Volumes are written about the soldier’s life during the American Civil War, but there are few words printed concerning what women endured during that dreadful conflict. A few years ago Minerva Bristol Forker gave me copies of a small collection of letters preserved by her family that help to bring alive some of the tribulations of that turbulent time in our history. There are several gaps in the chronological sequence of these letters that I will endeavor to fill in and supplement from other sources. This is the story of the mother of Sarah Williams Bristol, wife of Anson Bristol, from whom many of Canton’s present residents are descended.
Little is known about the early life of Margarett (she used two t’s in early letters) Rogers. Her grandfather was a Revolutionary War soldier. She was the oldest of seven children, having four brothers, William, John, George and Thomas, and two sisters, Sarah Elizabeth and Phebe Ann. Probably she had at least the minimum amount of schooling afforded to girls in the early nineteenth century; her handwriting and spelling were quite good.
In 1858 she was living in Collinsville with her husband, Absalom Williams and two children, Charles, and Sarah, both born in New York. A third child, a son, died tragically from a fall at a very young age in the 1840s. Using material from a house he demolished in New Hartford, Absalom, in 1854, built their brick house at the foot of Center Street near the Farmington River. Mr. Williams worked for the New Haven Railroad. One morning in June 1858, a train struck and killed Margarett's husband as he walked along the tracks to work. This fatality may have been a suicide, as the engineer of the train stated that he blew his whistle. Williams, who was walking away between the tracks, turned his head toward the approaching train, but kept on walking. The engineer was unable to stop the train in time to prevent hitting the man. Margarett’s poignant letter to the President of the railroad company includes these remarks: I am now left a widow and my children are fatherless. My dear husband left his home that fatal morning in good health and cheerful spirits. --- I never saw him again. That dear face was crushed by the ponderous wheels of the railroad cars. Oh, spare my feelings. I cannot describe the scene which followed. When the dreadful news was brought, my daughter had gone on an errand to the village. She quickly returned and rushed into my arms. Tears came to my relief, but I could only say, 'Oh, Mr. Blair! Oh, Mr. Blair!' to the man that brought the heartrending news. (Blair was the forgemaster of the Collins Company). I wildly cried, 'Oh, where is Charlie?' when I thought of him, my little son. He was on the water in a little boat that was built for him by his father. He was then told that his father was badly hurt. He quickly bent his oars and rowed for the shore. But alas, he knew not that even then his dear father was already dead. When the truth was told him, he became almost frantic with grief. That day the funeral took place. I tried to say, 'Not my will but Thine, Lord, be done.' I have trusted in Him and believe He will send us friends to comfort and help us. We three were the only mourners at the funeral. (They apparently had lived in Collinsville only a short time) There was no time to bring his relatives, nor mine, and so I feel today bereft of friends and of all I have held most dear on earth. The world cares not for the widow and the fatherless children. It is selfish and unfeeling. We have found it so. We do not wish to be left at the mercy of the cold hearted, unfeeling world, but hope by our constant labor, to gain a livelihood. We are living in one room of the house we once occupied and hoped soon to call our own. ----But I must not dwell on the dark future. I must rouse me to action. My children yet live. I will live for them. Whatsoever my hands find to do, I will do with all my might. I will have my little family together. And now to the railroad company I will say, ‘Now give me back my home that the heartless creditors are about to take from us. And I will ever pray that your good deeds on earth may gain for you at last a home in Heaven.’
Apparently she continued living in the house until at least November 1860, taking in boarders, who probably worked at the Collins Company. On Nov.4, 1860 in Brooklyn, N.Y., she married Augustus Gilbert, who had been one of her boarders. Her new husband enlisted early in the Civil War in the 5th Regiment Heavy Artillery, New York Volunteers. While he was stationed at Fort Marshall, Baltimore, he sent for her to join him, which she did. Women were often allowed to accompany army units from post to post, often cooking and washing clothes for the men. In Margarett’s words ---From the commencement of the war to its close, I was engaged in the service of my country. Before I left my home in Brooklyn, N.Y., I was busy and in haste making pillow cases, sheets and leggings for the soldiers. My husband was a volunteer in the service and sent for me to come to Baltimore. There I kept table board for the officers of his company, for he helped me when he was not on guard duty. When marching orders came, I was permitted to accompany them with my husband and was promised a tent with him on the tented field but they were short of tents. On looking about me (in Harper's Ferry, Virginia) how dreary the scene and lonely too.--- I could hear the sound of rebel cannons only three miles away.---There were only two boarding houses left. I engaged board in one where they professed to be good Union people and the flag of our Union was seen inside the house, as well as outside. One night as we retired a mulatto girl lighted us up to our bed, and when taking the light away we asked what that was for. She said that was her orders and said she, 'Do you know you are in a rebel house?' We said, 'No', that we supposed that we were in a good Union house. 'Well,' said she, 'Lady boarders had been taken prisoner from this very house!' The next day Capt. Snow’s wife (with whom she had been rooming) left Harper’s Ferry and joined her husband.
