by Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist
During the Civil War, there was perhaps nothing more happily anticipated in a soldier’s life than the arrival of the mail. For those lucky enough to receive a letter from home, a link with loved ones was re-established, albeit briefly, and what might have been a despairing day seemed somehow brighter. For those whom the mail had left wanting, there was nothing to temporarily relieve the monotony of war.
Some soldiers were more fortunate in their correspondents than others. One such was a young man from Duxbury named Sgt. Horace E. Sampson. Horace was the son of Eden Sampson and Lydia Soule. Born in 1845, he was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the 18th Massachusetts, Company E. After 21 months fighting with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, he was captured on June 27, 1862 at the Battle of Gaines Mills and sent to Libby Prison and then on to Belle Isle, off the coast of Richmond, VA. His ordeal as a prisoner took a toll on his health. After he was exchanged, Horace spent three months recuperating at Hampton Hospital. He was discharged from service and sent home in October, 1862.
By July of 1863 Horace felt well enough to re-enlist, this time with the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, Company C. Because of his education and previous service, he entered as a sergeant and eventually became the chief clerk in the Adjutant General’s Department. The 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery spent much of the War in North Carolina, where Horace succumbed to bouts of ague (malaria) that caused him continued health problems throughout his life, including debilitating fever sores. The performance of his duties was commendable and he was twice offered lieutenancies but as these promotions would have required him to leave the 2nd Mass, he declined them.
At 5’11”, with light hair and hazel eyes, young Horace must have cut a romantic figure – something a bit of valor and illness probably only enhanced – for it seems he had at least three admirers who wrote to him during the course of the War. It was not unheard of for young ladies to write their beaus, but Horace also attracted the attention of women he had never met. It is fascinating to read these letters, written to a complete stranger, and yet full of personal detail.
One of these women, “Ettie”, hoped to meet the dashing sergeant when he came home. Ettie was employed or somehow associated with Horace’s aunt, Louisa, and it was through this connection that she came to write him. She feared she was being “unladylike” in initiating the correspondence but felt that she and Horace could be a comfort to each other. She described herself as “not pretty – quite the contrary as far as beauty of skin and face,” but what she lacked in beauty she made up for “in a regulated heart and a well-disciplined mind.” She also described herself as “short (5 feet 4 inches) with light hair and skin – blue eyes – very good eyes – red cheeks and good teeth – weight 150 lbs.” Horace may have replied to this letter but ceased corresponding with Ettie shortly thereafter. The following year, Ettie, after hearing Horace was still alive, attempted to re-establish communication. Knowing she was perilously close to crossing a line into unseemly behavior, she wrote carefully, “On no account would I urge you to write if the correspondence is not agreeable to you…only once more to tell me if you did receive a letter from ‘sister Ettie’ in September which you could not reply.” Whether he replied is unknown and without further clues other than her first name, what became of Ettie and her regulated heart is a mystery.
“Josephine L.H.” also sent a letter to Sgt. Sampson in June, 1865. Unlike Ettie, she seems to be an older woman who responded to a letter of thanks she received from him. Josephine had obtained Horace’s address from his aunt, Miss Soule, (if only every soldier’s aunts were as good at PR as Horace’s!) and decided to send him a trifle. In her letter, Josephine asked Horace to send her a “leaf or a flower” for her “album of such things from battle fields and places of note.” She also sent along a photograph of herself and apologized if Horace expected “to see a young lady of sweet sixteen for if you did you will be sadly disappointed.” As with Ettie, it is impossible to know more about Josephine or whether she ever received her battlefield token.
One correspondent we do know more about is 17 year-old Sabra T. Cobb of Barnstable, MA. Sabra, unlike Ettie and Josephine, was well acquainted with Horace. By the tenor of the letters it is likely the two were sweethearts. In a letter dated December 27, 1863, just a short while after Horace had left again for the front, Sabra promised to send an ambrotype of herself, and let Horace know “I think your picture is splendid.” As a young, vivacious girl she filled Horace in on her many escapades, including sleighing and dancing, but also reminded him that she “wondered a great many times where you were…so you see I think of you quite often (I wonder if you think of me any).” Despite her flirtatious manner, Sabra was not about to reveal too much too soon. In September, 1863 she wrote “I do think of a great deal of you as a Friend (farther than that I cannot say),” and, few months later she wrote, “you asked me if I loved you – I say I like you better than anyone I have seen yet – as you say it is best not to be too hasty.”
Perhaps it was best that Sabra was not too hasty in declaring her love for the young Sergeant. It appears their romance faltered. The last letter to Horace is dated April, 1864. In 1870, Sabra Cobb married a dry goods salesman named Orlando Bassett and the couple moved to Boston. They had one child, Martha, born in 1880. Horace married a local Duxbury girl, Mary Cushman, in 1872. They remained on the South Shore of Massachusetts, eventually settling in Hull, where Horace operated a livery business. They had one daughter, Camilla, born in 1878.
Horace E. Sampson died in 1917 and is buried in the Village Cemetery in Hull, MA. His Civil War letters are part of the Cushman Family Collection at the Drew Archival Library.