The Letter to the Widow

In late April 1863, four Union gunboats (center) attack a Confederate fort (left) and gunboat (upper right) at Butte a la Rose on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Not far away was a young Orono officer who would die of disease on May 17. (Harper’s Weekly)

Note: Memorial Day is Monday, May 27

After watching a young Maine soldier slip into eternity, Nathaniel P. Banks shared the captain’s last moments in a poignant letter to his widow.

Born in Exeter, the teen-aged Abbott Coan moved to Orono in the early 1850s. Eschewing the initial patriotic call to arms in spring 1861, he joined the 12th Maine Infantry Regiment that fall.

According to Orono resident N. Wilson, the 27-year-old Coan and fellow Oronoites Seth C. Farrington and Edward H.B. Wilson “succeeded in less than four weeks in raising a full company” that became Co. F, 12th Maine.

Strangely, the 1861 Maine Adjutant General’s Report listed Fryeburg as Farrington’s “Residence.”

With Farrington as captain, Coan as first lieutenant, and Edward Wilson as the second lieutenant, Co. F went off to Ship Island and ultimately Louisiana with Ben Butler’s “New England Brigade.” Before the company mustered into federal service on November 15, Coan married “a daughter of Mr. Samuel Dickey of Orono,” N. Wilson noted, and the couple had a baby boy named for his father.

Of medium stature, iron mould, with strong and vigorous constitution, and of great and quick muscular power,” Coan had “a will and energy possessed by few,” according to to Wilson. “He was quiet and unobtrusive in his manners, yet intelligent and genial as a companion and associate.”

A Mason, Coan was “Master of the Orono Lodge,” and other Masons “very generally regarded [him] as unexcelled in the masteries and labor of the craft,” Wilson observed,

In autumn ’62, Coan was promoted to captain “and assigned to the command of company A, for brave and meritorious service.” N. Wilson noted.

Coan fell sick as the 12th Maine participated in the spring 1863 campaigns in Louisiana. The death angel caught up with him aboard the steamboat Empire Parish on the Atchafalaya River on Sunday, May 17.

Three days later, Nathaniel Banks and his “Headquarters, Department of the Gulf” were aboard the steamer St. Mauria, located near Butte a la Rose (modern Butte La Rose), site of a Confederate fort recently captured by Union troops. Amidst the wartime chaos, Banks either wrote or dictated a letter to Coan’s widow.

Madame—I was present during the last illness of Capt. Coan, and with him at the moment of his death,” Banks noted. “Without suffering and without struggle,” Coan died at 11:55 p.m., May 17.

Although a major general and a department commander, Nathaniel P. Banks sat up with the dying Abbott Coan on Sunday, May 17. Banks witnessed Coan’s death. (Library of Congress)

His spirit parted from his tenement as a feather floats upon the air,” Banks assured Mrs. Coan. “The sleep of a child could not have been more gentle, nor promised a sweeter rest.

It gives me pleasure to assure his friends that he had the best attention while on the steamer, and also, as I have been informed, before he came on board,” Banks wrote. The Reverend Horace Bray, the 12th Maine’s chaplain just since February 11, “was constant in his attendance, with the Chaplain of another regiment, and a private” from Co. A.

The Department of the Gulf’s medical director, a Dr. Alexander, “visited him every half hour during the day, and was with him at the moment of his death,” Banks noted.

No finer officer could have represented Maine amidst the Louisiana bayous. Coan “was a man upon whom his officers called whenever important or perilous service was to be performed,” Banks wrote.

He died as it were in battle for, although falling by disease,” Coan had against the advice of the 12th Maine’s surgeons accompanied “his command through all the combats and marches of a campaign as arduous … as any that had occurred,” and for this “he deserves to be remembered,” Banks noted.

Capt. Abbott Coan of Orono died of disease aboard the steamboat Empire Parish on May 17, 1863. The ship may have been converted to a hospital transport with wards similar to this one aboard another Louisiana-based hospital transport. (Harper’s Weekly)

Abbott Coan “died regretted by all those who had known him, in the service of his country, in which he had been faithful in every position and to every every,” Banks stressed.

The presence of friends, and the completion of the patriotic service in which he was engaged—that of restoring the peace of his country—would have made the death-bed all that could be desired for a Christian and a soldier.

I have the honor to be, with much respect, your obedient servant,” Banks concluded.

Mrs. Coan shared the letter with N. Wilson, who in turn (with the widow’s permission) asked Daily Whig & Courier editor William Wheeler if “you will esteem it a pleasure to publish.”

Thinking about Coan’s survivors, Wilson asked that “may a kind of providence protect and shield the afflicted, disconsolate widow, and the young orphan boy, and stay the hand and strengthen the heart …

Capt. Coan has gone to his long home,” Wilson commented. “The grave may cover his mortal remains, but the spirit has gone to Him who gave it, and his memory will ever live fresh and green in the hearts of all who knew him.”

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Sources: 1861 Maine Adjutant General’s Report, Appendix D, p. 419; The Death of Capt. Coan, Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, July 3, 1863

Brian Swartz can be reached at 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