For Mainers and Maine-Lovers: Amy Bradley in Alexandria

A trip to Maine last week spurred me to do some research on Amy Bradley from East Vasselboro, near Augusta. She was a Civil War hero--a woman for departed the constricted feminine "sphere" of the mid-1800s for decidedly non-traditional pursuits. 

Amy Bradley came to Alexandria's Camp Convalescent on December 17, 1862, to fix it. The sprawling place held a motley collection of Union soldiers. Wrote one Pennsylvania soldier:

"There are about 12,000 or 15,000 men at that “Convalescent Camp”—some stragglers—recruits—paroled prisoners—convalescents—and deserters. It is a horrible place to stay, being very dirty, filthy and infested with vermin.  Such a set of fellows as those prisoners from Richmond you never saw—ragged, dirty—LOUSY and without money...."

Its well-known nickname: Camp Misery.

Another typical letter home, in this case by a Wisconsin soldier in October 1862:

We dont get our cooking done not half the time for want of wood but who is to blame I am unable to say. But one thing I do know it is one of the meanest places I have come across in my travels. They need not talk of the misery of the rebels, let them come down here and it will open their eyes.

We had a great deal of very heavy rain all last weak and cold too which don’t agree very well with sick folks. If we get wet it has to dry while the clothes on us. Then at night it freezes. Great Guns! This morning our canteens was all froze tight so that we could not get a drop of water out. Had to wait till there was a fire kindled. We had coffee this morning at 8 and no dinner at all. We may get a little bit for supper if the wood comes. If not we will have to go to bed supperless as usual.

About Amy Bradley

Bradley perhaps gave this to one of the soldiers who passed through. Photo from 127th NY INFANTRY website. 

Bradley perhaps gave this to one of the soldiers who passed through. Photo from 127th NY INFANTRY website. 

Amy Bradley was born in 1823; her mother died when she was 13. With her many older siblings established in their own lives, Amy took care of the household and her father, a shoe cobbler, When he re-married, however, he basically left her on her own. She began work as a teacher at age 17, became a principal in Gardiner, Maine, and then taught in Massachusetts. She was diagnosed with lung problems and the doctor recommended she leave New England. She went first to Charleston where a brother lived, then found a position as a governess with a family in Costa Rica. When that didn't turn out as expected, she left their employment and opened a school in the capital of San Jose. 

But her father became ill in 1857, and the dutiful daughter returned to New England to care for him. After his death, she moved to Boston and worked as a translator, thanks to her years in Costa Rica.

When the Civil War began, she actively sought a position as a nurse with the Third Maine Regiment, then joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In Fall 1862, she first visited the convalescent camp in Alexandria to provide aid and gauge the situation. A few months later, she was appointed Special Relief Agent of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in Alexandria."

She had her work cut out for her. 

(For more on Bradley's life, see Pamela Toler's History in the Margins blog. Toler, in turn, relied on a biography of Amy Bradley by Diane Ashman entitled Headstrong. Bradley's papers are at Duke University.)

About Camp Convalescent

As noted above, the camp had a terrible but unfortunately well-earned reputation. Men lived in squalid conditions, with little to eat, no clean water or sanitation, or nothing to while away the time. Bradley ultimately pushed to move the entire camp several miles away, to start anew. According to Toler, Bradley first ensured basic needs were met, but also helped men navigate the paperwork to leave the camp. Shades of the USO, she also brought in games and other diversions.

In February 1864 she coordinated publication of a weekly paper, The Soldier's Journal. (By then, the camp was called the Rendezvous of Distribution.) The paper published official news, poetry, letters, and other content. A few article titles: "Directions for Securing Pensions," "Emancipation and Reconstruction," and "Sabbath School Pic Nic." Digitized copies of the newspaper are available through the Library of Congress.

(For more on Camp Convalescent, see the Office of Historic Alexandria's website.)

The people are not identified, but the woman in the checked dress does seem to have the face shape of Amy Bradley. From Library of Congress.

The people are not identified, but the woman in the checked dress does seem to have the face shape of Amy Bradley. From Library of Congress.

Julia Wilbur at Camp Convalescent

I have not found any direct reference to Amy Bradley in Julia Wilbur's diaries or letters, which actually surprises me. Nonetheless, Julia would have seen the need for someone like Amy Bradley and the benefits of her efforts. On December 9, 1862, Wilbur wrote:

6 men frozen to death at the Convalescent Camp.

And three days before Bradley arrived, on December 14, 1862, Wilbur wrote about one of her visits:

We went to Convalescent Camp. Saw Col. Belknap & Gen. Slough [camp commander and Alexandria's military governor, respectively], got tickets for Sergt.. H. Stannard & John A. Palmer to be examined on Tuesday [Michigan men for whom she tried to intercede]. They hope to get discharged. I shall be so thankful if they can get away soon. But the other poor fellows that I could do nothing for. Oh! dear. They feel so bad.—Col. B. & Gen. S. both agree with me that it is too bad to keep men in such a place, & in such a way. Col. B. said they will discharge after this 60 a day. But the worst cases must be attended to first. No wonder these men are sick with hope deferred. I learned considerable today about the way things are done here, and I am more disgusted than ever. These men are treated with no more consideration than dogs or horses.

The "New and improved" camp, circa 1864. From Library of Congress.

The "New and improved" camp, circa 1864. From Library of Congress.

By early 1863, she had visited the site where the new camp would be located (in current-day Arlington, although exact site unknown). On January 19, 1863:

We drove around by Fairfax Sem. & then over a very rough road to Convalescent Camp, 3 or 4 mi. from Alex. There are 65 buildings. Each will hold 104 men. Some of them are finished & the sick are being moved into them to day. There are acres of tents.

It is a remarkable sight. It is like a vast city. one might get lost in it.  

It is doubtful this "vast city" would been built without Amy Bradley. And while it not paradise, it greatly improved the health and welfare of the men assigned to it.

So, Maine should be proud of its Vasselboro resident, Amy Morris Bradley.