Being now left alone, I went out once more to find a better home, returned home disappointed and that night in my sleep I was struck a heavy blow which made me unconscious. I believe it was intended as a fatal blow. At length I recovered and raising my hand slowly to my forehead, found it cold as marble. I tried to call someone but could not speak nor raise from my bed for some length of time. But finally I reached the open door on hands and knees. Saw a white man and a mulatto woman going down the stairs, could say one word then, 'Camphor' (used in fainting cases), but they hurried down the stairs. The car bell rang and they were gone. As soon as possible I left Harper’s Ferry and at the first depot was told that the day before, the train was fired into and the passengers robbed by the rebels."
At this time Harper’s Ferry was almost entirely surrounded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate forces. The train successfully reached Washington and the next letter we have was mailed on September 16, 1862. Unbeknownst to Margarett, the Union troops at Harper’s Ferry had surrendered to General Jackson the day before. The Confederates felt they could not house and feed their 12,500 prisoners, the largest number captured by them in the entire war, so they paroled them. This meant that the captured men would swear not to take up arms against the Confederacy again, unless they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners. Such men were often given non-combatant assignments or sent to fight Indians; however, this was not exactly fair, since it relieved other soldiers from these duties. Gilbert was sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, where he was put to work erecting barracks buildings and fences.
Sept. 16, 1862 ---“My Dear Husband: I received your welcome letter yesterday and presume you will receive this as they told me last evening that the mails will go to Harper’s Ferry today. I will risk it because I know you want my likeness and I cannot get it to you any other way. But it shows plainly how sorrowful and deeply grieved I feel, since I have heard that you are almost completely surrounded by the rebels. The extras give more cheering news since then, but I shall live between hopes and fears until I hear that they have been driven away from Harper’s Ferry, for my precious treasure is there, and may the Lord in whom I trust shield him from all harm. There has been a draft in Hartford and they were making preparations for one in New Haven, but the paper states that the people were coming out to see that the thing was done, and volunteered so fast that they stopped the draft. There will be one here I presume and quick, too. I had a letter from Charlie (her son) yesterday. He says they are offering as high as 700 dollars there for substitutes and says that when a thousand is offered he thinks he had better offer himself and join the company in which Anson (her son-in-law, Anson Bristol) and his brother Volney have enlisted. He rode out to Hartford to see them and they persuaded hard to join them. Dear, what is your advice about that? He is not of age and will not be obliged to go. Your letter of yesterday is worth its weight in gold. I will keep it as a precious memento. I am glad to hear that you are in cheerful spirits. Be strong and brave and fear nothing. Who would not be a soldier’s wife? But I have too many fears for your sake, dearest, to deserve the title. Oh, if I could ward off every danger from my beloved husband, I would do it cheerfully and would not count my life dear to me. How I wish I could get things to you. You need so much. Yesterday I packed a box and took it to the express office but was told it could not be sent. In it was all the things you mentioned in your letter and more besides. I must watch the next best chance. Charlie wrote that Sarah (Margarett’s daughter, Anson Bristol’s wife) was on the camp ground as well as the rest of the soldiers’ wives. I will get a better portrait taken in the locket and send it in the box and now I must bid you an affectionate adieu, hoping your absence will not be long... I kiss your portrait for your own dear self and remain affectionate wife. Margaret Gilbert. (She now spells her name with only one t, but we will stick with the double t in this article.)
Margarett then went to her sister, Phebe Ann's, to recuperate from her Harper's Ferry ordeal, but soon was back in Washington, where she enlisted in the Nurses' Corps under the famous Dorothea Dix. President Lincoln had persuaded Miss Dix, a well-known reformer of care for the mentally ill, to form a female nurse group to care for Union soldiers. Over 2000 women eventually served in this official group. Later in life, Margarett wrote about some of her experiences as a nurse.
I was first engaged in the Judiciary Square Hospital and learned my duties, keeping myself in readiness to be sent to the front whenever the Superintendant saw there was a need of a strong nurse, according to the agreement. I thought a more pleasant place could not be found under the circumstances. The men received every attention and were very thankful. The wardmasters seemed to do their best and should have great praise.-- It did not take me long to learn what was required of me, and the duty soon became a pleasure. I learned, too, to put on a cheerful look and try to encourage those whose cases were alarming. They tried to cheer each other, for all the soldiers that I met were very brave, but one poor fellow was mourning bitterly because his foot must be amputated the next day, and another patient tried to renew his courage by imitating him. I thought that was rather hard.
She described how she listened to a sick soldier tell of his mother, wife and sister and then -- Early in the morning as I looked from my window, I saw two or three gathering around his bed. I hastened to his side. He was breathing heavily. I called for camphor and a fan and used them for a few minutes, when I heard the Ward master say, 'He is dying. We cannot save him.' 'Oh, I cannot let him die!' excitedly I said, and fanned him violently, thinking of his mother, wife and children. The Ward master said, 'Nurse, you are taking his dying breath and you had better go. You have not had your breakfast yet.' I looked across the ward and saw (another) young man suffering greatly. I hastened to his side, but looking back, I saw that the other had indeed gone and the attendants were carrying him out.
