Sarah Sampson was “an angel to all of us”

Volunteering as a nurse with the 3rd Maine Infantry in spring 1861, Sarah Sampson of Bath continued ministering to wounded or sick Maine soldiers and sailors until 1865. She was affectionately remembered by her comrades after her death. (Maine State Archives Photo)

The angel known as Sarah Sampson performed at least one miracle, according to an unidentified Maine soldier.

I return to Sampson in this post because she epitomized the Maine women who left hearth and home to nurse wounded or sick Maine boys, usually far away in a godforsaken military hospital. Sampson “went to war” in spring 1861 with her husband, Capt. Charles Sampson, and the 3rd Maine Infantry; except for brief intervals back home in Bath, she would work as a nurse until 1865.

Among her patients was a 17-year-old Waterville soldier stricken with diphtheria at Camp Howard in Virginia in November 1861.

Quoted years later in the Lewiston Journal, the unidentified soldier recalled that “a great sac formed on the my throat” and two 3rd Maine surgeons “told me I must die.” He survived until one day in January 1862 when, after checking the youth’s pulse, 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 surgeons 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.”

From this youth’s viewpoint, Sarah Sampson had performed a miracle.

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 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 and at Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864 and at Cold Harbor in June; its ranks and battle flags literally shot to pieces, the 3rd Maine left Cold Harbor on June 5 and disbanded 23 days later. Some men transferred to the 17th Maine Infantry; others went home.

With them during those bloody spring 1864 battles was Sarah Sampson, always working at a field hospital not far behind the lines. She wrote letters for illiterate or maimed soldiers, dispensed food, and cared for men who viewed a weary nurse not as the “Hot Lips Houlihan” of “M*A*S*H” fame, but as the mother for whom most wounded soldiers pined.

Among Sampson’s patients that June was a mortally wounded 3rd Maine soldier who wanted to die at home, not in Virginia. Sampson completed her patient’s paperwork and sent him by ambulance to a place along the road upon 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, referring to Sampson’s memoirs.

With her “boys” gone, Sarah Sampson took her nursing and administrative skills to Washington, D.C. She continued assisting wounded Maine men, fought off a life-threatening fever, and shifted to Virginia by summer 1865 to care for soldiers wounded late in the war.

Sarah joined Charles at their Bath home in October 1865; the next year, she helped establish the Bath Military and Naval Orphan Asylum. After Charles died in 1881, Sarah moved to Washington and worked some years at the Pension Bureau, processing paperwork for veterans who then, as today, battled a penny-pinching government bureaucracy.

No civilian cemetery would suffice for Sarah Sampson when she died on Dec. 22, 1907. She had remained in close contact with the 3rd Maine Regiment Association; upon learning of her death, its members swiftly lobbied for her burial in Section 1, Site 1261 at Arlington National Cemetery.

There Sarah joined other Civil War heroes. Her surviving comrades in the 3rd Maine placed on her gravestone a tablet honoring her as “Sarah Sampson, Volunteer Nurse, Civil War.” The tablet identified her as Charles Sampson’s wife and 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

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at