, known to Leach as “Ann.” Another neighbor was a young woman named Flora Gray (unrelated).

Leach had evidently courted Flora for a while when he wrote the Grays on Sunday, Dec. 1 that, “I was quite fea[r]ce (sic) after her.” Unfortunately, he could no longer visit with Flora because Corp. Leach now lived at Camp Knox in Virginia.

A slender man and 5 feet 7¾ inches tall, the black-haired Leach listed his profession as a sailor when he enlisted in Co. H, 4th Maine Infantry on Oct. 7, 1861. His civilian occupation apparently left him with a dark complexion, likely due to long exposure to the ocean sun, and he gazed at the world through hazel eyes.

Along with Leach, other Penobscot men mustered with the regiment at Augusta on Nov. 9. These fledgling soldiers left behind mothers, sisters, sweethearts and wives after shipping south to Virginia. The 20-year-old Morris Leach was smitten when he left Maine.

“Oh, John [Gray], you knew I was kinder after Flora Gray before I came away from home,” Leach wrote on Dec. 1. “Well, I have had two letters from her and have wrote three to her and I want you to speak a good word for me when you see her.”

During the Civil War, soldiers relished reading letters from their women. Letters from a father, a brother or a male friend helped a soldier keep in touch with events and people back home, but a soldier understood that letters written by a feminine hand meant that at least one woman cared for him.

For Morris Leach, that woman just had to be Flora Gray.

But on Dec. 8 he shared a sudden worry with Joanna: “I have received nine letters this week, quite a lot for me, not a nary from Flora Gray.” Had her letters been waylaid? Had she lost interest in him?

A happy Leach informed Joanna on Dec. 21 that “I have got nine letters [including] one from Flora Gray to night (sic).

“When we get our pay we are going to have a good dinner [on] Christmas,” he noted. “I suppose you will have a good time around home. I suppose Flora Gray will be up there. I should like to be at home and offer to go home with her to see what she would say.”

Winter encased Maine and Virginia in its icy, snowy grip in January 1862.

To compound the miserable weather, “I suppose my Flora Gray has given me the sack,” Leach wrote. “I have not got a letter from her for about three weeks. I don’t see what she means by it.”

Was another young man entertaining Flora? Penobscot men who had not joined the military faced less competition with the local girls — and Leach knew it.

“I suppose if I was a courting a girl [in person] some rascal would not get her away from me. I tell you a Soldier stand a poor sight here [with their sweethearts] while some of the boys are at home,” he admitted to the Grays.

In spring 1862, the 4th Maine Infantry deployed to the Virginia Tidewater as the Army of the Potomac slowly advanced on Richmond. By now a combat veteran, Leach still thought of home. Writing to John Gray on July 21, Leach asked, “Do you see anything of that Flora Gray latly (sic)? I should like to see her vary (sic) well. Give my love to her the next time you see her.”

Leach also wrote to Joanna Gray that same Saturday saying he wasn’t feeling well.

“I am getting to be quite la[me] now,” he noted.

Leach did not know that his older brother, Albert, joined Co. G, 18th Maine Infantry Regiment on Aug. 21, 1862. He had married Clara Lydia Grindle of Winslow’s Cove in early February 1860.

A serious illness had confined Morris Leach to a Washington, D.C. military hospital when he wrote Joanna Gray on Sept. 23.

“I am going to write to day as I have nothing else to do & I am just as lonesome as I can be. I have got the Rheumaticism (sic) quite bad,” Leach wrote. “We have got about six or seven hundred sick & wounded & they have the best of care taken of them. It seems more like home than anything I have seen for a year. It is the nices[t] building in the city except the white house.”

Army nurses supervised by Dorothea Dix cared for patients like Leach, and the lonely 21-year-old certainly noticed them. “Well, I am whare (sic) I can see as many women & girls as I want to. They are in and out of here all the time,” he told Joanna.

“We have had a Maine girl in to see us this afternoon,” he wrote. “She was from South Paris, Maine. She is coming in again in a day or two.”

Leach’s heart was no longer in Penobscot in a letter written to the Grays on Nov. 30. He had not mentioned Flora Gray for a long time; nor would he ever mention her again. By now he had been transferred to an Army-run hospital near New Rochelle, N.Y.

What “a good [Thanksgiving] dinner” the hospital patients had enjoyed, with “turkey and pies and lots of good stuff” served by the nurses and New Rochelle women, Leach told the Grays on Nov. 30.

Acknowledging his debilitating illness, he wrote that “I might as well content myself here until I can do my duty in the Regt.”

But the war was over for Morris Leach. That December an Army surgeon medically discharged him. Leach was too sick to ever fight again.

He died on Jan. 5, 1863. His family buried the lonely hero in Bay Cemetery in Penobscot.

Flora Gray would marry another man.

In time the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment became the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment. On June 18, 1864, that regiment assaulted Confederate fortifications at Petersburg, Va.

Albert Leach died there. His widow would later marry Elisha Bowden of Winslow’s Cove.

The war was tough on soldiers who left their hearts in South Penobscot.

Brian Swartz may be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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