Given the opportunity to have his wife and young son join him on a Texas Gulf Coast island in late 1863, Dr. John Butler Wilson of Dexter shipped them home instead.
He soon regretted his decision — and had he foreseen the future, Wilson would never have let his family out of his sight.
An 1854 graduate of Waterville (Colby) College, Wilson worked the next three years as principal of an East Corinth academy and Dexter High School. After studying medicine with Dr. Nathaniel R. Boutelle in Waterville, he earned his medical diploma from Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia in 1859.
The 25-year-old Wilson then opened a medical practice in Exeter. In January 1861 he married the 26-year-old Samantha T. Perkins; within weeks she carried his baby.
Wilson ignored the initial call to arms in Maine that spring, but when the state raised five more infantry regiments that fall, he recruited enough men to form Co. H, 15th Maine Infantry and to become its captain. Why Wilson went to war as a line officer rather than a surgeon is not known.
Samantha gave birth to a son, Charles Branch Wilson, in October, weeks before Wilson joined the 15th Maine in an Augusta camp. He probably visited his family whenever possible; the regiment left for the Gulf Coast in March 1862, and Wilson would not see Samantha and Charlie for another 18 months.
After arriving at Camp Parapet in Shrewsbury, Louisiana, Wilson learned that the 2nd Regiment Engineers Corps d’Afrique, a black regiment raised in that Louisiana, was being merged with the Army as the 96th United States Colored Troops. Wilson transferred to the 96th as its surgeon.
New Orleans being a securely held city, he had sent Samantha and Charlie to join him in Louisiana. Reunited at Brashear City in autumn 1863, the young family enjoyed a few weeks together. Then the Army added the 96th USCT to the 2nd Brigade Corps d’Afrique Engineers; the designation indicated that the black troops would labor with pick ax and shovel rather than rifle and bayonet.
The 2nd Brigade was shipping to Matagorda Island on the Texas Gulf Coast. White officers could bring their families — and most did, except for John Butler Wilson.
Samantha was excited about the prospect of spending the winter with her husband, but he shipped her and Charlie home. The reasons are murky at best.
Wilson was afraid that disease could fell his family on isolated Matagorda Island, but civilians in Maine died as easily from the same illnesses that killed soldiers. Malaria was a threat in Texas and not in Dexter, but Wilson decided “the surroundings of home” were what Samantha and Charlie needed.
Big mistake on his part, he soon realized.
The Wilsons went their separate directions in early December 1863. “Our parting[,] darling[,] on the Steamer was short — much I could have said[,] but I felt that silence was far more expressive than speech,” John Butler wrote Samantha on Dec. 8. “You[,] darling[,] must have felt lonely going home among strangers after having expected a happy winter.
“But we must all make sacrifices and suffer in this war,” Wilson displayed a stiff upper lip. “Had it not been for Charlie[,] I should have kept you with me.” The last sentence revealed a dad transferring the blame to his toddler son, not an endearing character trait in an officer whose family had recently endured the perilous voyage from Maine to New Orleans.
The 96th USCT landed on Matagorda on Dec. 9. Wilson set up shop in a tent near Fort Esperanza, a Confederate post captured in late November by, among others, Maine soldiers.
Other officers brought their families ashore and found living quarters for them. “When I see Col [John] Cobb’s little boy[,] I long for mine and so much the more that owing to your good training[,] darling[,] he is better behaved than most children,” Wilson wrote Samantha on Jan. 28, 1864. “You smile perhaps and think how every parent imagines his children [to be] paragons.”
Black troops built a large hospital on Matagorda, and Wilson kept busy overseeing the medical care received by black and white soldiers. He also started to miss his family.
On Valentine’s Day, Wilson composed a reply to a letter from Samantha. “You say ‘the finest strung hearts feel strongest[,]’ so my dear wife[,] never forget[,] whatever may happen[,] that I love you wholly and fondly as I never in my wildest dreams expected to love any person.
“You know that I never was very demonstrative,” Wilson admitted. “In truth[,] darling[,] I have wondered often … how you married a man who has so few claims to regard from you and who had made so little demonstrations of love.”
And was he missing his family! Wilson had taken to sitting on the beach and gazing “far over the sea” as he longed “to see his little boy once more.” Samantha had asked if she could spend a large sum to repair a piano; advising her to “just have it in tune for now,” Wilson wrote, “I want to be along with you” when she played the piano “that I may pay you in kisses with interest.”
He sent home the sea shells, flowers, and other natural wonders he found on Matagorda. On March 11, Wilson told Samantha that “wow gladly would I have had your company now could it be done at no sacrifice or … without too great a sacrifice of your personal comfort and I from this climate.”
The Army discharged John Butler Wilson for a medical disability in January 1865. He soon joined his family in Dexter, where he died on March 15, 1866. Samantha was a young widow; Charlie had lived with his father for less than half his 4½ years.
Source: The Civil War letters of Dr. John Butler Wilson, courtesy of Bill Winsor of Texas.
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.