Neither burning barracks nor smallpox nor “the enemy’s bullets flying in all directions” could stay Abial Hall Edwards from the not-so-swift completion of his appointed rounds: courting Anna Lucinda Conant by wartime mail.
Edwards and Conant met on the job at a Lewiston textile mill. He hailed from Casco, she from Canton, and he was 18 when he joined Co. K, 10th Maine Infantry Regiment in September 1861.
After leaving Maine, Edwards receiving mail; his sister, Marcia, wrote often, and various young Lewiston women sent him friendly fan mail.
Among them was Anna Conant. She saved his letters, which a great-granddaughter, Beverly Hayes Kallgren, and history professor James L. Crouthamel published in the book “Dear Friend Anna.”
From Kearneysville, Va., Edwards addressed his first letter to “Miss Conant[,] Dear Madam” on April 16, 1862. “I have thought of you often since we left” Maine “and have often thought I should like to hear from you,” he cut right to the chase.
So the eight-year romance-by-mail began. Edwards wrote Conant while battling Confederates across northern Virginia and at Antietam in Maryland. In time he would think about making her “My Dear Wife Anna”; his letters never reflected Valentine-quality prose, but Edwards let Conant know that he was thinking about her.
In a letter written at “Stafford Court House,” Va. on Friday, Feb. 6, 1863 Edwards reported that “i take pen in hand this quiet evening to answer your very acceptable letter of the [Jan.] 1st which arrived safely to day.
“You know not with what pleasure your letters are read and how eagerly they are watched for,” he informed Conant. “Would that I could receive them oftner [sic].”
The 10th Maine boys hoped that within three months they would see “the shores of the sunrise state,” Edwards wrote. The Maine men longed to clasp “the hands of the friends from whom we have been so long separated and I hope to see … Anna among the first to meet me,” he revealed a heartfelt desire.
“Wishing you lots of pleasant times this winter,” Edwards described himself “as ever your True Friend & Brother” before closing the letter.
Two days later Edwards again leaned over a rude table as “with pleasure I seat my self to answer your kind letter of the [Jan.] 8th which came to hand last night.
“I was real glad to hear from you as I always am,” he happily informed Anna. Edwards revealed that the 10th Maine might move to Baltimore “to serve out the remainder of our time“ before leaving the Army.
While informative, none of Edwards’ February letters could qualify for inclusion in Valentine’s Day lore. On “a wild stormy” Sunday, Feb. 22, with “two feet of snow” having fallen since Saturday night, Edwards read “your kind and thrice welcome letter of the 15th.”
Then he composed a long, newsy letter that told Conant about “the boom of the cannon” fired either to salute George Washington’s birthday or “to shell out the Rebel pickets.” A comrade had brought smallpox with him from Alexandria, Va.; military authorities swiftly “built a Hospital some distence” [sic] from the regimental camp and then confined to that facility every soldier who looked like he might have smallpox.
Edwards feared this “most dreaded of all diseases,” but “it is no use to be discouraged about it for it will be no worse for me than for the others.”
He also informed Conant that her letters “come like beems [sic] of sunshine on a cloudy day and are eagerly looked for.”
After mustering out of the 10th Maine Infantry on May 8, he returned to Maine and visited Conant. Their correspondence continued.
Yet the war demanded his attention. Writing Conant from Casco on June 21, Edwards let slip his belief that “our Reg- is to be reorganized right away.” Already he thought about rejoining the fight; “as you can see” he informed Conant from Portland on Aug. 20, “I am not yet in Washington or even a Soldier but hope to enlist next week.”
Col. George Lafayette Beal was raising the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment. Edwards could not resist the call to duty. “Yes Dear Anna I am once more to try the hardships and dangers of war,” he confirmed to Conant on Sept. 15.
This letter revealed that Edwards and Conant had discussed marriage; “please dont [sic] change your name right away will you Anna,” he referred to the possibility of her marrying someone else while he was gone. “I suppose that I am selfish in asking such a question for in three years time I expect the most of my young friends will be married and settled in life.”
“Dear Anna I hope that not many months will elapse before we can meet and talk over the war that was,” Edwards penned in a Dec. 6 letter written from Camp Keyes in Augusta. His upbeat tone revealed his satisfaction with Conant’s friendship.
Then something happened; “I was sorry that I had forfeited your good will. even for a short time,” Edwards wrote on Dec. 16. “I assure you it was unintentional on my part. But I am sorry that it happened as it did.”
They had evidently met in Lewiston between Dec. 6 and Dec. 13 — he referred to her letter dated the 13th — and Conant had apparently castigated him for re-enlisting. In his Dec. 16 letter, Edwards pleaded, “Dont [sic] judge me by every day outward show for Anna[,] beneath what you call a cold heartless exterior beats a heart as true as ever [a] friend could ask.”
He also told Conant about the regiment’s ramshackle barracks burning down a few nights earlier. Two soldiers died in the fire; Edwards suffered burns while escaping through a window.
So Abial Edwards returned to war and fought in Louisiana. He and Conant continued writing as the War Department sent the 29th Maine to fight in Virginia. Then, with the war over, the regiment went to South Carolina on occupation duty.
Not until early January 1866 did Edwards come home. Conant’s letters suddenly stopped, and Edwards heard from a friend who “knew a Miss Conant by sight & that he knew a fellow paying the lady [some] attention“ in Lewiston. The news sparked an April 25 letter to Conant, who replied some time afterward.
The postal romance continued until Oct. 18, 1869, when Abial Hall Edwards finally made Anna Lucinda Conant his bride during a Portland wedding.
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. Swartz may be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.