Neither the weariness of her all-night vigil caring for wounded soldiers nor social propriety kept a demure Bath nurse from making her self-appointed introduction to President Abraham Lincoln —
— and nor could Secretary of State William Seward.
When Oliver Otis Howard took the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment to Washington, D.C. in early June 1861, Capt. Charles A.L. Sampson commanded Co. D. He lived in Ward 5 of Bath with his bride of six years, Sarah J., whom he had married on Valentine’s Day 1855.
Born in 1832, Sarah enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with Charles, a talented woodworker who carved figureheads for the wooden sailing ships built in Bath shipyards. At least one Charles Sampson-carved figurehead, from the Belle of Oregon, survives at the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia.
With no children at home — a situation that would not change until after the war — Sarah went to Washington with the intention of being a nurse for the 3rd Maine Infantry. She obtained the blessing of Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, surgeon general of Maine; he also supplied her with a letter of introduction to Dorothea Dix, the Hampden-born social activist soon to be appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the first superintendent of women nurses.
Sarah started caring for sick 3rd Maine Infantry lads soon after reaching the capital. Displaying a maternal instinct temporarily denied any of her own flesh and blood, she nursed Maine men sick with dysentery, typhoid, and other soldier-killing diseases.
The July 21 Battle of Manassas left Sarah caring for wounded men for the first time.
Friends and neighbors in Bath could not have imagined the iron determination and tough physique that would keep Sarah Sampson at the bedside of countless sick and wounded soldiers throughout the war. She would plow through anyone in her way, including Seward.
A surviving period photograph of Sarah Sampson suggests a petite, smooth-complexioned woman with average features, curly hair, and attention-to-detail eyes, Gazing directly at the camera, she has a fashionable and functional knot or bun (indicative of long hair) tied atop her head.
Her clothing reveals an eye to period fashion in style and jewelry.
When the 3rd Maine marched off to Manassas in mid-July, the brigade hospital at which Sarah volunteered moved across the Potomac River to Clermont, Md. “I always stayed with the sick at the hospitals, and there was more than enough to do” before the shooting started at Manassas, she said.
A Confederate victory sent Union troops fleeing to Washington. The brigade hospital relocated to the Maryland side of the Potomac, and when not on duty, Sarah stayed in a rented room at the City Hotel (better known as the Willard Hotel).
On Monday, July 22, Charles “and some friends of his who were all tired out by the battle” came to the hotel, Sarah recalled years later. “I gave up my room, as they needed the rest, and I went off to look after the sick.”
She spent that night caring for wounded soldiers carried to “the third floor of a warehouse.” Weary beyond her pre-war experiences, Sarah perked up Tuesday morning when “Edward Donnell of Bath came up and told me that Mr. Lincoln was down in the street.”
Stunned by the Union defeat and casualties, President Abraham Lincoln was touring Washington on July 23 to see for himself what had become of the proud army sent to Manassas less than two weeks earlier. Running down three flights of stairs, Sarah “saw a carriage standing near the door” of the warehouse.
She boldly stepped up to the carriage and asked the middle-aged man framed in a window, “Are you Mr. Lincoln?”
“No, my name is Seward,” he replied.
“I want to see the president,” insisted Sarah, her hands likely clutching her long skirts. “I came down three flights of stairs on purpose to see him.”
Seward smiled. “He is here. I will get out, and you can take my place in the carriage.”
The secretary of state for a nation involved in a civil war stepped from the carriage, “and I jumped in, side of Mr. Lincoln,” Sarah recalled.
The American president and the Maine nurse studied each other. “He looked just like the pictures you have seen of him,” Sarah said. “A kindly, rugged face, a strong, friendly face that one could always trust.”
“Who are you?” Lincoln asked.
Sarah cheerily introduced herself and her home state.
“How came you here?” Lincoln responded. “What are you doing here?”
“Caring for the sick and wounded,” she replied.
We talked a long time, and he showed the keenest interest and sympathy in my work,” Sarah said years later. Lincoln invited her to visit him at the White House in the future.
“I did go to see him and always found him ready to grant favors,” she said afterwards. “He was a man with a rare gift of humor, always courteous, always ready to listen to the troubles of everyone who approached him.
“He was a man of infinite patience and sympathy, a splendid man, the best man I ever saw on earth,” Sarah said of Lincoln.
Source: The Bath Independent, Saturday, Aug. 18, 1906
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.