- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

The Civil War took thousands of men from their homes, of course, but some wives were able to visit their husbands where they were serving in the military. One was Mary Farnham, who left Bradford, Vt., for Washington in December 1862 to join her husband of 13 years, Roswell. He was a lieutenant colonel and the executive officer of the 12th Vermont Infantry Regiment, then assigned to the city's defenses. "I would rather live in a rebel dome with my husband than at home alone, for there is no home to me unless he is present," she recorded.
The difference between Mrs. Farnham and most of the women who traveled to stay with their husbands is that her personal papers survive and recount her experience. Mary Farnham did not live in a Rebel dome during her three months with her husband, though she at first boarded with a Mrs. Whitney who lived near the 12th Vermont's camp in Virginia at Fairfax Courthouse. She viewed Mrs. Whitney somewhat skeptically as "Union at present." When not boarding with Mrs. Whitney, she lived with her husband in a 16-by-8-foot stockaded tent.
On the face of it, life for her was not hard. She ate with the senior officers and did not have to cook. Her husband had an orderly, his cousin Nelson Rodgers, who took care of the tent and its upkeep. Mrs. Farnham hired one of the enlisted men's wives as a washerwoman, and that took care of most of the domestic chores. She and the other wives were in a war zone, however, and keeping house was difficult. As she wrote after a few months, "One ought to live in a camp a while in order to appreciate home with its conveniences."
Mrs. Farnham followed her husband farther south as the 12th Vermont marched to Wolf Run Shoals, Va. She saw many buildings dismantled by troops for firewood, and farmland was used for campsites and military activities. This strained relations between the Union soldiers and local residents, which turned into mistrust between the officers' wives and the local women. As Mrs. Farnham wrote, "There are but few women here in this country. What are left are all seceshs and look as black as night at you, but can do no harm as long as the Union army is here."
For company, the officers' wives visited counterparts in other regiments and brigades. By February 1863, 20 Vermont wives were in camp. They turned to each other for support when their husbands' regiments went on picket duty, which was once a week for two or three days at a time.
"I dread to have the 12th Vermont go on picket again," Mrs. Farnham wrote. "It is so dangerous, and they suffer so with the cold." In addition, all the wives dreaded the fact that their husbands could be marching off to battle and could face disabling wounds or death.
What Mrs. Farnham and her colleagues did not realize was that disease was much more likely to kill husbands and troops. Women also were at risk, but neither in Mrs. Farnham's papers nor in any of the brigade's soldiers' letters is there a report of a wife dying of disease. Mrs. Farnham did record that several women were sick at some point during their stay and that she herself was sick at least twice while in Virginia.
The soldiers' exposure to weather and other factors caused the 12th Vermont to lose 26 men from disease during Mrs. Farnham's brief stay. She and other wives volunteered in the regimental hospital from time to time, gave comfort to sick troops and baked cookies and cakes for them. As Mrs. Farnham wrote, "[The sick] fight their battle in the hospital and a harder battle it is too."
The worst sadness, however, came when news of Roswell Farnham's older brother's death from disease reached the camp on March 9. "Alone among strangers! No friendly hand to smooth his dying pillow or listen to his last prayer," Mrs. Farnham wrote. To the Farnhams, dying among strangers, uncared for, was almost as bad as was dying itself one of the reasons Mrs. Farnham worked in the hospital.
With the arrival of spring, signs of battle between the Union and Confederate armies grew, and Mrs. Farnham and her husband decided she would return to Vermont when the regiment got orders to move. Those orders arrived April 13. She prayed, "God, I hope he will see no battles."
On her way home, she went first to Washington to see the sights and to visit her brother, a private in the 10th Vermont.
On June 25, 1863, the 12th Vermont and its brigade were reassigned to the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. On July 1, 1863, the men caught up with their new corps, which was to be devastated during the Battle of Gettysburg. However, the brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. George J. Stannard, was ordered to guard the corps' train with two of his regiments. He selected the 12th and 15th which sat out the Battle of Gettysburg.
A week later, Roswell Farnham and his regiment returned to Vermont for discharge and were met by Mrs. Farnham and the other wives who had waited for their return. After having done his duty, Roswell remained with Mary for the rest of their lives.

Eric C. Ward is a military historian and free-lance writer from Laurel. His book "Army Life in Virginia, the History of the 12th Vermont Infantry," will be published in February.


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