My sympathy for the soldiers was strong, for I too had been wounded by the Rebels at Harper's Ferry, robbed and left unconscious in a Rebel house without a friend, for the regiment had gone and my husband with it, and we were separated, as I feared forever. I had just recovered when I took the position as nurse. On leaving the hospital, I was presented with a testament of the kind appreciation of my work, signed by a great many of the soldiers.
Meanwhile, her husband, in Camp Douglas, wrote to her letters typical of enlisted servicemen in all wars, complaining about the food and griping over the senseless jobs he was ordered to perform. Monday, Nov. 17 --my supper, you know by this time that a pint cup of coffee is all that the cooks give us for supper generally and we have some bread and that is all. For breakfast we have a change, some bread and a pint of coffee, sometimes more coffee just as it happens. We live high here. I have a top bunk and am as high as anybody. ---- I am still at work building barracks and do not know when we shall get through. --- and then we do not know but what we shall have to go to work and build fences around the camp, but if we do that it will be an endless job, in my opinion, and think that it would be down at night what we put up during the day.
Apparently, Gilbert was exchanged later, since subsequent letters were posted from Fort Marshall, Baltimore, Maryland. He was getting very tired of Army life. His letters to "Maggie, Dear Wife" are full of hopes for "peace and plenty". Thursday, August 13,1863--- I hope soon to see you and hold you in my loving arms with all the joy you can imagine, but I cannot express it upon paper. He even suggested a bit of subterfuge on her part to get him a furlough home. --- Wish that you would send me a telegraphic message that somebody was dead so that I could be more sure of getting a furlough but you say that you will not do it. Can't you get Charlie to do it for you this week? It will not cost much and will be the only safe way to obtain a furlough better. The letter was addressed to Connecticut, so Margarett was now probably with her daughter in Canton.
There is no evidence that they went any further with this shady plan. Both Augustus and Margarett Gilbert received honorable discharges from the military at the end of the conflict. They returned to live in New York and all seems to have gone well until one day in 1871. On July 12 of that year a large group of Presbyterian Scotch-Irish held a parade in the city and were attacked by stone-throwing Irish Catholics. (It seems as though nothing has changed between these two groups in the subsequent 130 years.) Militia opened fire on the rioters, spraying the street with bullets and Augustus Gilbert, passing by on a business errand, was struck, dying two days later from his wounds. In all, 31 civilians and 2 policemen died in the fracas. Among Margarett's letters is the following undated, unaddressed note, which may or may not have been mailed:
I would address a few lines today. After so long a time a letter may not be expected from me. I am the widow of Augustus P. Gilbert who received his death wound on the day of the Orange Parade, June (sic) 12th, 1871. He died at the Bellevue Hospital two or three days afterward. He was a peaceable citizen, walking on the street and had nothing to do with the companies or the mob. The military had been called out. They were throwing bricks from the tops of the houses and as a gun was fired upon the soldiers, they fired without orders and raked the streets in every direction. And my husband was also numbered among the slain.
Oh, what a sad and fearful time was that to me. Up to the present time I still feel his loss. Many sued the city and recovered a sum of money so that they were helped in a pecuniary way for the loss of their beloved friends. But I, Solitary, Friendless and alone Without advice, not knowing that there was anything that I could do but go to his grave and plant flowers there, the flowers he loved, and am now left drifting alone on the wide ocean of life.
So, late in life I am trying to earn what little I can for my support, but I am told today that I can yet collect a sum of money from New York City. Please write and let me know whether the statement is true or not and oblige. Yours truly, Margaret R. Gilbert.
Margarett's travails were not yet over. A house in Connecticut, where she stored some furniture, burned and she lost her husband's discharge papers, which had been carefully placed between the leaves of the family Bible. As late as 1888 she was writing to try to obtain copies of the lost papers in order to collect the pension due her. For the last 24 years of her life she lived with her son, Charles, in Fall River, Massachusetts.
An article in The Fall River Globe begins - There was one happy woman in this city last night. That was Margaret Gilbert. She was happy a because she had received word that Congress had passed the Nurses' Pension Bill. Fall River, as far as is known, did not send any nurses into the Service during the War, but for about 18 years Mrs. Gilbert has lived here and has been well known to many Army men and their friends. She has seen enough trouble for a dozen women and as a result her memory has failed somewhat. ---At Christmas time the National Woman's Relief Corps sent to her through the local Relief Corps a present of ten dollars, all the nurses now living being remembered in that way. Mrs. Gilbert's friends will all be glad to know that she will benefit by this new act of Congress.
Margarett Williams Gilbert died at age 80 on October 11, 1896. She is buried alongside her first husband, Absalom Williams, in the Village Cemetery, Collinsville, Connecticut. Her tragedy-ridden life may have been largely forgotten, but her letters live on and through her daughter, Sarah Williams Bristol, her numerous descendants have immeasurably enriched the Canton community.