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

On Friday, May 20, 1864, volunteer nurse Abby Gibbons (fourth from left) of New York City sits with seven wounded soldiers outside an Army hospital at Fredericksburg, Va. The tousle-haired youngster leaning on crutches has just emerged from the building; leaning against the wall to his immediate right is a pipe-smoking sergeant. These men were wounded in the early battles of the Overland Campaign. Throughout the war, nurses played crucial roles in caring for sick and wounded men. (Library of Congress)

After arriving at Savage Station on Friday, June 13, 1862, nurses Sarah Sampson of Bath and Ellen Orbison Harris of Philadelphia started caring for sick and wounded Union soldiers.

Not all were found in Army hospitals set up near Savage Station.

The warm and colorful Virginia spring passed into early summer as the nurses spread good cheer, food, and comfort through the original field hospital. Others had popped up around Savage Station; “we were constantly being sent to come to this hospital or that,” Sarah said.

“Every day was full of interest,” she said. While traveling in the vicinity of Savage Station, the nurses poked their noses and piercing eyes into every nook and cranny and often “came across some sick [men], who by accident, were not in regularly organized hospitals.”

Sick, shot-up, and abandoned soldiers sometimes crawled into the nearest available refuge; others wound up shoved into attics heated into the low triple digits by the Virginia sun. No matter where the neglected men sheltered, they could not escape their determined rescuers.

Alerted by a sentinel one day, Sarah and Ellen entered “an old building without [intact] windows or doors” and discovered a 3rd Maine Infantry captain, George W. Harvey, “very ill and delirious with fever.” He had “only a canteen from which to take his drink.”

Harvey lay on a stretcher as the Death Angel flitted about him. Ellen remembered him as “an elegant-looking youth.”

Seeing the nurses approach, the hallucinating Harvey blurted, “Is it not cruel to keep me here, when my mother and sister, whom I have not seen a year, are in the next room!

“They might let me go in?” he asked.

The wife of a 3rd Maine Infantry officer, Sarah Sampson of Bath volunteered to serve as a nurse during the Civil War. She cared for Union soldiers during the Peninsula Campaign. (Maine State Archives)

Sarah and Ellen knelt beside Harvey and ministered to him. His mind alternating between the battlefield and home, “he drew two rings from his finger, placed there by a loving mother and sister,” and gave them “to an attendant” (probably Sarah), Ellen said.

“Carry them home,” Harvey begged. Taken to a Union hospital, he died the next day.

Casualties continued arriving at Savage Station, often faster than the trains could transport patients to White House Landing. “The number of sick here is large, alarmingly so,” Sarah realized. “We found between three and four hundred sick” in Phil Kearny’s 3rd Division, to which the 3rd and 4th Maine infantry regiments were assigned.

“They nearly all needed a change of clothing, which we could not obtain,” Sarah told a friend in Maine. Despite the fields and pastures scattered around Savage Station, sick soldiers “had nothing under them but their blankets, not a spire of straw, and nothing to rest their poor fevered heads upon, but their leather knapsacks.”

Malnutrition stalked the sick and wounded soldiers sheltering in Sibley tents and beneath every bit of available canvas. The nurses delivered to their patients “the first corn starch and farina which they had,” Sarah described the diet she introduced to those men under her care.

“Think of typhoid fever patients having nothing to eat but hard bread [hardtack]. There is fault somewhere,” Sarah excoriated the unidentified senior Army commanders responsible for the patients’ care at Savage Station.

“In this hospital are the sick of the 3rd and 4th Maine,” she reported. “The patients were all glad to see us” that “they feel gratitude for any expression of kindness.”

As the nurses worked, delirious patients “often … happily think their mother or sister has come at last and ‘thank God,’” Sarah noticed. Nurses cooled sweat-beaded foreheads with cloths soaked in spring water, held hands with the dying, and by candle light penned letters dictated by amputees.

“I can give you no idea of an every day experience” at Savage Station, Sarah wearily wrote her friend. “Yet we do so little of what should be done.”

Sources: “Mrs. Sampson’s Report,” Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1864-1865, p. 112; Dr. L.P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Women’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience, 1867;

Next week: “We finished our rounds in double quick time”: A nurse goes to war, Part 4

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 2” at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2018/05/02/a-nurse-goes-to-war-part-2/

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.