Letters trace Civil War for writer’s forebears
Sunday, April 24, 2011
BOSTON (AP) — Alone in his hotel room after a solemn dinner with his brother, the newly enlisted Army surgeon took up pen and paper to make the first installment on his promise.
“I have a few moments,” he wrote to his wife, just 10 miles up the coast in Lynn. “I am in such a whirl that I can hardly think much less write.”
Just four days earlier, on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery had fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, igniting the Civil War. On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln issued an urgent appeal “to all loyal citizens,” seeking 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion.
The very next day, Dr. Bowman Bigelow Breed — my great-grandfather — was on a train south, bound for Boston, and for war.
Bowman and my great-grandmother, Hannah, vowed to write to each other every day, “if only a line.” And they kept their promise as well as one can during a time of war. Except for brief furloughs and the few months when she would join him at one of his postings, they were apart from the fading echo of those first cannon shots in South Carolina until an assassin’s bullet ended Lincoln’s life four years later.
Their “precious letters,” as each called them, would total nearly 1,000 by war’s end. Having survived the ravages of 150 years and several family fires, they were doubly precious to me.
Growing up in Lynn, I had listened eagerly to my dad’s vivid stories about the Civil War and the grandfather he never knew. But until two years ago, when my oldest brother, Putnam, handed me a heavy cardboard box containing the letters, I had no idea where those stories came from.
When I removed the first bundle and carefully untied the dry-rotted string, I found the letters in remarkably good shape — stained, faded, some with holes gnawed by vermin, but legible.
As I read them one by one, it became clear they traced the war’s entire arc, as viewed from battlefield and home front.
My ancestors’ missives were a pleasant revelation. Chatty and erudite, playful and poignant. And, for a pair of supposedly stodgy Yankees, surprisingly passionate.
Once just sad-eyed faces staring out from sepia-toned photographs on a mantelpiece, Bowman and Hannah have become living, breathing people to me.
And during our own time of war, I can read in their words the struggles of any number of young American couples — separated by a sense of duty, but longing for peace and “a home together.”
Bowman was the first of four successive generations of fighting surgeons in my family, stretching to Putnam, an Army doctor in Vietnam.
I often wondered how my father, at the age of 28, could have left his wife and three children to go off and fight the Japanese. After reading Bowman’s letters, which Dad must surely have read as a boy, I think I have a better understanding.
“It is for you I would labor and bear the pain of separation even if in the end I could secure to you the honor I seek,” Bowman wrote from a muddy encampment outside Baltimore in the war’s first months. “We bear an honored name and my ambition is to transmit it at least unsullied.”
Bowman was the seventh of 10 children born to Isaiah Breed, a Lynn shoe manufacturer, banker and politician. Hannah Putnam Pope, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, selectman and school committee member from nearby Danvers, was a school teacher.
They had been married barely a year and a half when war broke out. Their first child, Isaiah, was just 10 months old.
Hannah was 32. Her husband had just turned 29.
Bowman could easily have paid a “commutation fee” and had someone serve in his place.
Instead, he was among the first to enlist when, within hours of Lincoln’s call, the Lynn Light Infantry and the Lynn City Guards were organized, forming part of the 8th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.
After gathering with the rest of the regiment at Boston’s Fanueil Hall, Bowman went to dinner with his brother, Rodman, brother-in-law Charles and a friend.
“They made me a present of a revolver,” he told Hannah in that first letter, written from the American House Hotel. “I hope I shall never have occasion to use it!!”
That first enlistment was for just three months. But he and Hannah soon realized that their hopes for a swift end to the “unnatural war” were in vain.
The mails were remarkably fast and regular then, even in wartime. Letters sometimes arrived the next day — but for Hannah and Bowman, that often wasn’t quick enough.
“Oh it is hard to be thus separated. Life is not life, living thus,” she wrote.
After one silence, he complained: “No letters or paper. If I do not hear tomorrow I shall begin to feel anxious fearing you are not so well. Oh darling these leaden footed hours, when will they bring you to my heart and arms.”
Each seemed to live for the postman’s arrival, delivering their “daily chat.”
“The pleasantest hour of the day is that which brings about dusk your ever welcome letter,” Bowman wrote in late June 1861 from Camp Essex outside Baltimore. “The touch of the hand in tracing the lines seems to leave a sort of electricity on the paper which pervades it always. Did you nere come upon the handwriting of some one long since gone and have the touch of the paper thrill you with a long forgotten sensation.”
