A nurse goes to war, Part 1 — “such suffering and confusion I never before witnessed”

Two large steamers and several smaller vessels are moored side by side at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River in Tidewater Virginia in spring 1862. A railroad line running west from White House Landing carried supplies to Union troops fighting near Richmond and brought sick and wounded soldiers back for medical treatment and evacuation to hospitals elsewhere. (Library of Congress)

After receiving a telegram on Wednesday, May 7, 1862, Bath nurse Sarah Sampson hurried to the war zone, which in that far-away spring was Virginia’s so-called “Peninsula.”

What she saw and did there launched her into history as a 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment legend.

Sarah Sampson had traveled with her husband, Lt. Col. Charles A.L. Sampson, and the 3rd Maine to Washington, D.C. by train in early June 1861. She worked as a volunteer nurse caring for sick or wounded 3rd Maine soldiers.

Charles and the regiment went south to the Peninsula in early spring 1862. Sarah received on May 7 a telegram announcing that Charles had fallen ill “with severe neuralgy” and that, now sick in a Fort Monroe hospital, he needed her by his side.

Hauling “four large cases of medical supplies,” Sarah caught a steamship from Baltimore to Fort Monroe and spent the next weeks caring for Maine soldiers confined to local Army hospitals. After the Army of the Potomac arrived outside Richmond in mid- to late May, more hospitals opened near the front lines.

Overwhelmed by the casualties caused by battle, bug, and disease, doctors called for more nurses.

So on Monday, June 2, Sarah boarded a hospital transport steaming up the York River for White House Landing, the supply base that George McClellan had established on the Pamunkey River. In the Civil War version of a Vietnam War “medevac,“ her steamer would load sick and wounded men and return to either Yorktown or Fort Monroe, where the patients would receive better medical care than available at White House.

The wife of a 3rd Maine Infantry officer, Sarah Sampson of Bath volunteered to serve as a nurse during the Civil War. She arrived at White House Landing in Virginia on June 2, 1862 to begin an adventure that would carry her into Maine lore. (Maine State Archives)

The rain-swollen, muddy waters of the York River spilled back from the steamer’s bow as the ship reached Ferry Point northeast of Williamsburg. Sarah had likely figured out that southern waterways rose quickly and turned brown after intense rains; she already sensed the York’s relative warmth, so unlike the Kennebec River that varied in temperature with the summer tide’s directional flow at Bath.

Seabirds rarely seen in Maine wheeled and called overhead along the York River. Passing marshy Terrapin Point to port, the steamer approached the river’s headwaters at West Point. Viewed on a map, the non-descript headland and its abutting land mass resembled a fisted left hand with its thumb extended. The smaller Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers merged at West Point to form the wider York River, introduced into American lore during the 1781 siege of Yorktown.

West Point was the coastal terminus of the Richmond & York River Railroad, which connected the eastern Tidewater to Richmond. Earlier that spring, Federal troops had captured West Point, nearby Eltham Landing on the Pamunkey, and then White House Landing.

Sarah watched the passing shore at the steamer navigated the marked shipping channel upriver past Cumberland Landing and an island called “Indian Town” for the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Finally the steamer approached White House Landing, across which hammering and sawing sounded as workers built massive wharves.

While supplies went ashore, the other way came “the wounded … in large numbers, in the [railroad] cars, to be placed on Hospital transports,” Sarah Sampson observed upon arriving at the landing. Bodies bloodied and broken during the May 31-June 1 Battle of Savage Station poured into White House Landing, into which east-bound trains constantly rumbled.

Crossing planks laid from the shore to ships’ decks, stretcher bearers carried the casualties directly to hospital transports moored parallel to the river bank.

Union soldiers wash in the tidal waters of the Pamunkey River near several supply schooners moored along the river’s east bank at White House Landing in spring 1862. (Library of Congress)

Soon after reaching the landing, Sarah Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds and his younger brother, Charles, both wounded at Savage Station on June 2. Otis (as his wife, Elizabeth, knew him) had lost his right arm; the first colonel of the 3rd Maine Infantry, he was a good friend of Sarah’s.

Sarah accompanied the Howards on the steamer Nelly Baker to Fort Monroe late that Monday. She asked an army surgeon to dress the brothers’ wounds before the Baker sailed to Baltimore.

Returning to White House Landing on Tuesday, June 3, Sampson “made myself generally useful among the wounded men on shore and on transports.” She discovered that the incoming wounded lay outdoors beneath shade trees or in the broiling late spring sun.

“Such suffering and confusion I never before witnessed,” admitted Sampson, surprised at the poor supervision and care extended the arriving casualties. “Many serious wounds had not been dressed for several days.”

Flies lay eggs in suppurating flesh; larvae hatched into wriggling maggots chewing on rotting flesh. Sampson understand the medical implication; “indeed, the loss of many limbs was the consequence of inattention to lighter wounds,” she said, careful to add that “this was not the fault of surgeons, but from circumstances beyond their control” — specifically the overwhelming number of wounded.

Next week: Nurse Sarah Sampson hitches a ride to the front lines: A nurse goes to war, Part 2

For your reading enjoyment, link to “A nurse goes to war, Part 2” at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/05/02/a-nurse-goes-to-war-part-2/

For your reading enjoyment, link to “A nurse goes to war, Part 3” at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/05/16/a-nurse-goes-to-war-part-3/

For your reading enjoyment, link to “A nurse goes to war, Part 4” at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/05/30/a-nurse-goes-to-war-part-4-we-finished-our-rounds-in-double-quick-time/

 

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.