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

After the arrival of the Army of the Potomac in mid-spring 1862, Savage Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad became a bustling depot where supplies were unloaded and sick and wounded soldiers were shipped out. Six mules are harnessed to the wagon in the foreground, and part way up the hill are two box cars that had carried supplies to the army. (Library of Congress)

During her initial days spent working as a nurse at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, Sarah Sampson of Bath cared for many 3rd Maine soldiers. Aboard the steamer Elm City she nursed Brig. Gen. Charles Jameson, the initial commander of the 2nd Maine Infantry. “Ill with the fever that terminated his life,” Jameson “was my patient for several days,” Sampson noted.

Among the nurses whom she met at White House was Ellen Orbison Harris, a proper matron married to a prominent Philadelphia physician; Ellen was also the secretary of the influential Ladies’ Aid Society of Philadelphia. Both women worked aboard the hospital transport Louisiana, where amputated limbs piled up on deck and blood splattered the nurses’ aprons.

Ellen exemplified polite society’s vision of the proper middle-class wife, properly dainty and sickly in season. She “was one of those delicate, fragile, and feeble-looking ladies … apparently condemned to lives of patient suffering and inactivity by constitutional defect of physical vigor,” a biographer wrote.

“Yet she it was, this pallid and low-voiced lady, who” when the war broke out “glided from her sick chamber” to pursue “a self-imposed and self-directed career of Christian and sanitary labors” greater than similar efforts past in past wars, the biographer described Harris.

His words could apply to Sarah Sampson and other women eschewing their comfortable homes for duty in military hospitals in spring and summer 1862.

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)

Throughout June 1862, Sarah Sampson watched the medical facilities improve dramatically at White House Landing. Farther west on the Richmond & York River Railroad running to Richmond, Union medical personnel had created a major field hospital at Savage Station, the whistle stop for the III Corps of Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman and the II Corps of Brig. Gen. Erasmus Keyes, a Maine native for whom Camp Keyes in Augusta would later be named.

On Friday, June 13, Sarah and Ellen and other nurses rode in “an open freight-car loaded with barrels of beef, upon which we sat” to Savage Station. Unloading their trunks, they visited the III Corps’ headquarters nearby.

Earlier that day, Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart had pushed some 1,200 cavalry troopers eastward to probe the right flank of the Army of the Potomac, now split in two by the Chickahominy River. In their train ride west, Sarah and Ellen passed through Tunstall’s Station before clattered across the river on a bridge rebuilt by Union engineers.

Only a few hours later, Confederate cavalry rode up, cut the telegraph wire, and obstructed the track with unused railroad ties and any other materials they could find. Then “a train of cars came thundering down from the Grand Army,” Stuart said, referring to the Federal army.

The train that had carried Sarah and Ellen to Savage Station was now east-bound with passengers, including six 11th Maine Infantry Regiment officers headed home to recruit more soldiers. The east-bound train left Savage Station for White House Landing.

“On its return” there, the flat car on which she had ridden earlier that day “was fired into by the rebels, and the bridge at Tunstall’s station, over which we had crossed, burned,” Sampson said.

The Union train approaching Tunstall‘s Station “had troops on board and we prepared to attack it,” Stuart reported. Slamming aside the Confederate obstructions “without being thrown from the track” and taking heavy fire from enemy cavalrymen, the train rolled toward White House Landing.

Then “the railroad bridge over Black Creek was fired,” Stuart noted.

That Friday night, Sarah and Ellen slept in III Corps’ telegraph office. The next morning, they dined on Army rations “and found a home with a family [the Dudleys] formerly from Massachusetts,” Sampson expressed her pleasure with her new quarters.

Then the nurses met with Sam Heintzelman and his one-armed 3rd Division commander, Brig. Gen. Phil Kearny. Both men “were exceedingly kind to us” and sent “their private carriages to convey us and our supplies to the various hospitals,” Sampson said.

She was ready to go to work.

Sources: “Mrs. Sampson’s Report,” Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1864-1865; Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, OR, Series I, Vol. XI, Chapter XXIII, No. 21, pp. 1036-1039; Frank Moore, Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice

Next week:”My mother and my sister … are in the next room”: A nurse goes to war, Part 3

For your reading enjoyment, link to “A nurse goes to war, Part 1” at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/04/25/a-nurse-goes-to-war-part-1/

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/

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.