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 goal: courting Anna Lucinda Conant by wartime mail.
Edwards and Conant met on the job — probably before Confederates fired on Fort Sumter — at the Lincoln textile mill in Lewiston. He hailed from Casco, she from Canton, and he was 18 when he joined Co. K, 10th Maine Infantry Regiment in September 1861.
Edwards left Maine a month later. Like most Maine soldiers, he enjoyed receiving mail; his sister, Marcia, wrote him 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 edited and published in “Dear Friend Anna,” published by the University of Maine Press.
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” the Lewiston mill “and have often thought I should like to hear from you,” he cut right to the chase.
And so the eight-year romance-by-mail began. Edwards kept writing Conant while battling Confederates across northern Virginia and at Antietam. In time he would think about making her “My Dear Wife Anna”; while his letters never reflected Valentine-quality prose, Edwards let Conant know in many letters that he was thinking about her.
Expressing an unusual “My Dear Sister Anna” salutation 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 camped that month some miles north of Falmouth. The mercurial weather astounded Edwards; after referring to “cool and pleasant” conditions, he wrote just two sentences later that after six inches of snow had fallen, “it turned into rain and rained two days leaving us truely [sic] stuck in the mud.”
The 10th Maine Infantry boys hoped that within three months they would see “the shores of the sunrise state,” Edwards told Conant. The Maine men longed to clasp “the hands of the friends from whom we have been so long separated [sic] and I hope to see Sister 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 signing his full name and 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 dropped generals’ names — Hooker, Slocum, and Williams, to name a few — and revealed that the 10th Maine might move to Baltimore “to serve out the remainder of our time,“ and explained to Conant why he really should not “write for your paper.”
She had evidently asked him to provide material for a local Lewiston newspaper. “Willingly would I do so Anna if I could,” Edwards wrote, but “it has been so long since I have looked inside of a grammer [sic] book that my composition would be worthless.
“I think you ought to excuse me (Wont you please),” he begged her.
While informative, none of his 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; military authorities swiftly “built a Hospital some distence” [sic] from the regimental camp and then confined to that facility every soldier who even 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.”
In her “letter of the 15th,” Conant thought that her “letters are uninteresting” to a young solider far from home. Edwards emphatically denied that belief; “pray do not say so again [because] they come like beems [sic] of sunshine on a cloudy day and are eagerly looked for,” he told her.
So in this letter, in which he asked Conant to “please excuse all mistakes and accept this from Your Ever True Friend & Brother,” Edwards let slip his enjoyment at receiving letters from “My Dear Friend Anna.”
After mustering out of the 10th Maine Infantry on May 8, Edwards returned to Maine. He visited Conant, perhaps intermittently, but 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, a former 10th Maine commanding officer, was raising the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment. His name drew many comrades back to the standards. Joining them would be the 10th Maine’s Companies A, D, and J, comprised of three-year enlistees; these companies had been converted to the 10th Maine Battalion when the regiment’s two-year veterans mustered out in May 1863.
The battalion served as the Army of the Potomac provost guard during the Battle of Gettysburg. The battalion’s monument stands on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, across from the main entrance to the Gettysburg National Military Park visitors’ center.
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 from Casco on Sept. 15.
This letter revealed that Edwards and Conant had discussed marriage; “please don’t [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.”
Writing from Augusta on Oct. 8, Edwards asked her to “send me your Photograph if you could have one taken. The one you sent me just before the Cedar Mountain Battle [in August 1862] I have carried in my diary with me ever since and it begins to look dim,” he wrote.
In a short letter written Dec. 6 from Camp Keyes in Augusta, Edwards discussed the future, of which “I can say nothing,” except that “Dear Anna I hope that not many months will elapse before we can meet and talk over the war that was.”
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 receiving from her a letter dated the 13th — and Conant apparently castigated him for re-enlisting. In his Dec. 16 letter, Edwards pleaded, “Don’t [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 explained again why he was returning to war. “Do your duty is my motto even though it may clash with my own personal life,” Edwards wrote. “I feel I am doing my duty in serving my country.”
And in the same letter he informed Conant that, oh, by the way, the ramshackle barracks housing the 29th Maine boys had burned a night or two earlier, and “two of our poor boys” had died in the fire, which started about midnight.
“I was the last one to get out I was so stifled with smoke,” and “my hand and throat were slightly burned,” Edwards told Conant. “I found out that the flames was between me and the door and I had to jump out of the window.”
So Abial Edwards returned to war and fought in the disastrous Red River Campaign in Louisiana. From Natchitoches, La. he wrote Conant on April 5, 1864 that “before you hear from me again we shall have met our foe in battle”; the regiment did so three days later at Mansfield.
There “the bullets flew like hail stones,” Edwards wrote Conant on April 13. “They struck one of the [fence] rails in front of us and some of the slivers struck my left hand but did not hurt it very bad.”
Edwards and Conant continued writing. The War Department sent the 29th Maine to Virginia to fight alongside Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Then, with the war over, the regiment went to South Carolina on occupation duty. There Edwards served as an Army postmaster.
Not until early January 1866 did Edwards come home to Maine while accompanying the casket containing his younger brother, Bela, who had died of fever in South Carolina on Sept. 3, 1865. The letters from Conant suddenly stopped, and while in Portland Edwards heard from a friend who “knew a Miss Conant by sight & that he knew a fellow paying the lady attention“ in Lewiston. The news spurred an April 25 letter to Conant, who replied some time afterward.
And the letters continued back and forth until Oct. 18, 1869, when Abial Hall Edwards finally made Anna Lucinda Conant his wife during a Portland wedding.
The brave combat veteran from Casco had completed his self-appointed rounds.