When Hannah teased Bowman that his last letter had been more of a “note,” he teased back: “You have been counting words have you!”
Deeply religious, they ended most letters with a “God bless you.”
At home, they would spend at least part of each evening reading the Bible together. Early in their separation, they laid out a schedule by which they could read a passage “together each night.”
“I have read (and) read again the 91st Psalm,” he wrote. “God will give his angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways. Trust in him my dear one. A great cloud of prayers goes up for us from ten thousand homes and they will be answered.”
Like generations of soldiers before and since, Bowman was away for many of the milestones in his young family’s life. Hannah did her best to make him feel as if he were there.
“Have I told you that Baby said Papa, Papa?” Hannah wrote in July 1861 of little Isa. “I have been determined that that should be the first word and I have accomplished it.”
In one note, Bowman declared, “I believe in sending kisses on paper.” Thereafter, he would receive letters with little circles drawn on them and the words “baby’s kiss” or “Isa’s kisses.”
After their second child, Bowman Sinclair, was born June 14, 1862, Bowman expressed his longing to be there, but accepted that it could not be: “I must content myself with imagining just how you look and what you are doing.”
With Bowman away at war, Hannah and the children lived with his mother, Sally, in an old mansion with red glass sidelights that flanked the front door and gave everything “a rosy hue when you looked through them.”
Not so, Hannah’s outlook. Back home, she was prey to every rumor.
During the summer of 1862, the papers had been reporting that “they were displaying rebel flags in Wash’n.” At the end of August, after the Second Battle of Bull Run, Hannah fretted that the Confederates would soon take the capital.
“One day we read that our army is safe. This is asserted with confidence, the next of this terrible reverse. Oh Lord grant success to our arms. When oh when will this end?”
Bowman could hear the cannonading from his rooms at the Armory Square Hospital. The next several days were a blur of activity, with Bowman “Going from one ward to another cutting off arms and legs sometimes two or three operating at once.”
When he did at last have a moment to write, he did his best to allay his wife’s fears.
“I cant write any news as I have not had time to read a paper and do not care to listen to the thousand and one rumors which are floating about,” he scrawled. “I have no idea that the city is in any danger but if the rebels do come they will find us hard at work.”
In the week after the battle, Bowman and his staff would triage and treat more than 1,500 casualties.
“Let us pray,” he wrote to Hannah, “that all this blood has not been spilt in vain ...”
After the Union’s early defeats, Hannah wondered: “Can it be that our officers as a general thing are insufficient as soldiers. Oh this wicked wicked war. Oh the distress and misery wh it has caused.”
Bowman’s assessment: “If there be a hell more sleepless in its agony than any other it should be reserved for those whose personal ambition brought this upon us.”
They shared a contempt for the Confederates — “I wish the rebels in the Gulf of Mexico,” Hannah declared — and a wry sense of humor. Their descriptions of those around them sometimes bordered on cruel. Social reformer Dorothea Dix was called “vinegar faced” in one of Bowman’s letters; in others, his acid pen turned to the president.
Lincoln once stopped by Bowman’s quarters for an inspection. All reports of the president’s awkwardness, he wrote, were “mild compared with the reality. Some of his gestures would make the fortune of a circus clown.”
During a subsequent visit with Lincoln at the White House, Bowman reported: “The President always looks shabby, but last night he was outrageous. The buttons were all off his shirt bosom which gaped open so that you could see his flannel shirt. ... His hair of course was flying in every direction.”
Appearances aside, Bowman concluded that Lincoln was smarter than many gave him credit.
“He does not act fast enough to suit the popular wish,” he wrote. “I cannot but think that his conservativeness will be found better in the end.”
Bowman, whose commission as a major was signed by Lincoln, gained a reputation as kind of a fixer, cleaning up and organizing bad hospitals. During the war’s first two years, he made the rounds of the busiest hospitals in the capital: The Finley, Circle, Judiciary Square and Armory Square — where the poet Walt Whitman “spent many days & nights” with the wounded and dying.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard, Bowman had continued his studies in Dublin, Edinburgh and Paris, where he was exposed to some revolutionary techniques — such as the transfusion of blood — that would serve him and his patients well in the coming conflict.
Hannah shared Bowman’s sense of patriotic duty. But that commitment was sorely tested in August 1862, when he declared that he felt honor-bound to leave Washington to go into the field with the 8th Massachusetts.
