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

As medical personnel tend a wounded soldier (left) and a horse-drawn ambulance rumbles past in the background, an Army surgeon (center, right) retrieves supplies from an aide’s knapsack. During the Peninsula Campaign, doctors and nurses often worked close to the front lines. (Harper’s Weekly)

On Wednesday, June 25, 1862 Union troops fought their last offensive action of the Peninsula Campaign at the Battle of Oak Grove. Federal regiments racked up casualties and accomplished precious little in the swamps west and southwest of Seven Pines, Va.

“We had heard firing all the morning and knew what must follow,” said Bath nurse Sarah Sampson, assigned to the Army hospitals at Savage Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad. “We finished our rounds in double quick time, and went ourselves.”

A “four mule wagon” laden with supplies hauled Sarah and nurse Ellen Orbison Harris of Philadelphia and their supplies to “within a mile of the scene of action, and were fully appreciated I assure you,” Sarah said.

Earlier that morning, Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker had pushed his 2nd Division of Sam Heintzelman’s III Corps west from Seven Pines to capture the forest dominated by Oak Grove, appropriately named for the oaks growing there. George McClellan wanted Confederate troops ejected from the forest before sending other Union forces northwest on Nine Mile Road to capture Old Tavern.

With the high elevations of Old Tavern in Union hands, McClellan could place siege guns there to bombard the Confederate defenses between his army and Richmond.

As she worked in an Army hospital at Savage Station on June 25, 1862, nurse Sarah Sampson of Bath heard the sounds of a battle occurring not far away. She was unaware that her husband, Lt. Col. Charles A.L. Sampson, was close by the battlefield with the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment. (Maine State Archives)

Assigned to the 2nd Brigade of Brig. Gen. David Birney, the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment held a picket line as the brigade moved to the front. Still weakened by his neuralgia, Lt. Col. Charles A.L. Sampson (the husband of Sarah Sampson) rode among his men line as he listened to the same shooting his wife could hear at Savage Station.

Hooker’s men shed blood for every yard gained that morning. In early afternoon, Birney received orders to relieve the brigade commanded by Cuvier Grover; taking with him the 4th Maine, 40th New York, and seven companies from the 101st New York, Birney sent a staff officer to bring up the 3rd Maine.

Making only minimal contact with enemy troops, the 2nd Brigade occupied woods near Grover’s positions and stayed there until dusk. Charles Sampson kept close watch on his 3rd Maine lads in the field that they were ordered to defend.

The sun set before Cuvier Grover received orders to withdraw his damaged brigade. Birney ordered the 4th Maine and the 101st New York’s “to move out of the woods by the [Williamsburg] road and report to me at the ‘lookout tree,’ where General Grover was stationed.”

A nurse leans close to a sick soldier to hear what he wants to say in “The Letter For Home” that she is writing for him. (Winslow Homer, Library of Congress)

Leaving an aide to guide those two regiments, Birney rode to the 3rd Maine. His conversation with Sampson went unrecorded. Sampson ordered his men to follow Birney; despite “the night being very dark and foggy,” Birney and Sampson found Grover’s staff officer assigned to take the 3rd Maine to its assigned position.

As the 3rd Maine lads followed the 101st New York’s seven companies through the woods around 10 p.m., a Confederate volley suddenly shattered the darkness and men’s nerves. The frightened New Yorkers bolted, but officers swore and swatted backsides with sword flats until the men reformed and marched to their proper posts.

Brig. Gen. David Birney commanded the brigade to which the 3rd and 4th Maine infantry regiments were assigned during the Peninsula Campaign. Birney was not a fan of Maine soldiers. (Library of Congress)

The volley also rattled the 3rd Maine. Not a fan of Maine soldiers, the disgusted Birney claimed that while “most of this hitherto reliable regiment remained at post … some retired to camp some mile in [the] rear” as the Confederate volleys died away.

“The commanding officer,” Charles Sampson, “left his command and post and was next morning in camp,” according to Birney. “I could not find him during the night. He left without my permission or knowledge.”

Birney placed Sampson under arrest on Thursday, June 26. Regimental command devolved to Maj. Edwin Burt.

Unaware that her husband commanded his regiment only a few miles away, Sarah Sampson nursed wounded soldiers on the battlefield’s edge until darkness made such work impossible. Returning to the Dudley House that night, she “found notes from several surgeons, begging for stores.” Blankets and clothing ran short in the Federal hospitals; with Union gunners and infantrymen burning through their ammunition farther afield, munitions received preferential loading on the trains at White House Landing.

Sarah awoke on Thursday to find more shattered bodies had arrived at Savage Station. She hoped to work among the 3rd and 4th Maine lads at the 3rd Division hospital, “but after I once got to work” nearer the station, “I could not leave.

“We began where the groans of the wounded and dying soldiers met our ears,” she said.

Sources: “Aid For Maine Soldiers,” Maine Farmer, Thursday, July 10, 1862; Brig Gen. David B. Birney, OR, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part II, Chapter XXIII, No. 70

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.