Mother, wife, and Belfast intelligence agent, Part II

Union soldiers constructed various shelters to help them survive a cold winter in Virginia mid-way through the Civil War. The soldier at upper left is chopping firewood for the crude fireplace in his hut. Library of Congress)

Doffing their kepis to the almost middle-aged matron arriving at the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment’s camp in Virginia’s Stafford County around March 1, 1863, soldiers quietly speculated about her identity.

Regimental surgeon Dr. Nahum Parker Monroe ended the conjecture as, observing proper mid-19th century’s etiquette, he dispassionately greeted his 42-year-old wife, Ann Sarah Monroe. Weary from her long journey from Belfast to the war zone, she came to visit her husband — and to file a report to the homefront warriors wondering just what they had accomplished during almost two years of war.

The Civil War had reached the Belfast home of the Monroes when Nahum mustered with the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on August 29, 1862. He and his wife, Ann Sarah Monroe, corresponded frequently; the Republican Journal occasionally published (with permission) extracts from the doctor’s detailed letters.

A photograph probably taken after the Civil War captures the hard-set jaw and no-nonsense attitude of Ann Sarah Monroe of Belfast. Her strict exterior concealed a warm heart that overflowed with love for the ordinary enlisted men struggling to survive in the Army of the Potomac camps in late winter 1863. (Belfast Historical Society)

Ann was then vice president of the Ladies’ Volunteer Aid Society of Belfast. Initially the busy ladies’ societies in Maine sewed clothing for local soldiers and regiments, but as more units left Maine, the state legislature founded the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Agency to coordinate the flow of homefront goods to Maine soldiers.

Appointed the agency’s commander, Col. John W. Hathaway opened an office at 273 F Street in Washington, D.C. and later opened offices in New York City and Philadelphia, both major transit points for Maine troops. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and influential Maine senators frequented the Washington office, and its door opened and closed all day as officers, nurses, and civilians — especially parents or wives seeking missing sons or husbands — sought audiences with Hathaway or his assistant, Charles C. Hayes.

Nahum had been absent almost six months when Ann left home in February 1863. Traveling by rail and ship, she may have called at the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Agency while en route to Virginia.

Ann reached Stafford County in a late Virginia winter “so warm … that we do not need fires in our tents in the middle of the day,” observed a Maine soldier assigned to II Corps and possibly Oliver Otis Howard’s 2nd Division.

Plagued by frequent rainstorms that “occasionally … begin with a sleety snow,” Maine lads liked the Virginia warmth, especially when the letters from home complained about Maine temperatures 20-to-25 degrees below zero, the soldier noted. However, enough chill crept into their joints and tents that soldiers readily hefted axes and marched to the nearest woods.

Sparing neither the coniferous nor the deciduous, soldiers leveled almost every tree as far as the II Corps picket lines, “once or twice extended in order to embrace more wood,” the soldier said. Felling the pines to build “log huts” and “the oaks and hard wood for fuel,” soldiers chopped their way across Stafford County.

Another soldier described the 20th Maine’s camp as “one of the pleasantest situations on the Rappahannock.” Col. Adelbert Ames had sited his regimental camp on “always dry” ground and ordered the camp “thoroughly ‘policed.”

Nahum Monroe welcomed his bride of almost 20 years to the camp around March 1. Ann toured the regimental hospital, questioned Nahum about his work, and likely spoke with his patients. Afterwards, Ann visited other Maine regimental camps; an official male escort hovered nearby as she met soldiers, talked with respectful officers, surgeons, and hospital stewards, and studied her surroundings.

The women of Belfast wondered just what all their hard work had accomplished these last two years … if anything at all. Ann might be among the many officers’ wives visiting the Union camps in late winter, but she had come to gather intelligence on the soldiers’ living conditions.

Her eyes missed nothing, her mind registered everything, and her cursive penmanship supplied details to the Ladies’ Volunteer Aid Society members.

In 1863, combat artist James Fuller Queen stood beside the pulpit of a Union regimental hospital and sketched its interior. Ann Sarah Monroe of Belfast toured at least several regimental hospitals while visiting her husband at the 20th Maine Infantry’s camp in Virginia in late winter 1863. (Library of Congress)

Since Fredericksburg, Maine newspapers had routinely carried accounts of the soldiers’ wretched living conditions while publishing the names of men killed or disabled by disease; LVAS members speculated about “the sanitary condition here” in Stafford County, Ann admitted.

“After a fortnight spent” in the camps, “I shall … tell you, who are so constantly contributing to the comfort of the sick soldier, be of good cheer, for you have done and are still doing great good,” she wrote to her LVAS friends on March 17.

“I find everything in and about the army much pleasanter than I could imagine,” said Ann, surprise evident in her written voice. Had she arrived two months earlier, she might have used an antonym for “pleasanter,” because Union soldiers had suffered under the neglect of Ambrose Burnside.

Ann Monroe had fortuitously arrived about five weeks after Joseph Hooker superseded Burnside. The difference between then and now was striking; if Ann expected to encounter soldierly depression and filthy living conditions, reality proved otherwise.

Ann circulated among the enlisted soldiers because “my heart is with the privates, and I look upon them with great earnestness.” She watched “the boys enter their sports,” heard the resulting “peals of laughter,” and listened to “the many bands of singers who enliven the long evenings.”

Soldiers treated Ann and other women with surprising civility; “their gentle, respectful manners to all ladies is truly delightful,” Ann told her LVAS comrades, some with husbands or sons or nephews in the army.

Accustomed to the distaff cooks at home, the boys chatted freely with Ann about food. Comparing the high-salt, scurvy-inducing Burnside fare with the “nice light bread, beef, vegetables, &c.” Hooker cuisine, men apparently talked Ann’s ear off about food.

“The change in diet … has done much for the spirits of the men,” she surmised. “Of course, it must be a beneficial change from hard tack and raw pork.”

Next week: Ann Sarah Monroe visits the Union hospitals.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.