How close did Sarah Sampson come to making photographic history?
Born in 1832, Sarah married Charles Sampson in 1855. The childless couple lived in Bath, where Charles sculpted ships’ figureheads. When patriotic fervor ran high along the Kennebec River in spring 1861, he joined the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment, accepted a captain’s commission, and commanded Company D, drawn primarily from Bath, Woolwich, and other Midcoast towns.
When the regiment left Augusta for Washington, D.C. on June 5, Sarah accompanied Charles. Untested Union regiments were converging on Washington to help defend the city against equally raw Confederate troops massing at Manassas, Virginia. After arriving in Washington on June 7, the 3rd Maine underwent a month’s training, then crossed the Potomac River to participate in the shellacking that Union troops received at Manassas on July 21.
When the shattered Union army reached Alexandria and ultimately Washington, wounded soldiers overflowed the local hospitals. As would happen during future battles, wounded and dying men spilled into churches, barns, stables, and private homes. Overwhelmed Army doctor amputated bullet- and cannonball-shattered limbs, probed deep into abdomens and groins for large-caliber bullets, and spread infections by wiping their bloody hands on blood-stained aprons before operating on their next patients.
Of the approximately 620,000 men killed during the Civil War, accidents and disease claimed at least 414,000 lives – including 6,214 Mainers. Battlefield medicine remained barbaric, but into the bacteria-laden hell would step American Florence Nightingales like Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, and Sarah Sampson. These women would learn about nursing and sanitation while changing bandages, cooling feverish foreheads with clean wet cloths, and holding hands with fearful dying youths.
For four years, Sarah Sampson would care for wounded Maine men, sailors and soldiers alike. By spring 1862, however, Charles Sampson was a lieutenant colonel in the 3rd Maine, which fought in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia.
Wherever the 3rd Maine advanced, so did Sarah Sampson and the field hospitals at which she volunteered.
After the bloody June 27 Battle of Gaines’ Mill, a Union field hospital was set up at nearby Savage’s Station, a decrepit whistle stop on a decrepit railroad. No later than the next day, photographer James F. Gibson set up his equipment in the yard across which wounded Union soldiers spilled; he then “captured” the scene for his employer, Mathew Brady.
The summer 2012 edition of “Hallowed Ground,” a quarterly publication of the Civil War Trust, explains the haunting imagery caught by Gibson’s photo: “An officer is seen tending to a wounded man. A sergeant is seen hovering over one of his men. Other soldiers represent the human wreckage of the battle of Gaines’ Mill, fought the day before.”
Sarah Sampson was likely caring for wounded 3rd Maine Infantry boys at this same field hospital; she referred to Savage’s Station in a future letter. However, no woman is present in the photo.
Those soldiers wearing straw hats “are easily identifiable as members of the 16th New York Infantry, a unit made up of men from upstate New York,” the CWT article reports. “Their colonel’s wife had provided the regiment with straw hats in early June.” The 16th New York fought for the first time at Gaines’ Mill and “suffered more than 200 casualties.”
If Sarah Sampson had been standing among the wounded soldiers, she would have made photographic history. Unfortunately, the wounded men did so on June 29, when attacking Confederate infantry overran the Savage’s Station field hospital and captured most of the men seen in Gibson’s photo.
The wounded 3rd Maine soldiers “were lost with all my possessions at the ‘skedaddle,’” Sarah Sampson wrote aboard the steamship “Molly Baker” on Wednesday, July 10. She referred to the sudden retreat that left the wounded men at Savage’s Station to fall into enemy hands.
After reaching George McClellan’s fall-back position at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, the Sampsons boarded the Molly Baker. “My husband has resigned his Commission … and we are now homeward-bound,” Sarah wrote.
According to historian David Cook, who is writing a history about the 3rd Maine Infantry, Charles Sampson had “left the field without permission at the ‘battle’ of Oak Grove” on June 25. Initially arrested for his action, he was “then allowed to resign, which he did claiming illness.”
Escorted by the USS Galena, a gunboat, the steamship Molly Baker sailed downriver; “there is considerable excitement on board,” noted Sarah, busy below decks caring for wounded men. “Later I am told we have been fired at by quite a number of [Confederate] guns [hidden along the shore], but as yet none has hit us.”