When the going got tough, Maine nurse Sarah Sampson brewed tea — and her worried traveling companions suddenly relaxed in the southern Pennsylvania darkness.
Gettysburg “was a field of blood, on which the demon of Destruction revelled [sic],” observed Dr. Jonathan Letterman, medical director for the Army of the Potomac.
Three days’ fighting had left 14,193 Yankees wounded, and the Army of the Potomac had captured 6,802 wounded Confederates, among other prisoners. Thus an astonishing 20,995 wounded men must “be provided for by the Medical Department,” said Letterman.
More than 650 Union “medical officers” had served at Gettysburg, he noted. Thirteen doctors were wounded; Dr. W.S. Moore, the 61st Ohio Infantry’s assistant surgeon, died from his wounds on Friday, July 3.
Albeit too slowly, the army pursued the retreating Confederates. Leaving behind 106 army surgeons and half the hospital stewards on duty during the battle, Letterman as ordered by George Gordon Meade vanished over the South Mountain horizon. The wounded and sick soon overwhelmed the medical staff remaining at Gettysburg, but help came.
Traveling from the Maine Soldiers’ Relief Association’s office at 273 F Street in Washington, D.C., Charles C. Hayes “arrived here… soon after the battle.” He noticed that “many of our heroic [Maine] men lay buried beneath the soil … which drank their blood.
On July 16 he dressed “nearly a hundred wounds[,] all Maine men[,] some of whom have not had their bandages changed since they were first added some 4 & 5 days since. I have been very much engaged laboring from early morn, until late at night.”
Representing the Maine Camp Hospital Association, nurses Ruth S. Mayhew (Rockland) and Sarah Sampson (Bath) rode from Baltimore on a Northern Central Railroad train sometime in mid-July. The Northern’s tracks intersected the Hanover Railroad at Hanover Junction, a steel-rail wye where the NCRR swung north toward Harrisburg and the Hanover line veered west toward Hanover to connect with the railroads running to Littlestown and Gettysburg.
On this particular day (definitely no later than July 19), Mayhew and Sampson reached Hanover Junction at 1 a.m. Mayhew referred to “Hanover,” suggesting she meant the smaller Hanover depot farther west, but other information in her letter indicates she stepped into the Pennsylvania darkness at the junction.
The three-story depot stood in the wye between the two main lines; a boarding platform either side of the building extended to the tracks. Mayhew and Sampson crowded into the depot’s entryway and stairwell with 28 “men and women.”
Providing a solid clue that the Maine nurses were at Hanover Junction, a Harrisburg-bound train thinned the crowd at 4 a.m., Mayhew recalled. The Northern Central skirted the Susquehanna’s south shore opposite Harrisburg before crossing the river at upstream Marysville and running north to Sunbury.
Sitting on whatever chairs, benches, or luggage they could find, the remaining passengers waited in the darkness. Married to Charles A.L. Sampson, who had been the 3rd Maine Infantry’s lieutenant colonel, Sampson had cared for sick and wounded Mainers since before First Manassas. Actually coming under fire during the Peninsula campaign, she came prepared for moments like this.
The stalwart Sampson “proposed making tea,” opened her trunk “which seems to contain an inexhaustible supply of good things,” lit “the spirit lamp,” and converted the closed trunk into a table. “She made tea for some weary wayworn travelers,” serving “crackers and cookies” even to Yankee soldiers guarding the station, Mayhew said.
The soldiers were there because Confederate troops had burned the turntable and torn up track at Hanover Junction prior to Gettysburg. Supplies moving to that town and wounded men moving out of it depended on the single-track line running from Hanover Junction to Gettysburg.
Their tummies warmed by the hot tea, cookies, and crackers, the passengers stirred into activity. Using a dipper doubling as “a water pail, we filled it at the [water] pump and poured from it on each other[’]s heads,” Mayhew said. “We then seated ourselves on the floor and brushed our hair.”
At 9 a.m. the nurses and other passengers boarded cattle cars, sat on “the boxes and valeses [sic], which were our only seats,” and rattled along the track west to Gettysburg. Hieing to III Corps’ hospital, Mayhew and Sampson cared for “our Maine soldiers [who] seemed very much pleased to see us.”
Sources: Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac, D. Appleton & Company, New York, N.Y., 1866, pp. 154-160; Dr. Jonathan Letterman, OR, Vol. 27, part 1, No. 18, pp. 196-197; Charles C. Hayes letter to Governor Abner Coburn, July 16, 1863, Maine State Archives; Maine Female Camp Nurses, Portland Daily Press, Wednesday, August 5, 1863
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.