Hannibal Hamlin sparks life into a dying soldier

Wounded and sick soldiers wait patiently as a photographer captures on a glass negative the interior of Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Upon hearing that a particular Maine soldier was at death’s door with diphtheria, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin hurried to a D.C. hospital to visit the young man and his comrades. (Library of Congress)

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was no faith healer, laying his hands on sick people, and nor did he peddle miracle cures involving mysterious liquids packaged in colored bottles. But one sick young Maine soldier supposedly on his way to a military graveyard credited the unassuming vice president with keeping that particular grave unfilled.

Frank D. Pullen, a 19-year-old “scythe maker” from Waterville, had joined Co. G, 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment, on April 26, 1861. He mustered on June 4, the regiment headed to Washington, D.C., and Frank “saw the elephant” at First Manassas on July 21.

Some time later, while assigned to “Camp Howard, in Virginia,” Pullen and other 3rd Maine lads “were seized with an attack of diphtheria,” Charles Eugene Hamlin relayed a story told about his vice-presidential grandfather.

F. D. Haviland, a prominent resident of Waterville … who was interested in young Pullen,” learned that he was sick “and went to Washington to see what could be done,” according to Charles Hamlin. Upon reaching the capital, Haviland heard that Pullen would probably die, diphtheria being a common killer of soldiers.

Wanting to visit Pullen, Haviland asked people how he could obtain the requisite passes. Someone told him to see Vice President Hamlin, then presiding in the Senate.

Utterly bored with that one official duty assigned the vice president, Hamlin courteously listened to Haviland, grabbed a hat, and exclaimed, “Come on!”

Hamlin quickly arranged the paperwork and probably hustled Haviland into a horse-drawn carriage. Spreading faster than telegraphed news, word reached Camp Howard that Hamlin was en route.

While presiding over the U.S. Senate one day, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin hurried off to visit Maine soldiers sick in a Washington, D.C. hospital. (Bangor Public Library)

According to Pullen, “there was a buzz around the camp when it was learned that the Vice-President was coming to see some plain soldiers who were sick and did not know him.” Guarded by a military escort provided by “Uncle John Sedgwick,” Hamlin showed up at the hospital with Haviland, dispensed with any formalities, “and hurried” to “where we were stretched out,” Pullen recalled.

The vice president “wanted to satisfy himself that we were having all the attention and care that could be given us,” Pullen said. Hamlin also wanted “to give us a little comfort himself.”

In that era (not much has changed, really) some vice presidents and many congressmen expected deferential treatment and projected that “do you know who I am” attitude exhibited even today. Not so with Hamlin; feeling poorly, Pullen could not recall “what he said so well as the manner in which he spoke to us.

He sat down for a while in our room and talked to us as if we were his own boys,” Pullen said. “He was so human, so gentle and kind.

I remember how the boys followed him with their grateful eyes as he walked softly from one cot to another, saying something cheerful and cheering to each of us,” Pullen said.

With Haviland in tow, Hamlin must have stopped to speak with Pullen, who “had once been given up for dead.” Whatever Hamlin said sparked a flame deep inside the sick soldier, who later explained that “his presence was like a tonic.”

Suddenly Pullen wanted to live. That flame flared in his hazel eyes. He pulled away from the Death Angel (always lurking in the hospital wards) and moved toward the land of the living.

Pullen remembered that vice presidential visit long after the war, long after he had moved to Bangor and settled into business there. “There was no one there ever forgot that scene of the Vice President trying to comfort the poor sick chaps in that hospital,” Pullen said.

But that was Mr. Hamlin, and the boys in blue idolized him because he was their real friend,” he said.

Sources: Charles Eugene Hamlin, The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin, Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1899, p. 446; Frank D. Pullen Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives

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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.