With even her involvement in the Underground Railroad only a notation in her obituary, a Belfast woman might have passed into historical obscurity — but Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, and like many other patriotic Belfast women, Ann Sarah Monroe rallied ’round the flag.
Born in Belfast on December 21, 1821 to Alfred and Nancy (Atkinson) Johnson, Ann grew up in relative prosperity. A respected attorney, Alfred Sr. had amassed real estate valued at $12,000 by 1850; the Johnson household then included both parents, 25-year-old attorney Alfred Waldo (the second Johnson son to bear that first name), daughters Frances and Mary, 9-year-old son Edward, and two women servants.
Ann had married Dr. Nahum Monroe seven years earlier, then moved into a house next door to the Johnsons. Ann and Nahum lived with their children, 4-year-old Frances and 1-year-old Alfred, in a home valued (along with other taxable real estate) at $4,000. His income sufficient to keep Ann in an accustomed lifestyle, the good doctor employed an 18-year-old woman and a 28-year-old Irishman as live-in servants.
By the 1860 census, the Monroes’ modest home was valued at $5,000 in 1860. Frances was 13 and Alfred Monroe 10, ages that occasionally befuddled the live-in help, Irish-born “domestic” Margaret Ward and “servant” Dennis Sweeney.
“A strong lover of society.” Ann enjoyed mingling with people; “her home was always the centre of genuine and graceful hospitality,” noted Belfast historian Joseph Williamson.
That refined veneer evidently masked a secret. Ardent New England abolitionism drew its strength from middle- and upper-class affluence and relationships. Some professional men — many ministers and fewer physicians, attorneys, and business owners — quietly supported freeing the slaves; let the vociferous abolitionists publish their tracts and harangue the crowds, and the moneyed backers would open their wallets to finance such activities.
Other New Englanders actively, but surreptitiously, opposed slavery. Up and down Penobscot bay and river, local lore associates particular buildings with the Underground Railroad. Transported north on Yankee merchant ships, escaped slaves supposedly slipped ashore and hid in specific places, such as the house at the intersection of Main and Market streets in Belfast.
Owned by Dr. Hollis Monroe (Ann’s brother-in-law), the house was among several Belfast buildings where slaves could shelter while traveling to Canada. Nineteen years older than his brother Nahum, Hollis Monroe “was rather of an ascetic cast of mind” and “careless about money in the extreme.” A physician “devoted … to his practice and his patients,” he was not easily mistaken for an abolitionist.
But he was, as was Ann Monroe, a woman with “an active and cultivated intellect” and “a natural disposition to do good,” according to Williamson’s History of the City of Belfast in the State of Maine, Volume II.
Probably in collaboration with her husband, “she assisted in carrying on the underground railway for aiding fugitive slaves to escape to the North.”
From her youth, Ann had mingled comfortably with the Belfast gentility. In mid-winter 1862, she became an intelligence agent for her social equals and all local women involved in the war effort.
Patriotic fervor had swept Belfast after Fort Sumter fell. As local men joined the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment, Belfast women discussed the roles they could play.
Drawn from the cream of local society, women gathered inside the second-floor social hall of the brick-built Peirce’s Block (located at the corner of Church and Franklin streets in downtown Belfast) on Saturday, April 27, 1861. The women talked not long before Ann Monroe offered two resolutions unwavering in their support of the boys.
The women resolved unanimously to form “The Ladies’ Volunteer Aid Society” to assist “the noble men of our city and vicinity who volunteer to defend our country in this hour of her greatest peril.” Then, recognizing that recruiting was stripping the breadwinners from many households, the women resolved to “assist the families of such [men] as are deprived of their natural protectors whenever occasion shall require.”
Indicating their trust in Ann Monroe, the LVAS members appointed her treasurer of a 13-member “Committee of arrangements.” Its members met at the Monroe home on April 30 to determine what items the LVAS would immediately provide; by May 4, the collected items totaled 107 pairs of “blue denim pants,” 140 “colored handkerchiefs,” and 140 “traveling cases,” plus $24.25 in cash.
Seventy-eight women joined the LVAS that Saturday by paying the 50-cents-per-person membership fee.
The eager volunteers soon struck a bureaucratic road bump in the form of a note from Governor Israel Washburn Jr. The 4th Maine lads would wear “thick pantaloons of uniform color and fabric,” so the overalls “generously and nobly made” by the Belfast women “will not be required,” he wrote.
Instead, the state would ship “a quantity of all wool flannel” to Belfast for the “ladies to make into Shirts if they shall desire.”
They did. “One bale all wool flannel” arrived on Saturday, May 11, and LVAS members “cut the flannel into shirts” the next day. Another bale arrived on May 17; within a week the Belfast women sent 327 flannel shirts to the 4th Maine’s camp in Rockland.
Politely ignoring Washburn’s stricture, the LVAS members shipped the overalls, handkerchiefs, and traveling cases, too.
“As cold weather approached” in late autumn 1861, “the knitting needles and the quilting frames were brought out.“ The LVAS shipped 39 quilts and 108 pairs of mittens to the 4th Maine Infantry on December 12, 1861.
Elected LVAS vice president on April 1862, Ann Monroe remained intimately involved with relief efforts as Fredericksburg passed into history. The LVAS members often met to sew clothing; a few wealthier women carried their sewing machines to such meetings, and one member remembered “a sight worth seeing,—this spectacle of three or four sewing machines all running at once!”
Young daughters accompanied their mothers. “While the women basted and stitched and sewed on buttons, the little girls picked soft old linen into lint to be used as we now use medicated cotton,” the LVAS member recalled.
In Belfast, the work of Ann Sarah Monroe was just beginning.
Next week: A journey to visit her husband masks the intelligence-gathering mission of Ann Sarah Monroe.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.