To Hannah, who had hoped to soon join her husband in the capital, it seemed “like a dark and awful dream.”
“I cannot yet See why it is your duty but I Earnestly hope for your Sake as well as my own that I may,” she wrote, so frantic that she omitted words throughout the letter. “This I can Say. I would not have you do anything wh’ you consider mean or dishonorable, or not act from a Sense of duty: rather let my heart bleed and bleed — yes, break!”
Bowman was mindful of the sacrifice he had forced on his wife, saying she bore “the harder burden of endurance.”
Closing hopefully, he wrote: “Days fly and the good time comes fast.”
As it turned out, the 8th was not accepted into the regular Army at that time, and Bowman did not go. Hannah began making plans to join him in Washington, but another crisis arose, this time on the home front.
During the spring, Hannah began to notice that Isa was becoming increasingly “restless.” By midsummer, the little boy who had been so playful had ceased to thrive, growing ever thinner and paler.
“Every noon when I write I think how I will certainly write this Evening, but when Evening comes I invariably feel So Sad and discouraged about Isa that I cannot write.”
As September turned to October, Isa seemed to be improving. He was showing an interest in solid food again.
“I am Sitting by dear little Isa,” Hannah wrote on Oct. 9. “He Seems as well today, but weak and languid. It is intensely warm today. If we cd only have cold frost weather I think that he wd gain Somewhat. ...
“Oh to be with you.”
The next day, Bowman wrote home from his new post at the Finley Hospital, saying he wished he could help care for Isa. “I long to have you here and yet I don’t want you to start a day before you think it is perfectly safe.”
The letter was not stamped until the following day. By then, Isa was dead.
But there was little time to mourn amid the press of war.
On Oct. 28, Bowman received orders to “proceed with out delay” to the captured North Carolina seaport and railhead of New Bern, where he would be medical purveyor for the 18th Army Corps.
He sent word to Hannah to “come on.”
The folks back home were worried about Hannah and baby Bowmy being so close to the rebels. But Bowman assured her that “we shall hold our own” and even added that their new location “is not a desert. There are quite number of ladies here.”
When Hannah and the baby arrived shortly after Christmas, Bowman was away on an expedition that gave him a glimpse of combat. Upon his return, he said, “I never wish to See another.”
Setting up housekeeping, Hannah quickly fell in with the many New Englanders there — including a Massachusetts couple working with the local freedmen. She made the rounds of the doctors’ homes and even visited the rebel prison.
Before long, Hannah, too, would get a close-up look at the war.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, had promised his men that “they Shd Eat their breakfast in New Berne on the morning of the 14th of March,” the anniversary of his losing the city.
Hannah watched from the riverbank as gunboats shelled the woods on the opposite side, she reported in a letter home. An artillery captain friend of Bowman’s “blazed away for a few minutes for the amusement of Mrs H and myself ...”
The Breeds survived the rebel assault, but tragedy would soon find the little family.
On May 7, a little more than a month shy of his first birthday, Bowmy Sinclair died. The cause was never made clear. The body was shipped north for burial, but it wasn’t until late August that Bowman received a 30-day leave to escort Hannah back to Lynn.
When Bowman returned alone to North Carolina, Hannah descended into despair. On one “rainy dismal day” in late October, she went to Pine Grove Cemetery to see the newly placed stones on the “two precious mounds.”
“Those little graves were constantly before my Eyes,” she wrote, “and I almost felt that I wished to be by their Side.”
Not finished mourning Bowmy, she was already heavy with their third child.
“I feel Sometimes as if with the whole load of Sorrow for our part and anxiety for our future, I Shd become insane. To me Everything is dark,” she wrote. “Oh why do I write in this way. I will write no more. better no letter than Such an one as this. ... almost Say better no wife than Such an one as I.”
Six hundred miles away in New Bern, Bowman did his best to comfort her — but had to acknowledge his own tears: “They blind and choke me while I write.”
And they stained the page.
My great-grandparents were both opposed to slavery and sought to uplift the “contrabands” — escaped slaves under Army protection — who came to work for them, teaching them to read and do figures. But they were not immune to prejudices, and a few of their letters contain common racial epithets.
Bowman had his doubts that the ending of slavery was the war’s guiding principle. After the deaths of two children and 2 1/2 years of near constant separation, his resentment boiled over at learning of a friend’s plans to come South to help educate newly freed slaves in South Carolina.
“We want men with guns or officers with swords on this crisis,” he wrote. “You may tell him so from us, and God knows we have as much right as anyone, from duty done, or sorrow endured, to speak with authority on this matter.”
