As a child, Raleigh-based National Writer Allen Breed heard stories about his great-grandfather, Dr. Bowman Breed, who headed south four days after Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter to serve as a physician for the Union Army.
The family home in Lynn, Massachusetts, even contained a few artifacts from Bowman’s service, including a photo of him smoking a pipe in a tent surrounded by soldiers. His framed major’s commission, signed by President Lincoln himself, hung on a wall in the office of Allen’s father, Robert, who was also a doctor.
What Allen didn’t know was that before Bowman left for the war, he and his wife, Hannah, promised to write to each other every day. A chance conversation with his eldest brother, Putnam, about the desire to write a story for the AP about their ancestor led to the revelation that those letters survived.
Putnam first shared a letter Bowman had written to Hannah regarding a visit with Lincoln at the White house in April 1862. “The President always looks shabby,” it began, “but last night he was outrageous.”
Then Allen asked to see the rest. Some time later, the brothers met in Boston, and Putnam handed over the cardboard box that stored the family’s history – nine bundles of letters, crammed in tight but arranged in no particular order, some damaged by time, vermin or human carelessness, but most in remarkably good shape.
“I guess the little boy in me was hoping to find tales of battlefield gore and severed limbs,” Allen said. “But what I found was, in many ways, much cooler.”
He learned about the hardship and heroics of Hannah, who sometimes stayed home in Lynn and at others joined
Bowman as he served at hospitals in the Carolinas, Tennessee and elsewhere. “Their first child was just a few months old when Bowman enlisted in the militia and marched off to war. Her letters, especially the early ones, are heartrending,” Allen said. “It’s amazing to watch her grow in strength as the war drags on.”
Allen was also amazed at how “modern” the couple’s sentiments were. “Their letters are very affectionate, playful, witty, wry and poignant,” he said. In fact, “I wrestled with whether I even had to right to share them. They were so raw and intimate, it almost felt like a betrayal at times. But they’d been saved for a reason, and had survived various fires and divorces.”
Although he originally planned to write a long feature for the AP, the project turned into something much bigger and more time consuming as he transcribed the letters. He enlisted help from his cousin’s wife, Robin White, who served as co-editor.
They couldn’t find a publisher – traditional publishers said the book wouldn’t be profitable, and academic presses turned down the story of one couple. So they decided to self publish, and the book, “My Own Dear Wife: A Yankee Couple’s Civil War,” is now available for sale on Amazon.
After the war, Bowman served for a time as the surgeon in charge of the U.S. Military Asylum in Togus, Maine, making him the first doctor hired by what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs. He and Hannah returned to Lynn in 1868 after a fire at the hospital, and Bowman, suffering from malaria contracted during the war, retired from medicine in 1872.
Forging a link to the great-grandson he would never meet, he then became the editor and co-owner of a newspaper, the Lynn (Weekly) Reporter. After his death in December 1873, Hannah became the proprietor. “He wasn’t the only journalist in the family!” Allen noted.