Fifty-eight years before the first Armistice Day observance in the United States, a compassionate Bath nurse visited the grave of a young Maine soldier in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Sampson also ensured that a brigadier general would not forget John W. Campbell, who had fought in one battle before losing his life.
Hailing from Livermore, John W. Campbell was 23 when he enlisted in Co. K of the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment on June 4, 1861. He left behind his wife, Lucy A. Davis. They had married in Lewiston in September 1860.
The only John Campbell living in Livermore (East Livermore and Livermore Falls, for that matter) according to the 1860 census was age 47. He and his wife, Mahala (44) had a 9-year-old daughter, Mary.
But John W. Campbell was the son of John and Mahala Campbell, according to the 1850 census. Campbell’s enlistment in the 3rd Maine was noted in the appropriate military records, and Campbell was listed as “M” for married in the regimental returns of the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment published in the 1862 Maine State Adjutant General’s Report.
Shot up during First Manassas, the 3rd Maine later relocated to Camp Howard, named for Oliver Otis Howard, the regiment’s first commander. The camp was in the District of Columbia.
Sarah Sampson was the wife of Lt. Col. Charles A.L. Sampson, second-in-command of the 3rd Maine. She traveled to Washington with the regiment in 1861 and volunteered as a nurse for the Maine boys who fell sick or caught enemy bullets.
Campbell was among them. “He was the last one (patient) on the left hand side” in the hospital ward, Sampson told Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard in a letter written from Camp Howard on Oct. 22, 1861.
“I do not wonder [that] you should forget the circumstances of Campbell’s death, when you have so much to think of,” she wrote. But Howard did remember Campbell, because as the first colonel of the 3rd Maine, he had commanded the young soldier earlier in 1861.
Promoting Howard to brigadier general later that summer, the War Department gave him a brigade to command. However, he was nearby when Campbell fell sick and died.
He had contracted typhoid fever, a virulent killer of soldiers. Sampson and other nurses carefully monitored his deteriorating condition. As often occurred with victims of typhoid fever, Campbell “bled very profusely at the nose all the time,” Sampson recalled, and he “was delirious all the time.”
Hospitalized soldiers often talked about their families and homes in Maine. Discussing such topics was important for morale. Illiterate or badly wounded soldiers often dictated homeward-bound letters to nurses.
Such was not the situation with John Campbell. “He was very quiet during his sickness,” Sampson remembered. “He “made no mention of home, friends, living or dying.”
John Campbell died on September 16, 1861. In her letter, Sampson reminded Howard that the two of them “took a little walk together” at noon either September 16 or September 17 “to the beautiful little Cemetery” across from the camp of the 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. David B. Birney. Ironically he would soon command the brigade to which the 3rd Maine was assigned.
At the cemetery, Howard and Sampson selected a “burial place” for Campbell, Sampson freshened Howard’s memory. After he died, Campbell lay in state for a while in the 3rd Maine camp; Sampson snipped a lock of hair from his head and recovered “some pressed rose-leaves that had lain on his bosom.”
His comrades conducted a military funeral and bore John Campbell to his marked grave.
Sampson “wrote a long letter to his wife (Lucy) … giving her all the particulars of his sickness” and sealed it, the lock of hair, and the tea leaves inside an addressed envelope.
For some reason, Campbell’s death particularly affected Sampson; sometime earlier in October she had “visited his grave and took from it this little wild flower and sprig, which I pressed.”
Sampson intended to mail the flower and sprig to Mrs. Campbell, but duty distracted her, and when she discovered the mementos of Campbell’s final resting place, she wondered who would be the best person to deliver them.
“I now enclose them to you as his wife will appreciate them much more coming from you — I know she will,” Sampson explained to Howard.
A hand-written letter from a general would certainly be a good way to deliver a wild flower collected from a soldier’s grave.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.