Bowman was constantly jockeying for a position closer to home, often soliciting the help of his kinsman, Congressman John B. Alley — who had taken him to the White House and introduced him to Lincoln. When he was ordered to Missouri in December 1863, it was the last straw.
Bowman immediately appealed to Alley to have the order countermanded, but was prepared to resign if that did not work, “bitter a disappointment as it will be to my hope of serving honorably with the army till the war was over.”
“God alone knows how much we have borne in the last three years and I do not regret it,” he wrote. “It was duty, but there is a point beyond which Endurance ceases to be a virtue. If I come home we shall find something to do. Better to live on a crust than to Endure the agony of such a separation.”
But when the request was denied, Bowman did not resign. And in February 1864, within two weeks of the birth of their third child, Alice, he reported for duty as head of the infamous Gratiot Street Military Prison Hospital in St. Louis.
The city was home to several of Bowman’s college classmates, with whom he dined and attended Masonic meetings. But he made it clear that they were poor substitutes for “my dear one.”
“This would be a very pleasant Sunday if you was here with me,” he wrote in one particularly tender letter, “but you bring all the light to my sun and beauty to my surroundings. When you are away I have but half an Eye to see with or Ear to hear with.”
That spring, Hannah and Alice joined Bowman. When he was put in charge of U.S. General Hospital No. 1 in Nashville two months later, she and the baby followed him to Tennessee.
Alice seemed to thrive at first, and by seven months, she was already trying to walk. And so it was a brutal shock when the baby died on Oct. 1.
“Thirteen weary days” passed before Hannah could muster the will to write to her mother-in-law of the loss:
“God has taken her and again left our hearth desolate, and we have constantly to say to our hearts ‘be still, be still.’ — and one prayer. Help us oh Father to say thy will not ours be done. — This is all our inner life. Give us something to do, our outer life.”
Her grief was mingled with guilt as she deflected suggestions that it was the “unhealthy locality,” and not, as she thought, some complication of teething — a “dreadful crowding of the teeth” — that killed little Alice.
“B. had every board whitewashed and every dirty hole filled with lime, and disinfectants poured all about,” she wrote.
Her only consolation was that “we were and are together, to comfort and sustain each other.”
They were still in Nashville in April when word came of Lee’s surrender.
“I can hardly hold the pen steadily enough to write,” Hannah wrote to her mother-in-law. “I have just come from congratulating one of my rebel neighbors. ... B. had fireworks and a brass band and big supper at the Hospital but it seemed to me this best news of all — the war must be at an end — and we may all go home soon.”
Lincoln’s assassination, just a few days later, changed everything.
“Our whole sky seems black with grief,” Hannah wrote to her sister in Danvers.
Six men were shot in the street, Hannah wrote, “for Expressing satisfaction at the President’s death.” When a medical cadet remarked that he “did not care,” it was all Bowman could do to restrain his own men.
“They seized him and dragged him to the Hydrant for a ducking and there is no knowing to what Excesses they might have gone had not B. interfered,” Hannah reported. “He allowed them to strip off his straps and made him beg pardon on his knees.”
But it wasn’t until April 27, when she learned that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had surrendered the Confederacy’s last active forces near Durham, N.C., — not far from my own home in Wake Forest — that Hannah allowed herself to exhale. It was a bittersweet moment.
“How Sad that our good old President Sh’d have been murdered,” she wrote home. “That he Shd not be here to Enjoy with us a time of peace. Sad for us but gain for him we may hope.”
Brevet Lt. Col. Bowman B. Breed was mustered out of the service in August 1865 and returned to private practice in Lynn. He gave up medicine in 1872, when the effects of malaria contracted during the war forced him to switch to a less taxing occupation — newspaper publisher.
After so many losses, he and Hannah would be blessed with three children — again, two boys and a girl. All would live to adulthood.
On Dec. 16, 1873, Bowman died of Bright’s disease at the age of 41. My grandfather, Nathaniel Pope Breed, was born two months later.
To support herself and three young children, Hannah would have to return to teaching, and take in boarders.
Years later, Grampa — who served as an Army surgeon in France during World War I — would file a petition for a widow’s pension on Hannah’s behalf. But because Bowman had treated himself, there was no record of a wartime illness.
After many years of rejections, Hannah was eventually awarded $12 a month. She collected it until her death in 1915 at age 86.
She never remarried.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.