Love letters from the trenches

  • Frank Buzzell was a farmer in Andover when he enlisted in 1861.

Monitor editor emeritus
Sunday, February 11, 2018

One of the guilty pleasures of the Civil War historian is reading other people’s love letters. In that war, as in all wars, danger and separation tapped a deep longing to express romantic feelings. Sweet nothings flowed from home front to warfront and back. Often, however, the historian sees only one side of the conversation.

Recently it was my good fortune to complete a connection that began years ago when I found a letter from M. Annie Thompson to her fiancé, Frank Buzzell. Annie was a 20-year-old teacher and tailor’s daughter from Salisbury, Frank a 26-year-old Andover farmer whose father, Alvah, pastored the Free Will Baptist Church. When Frank enlisted in the Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers in 1861, his brother John and his father, who was 54, joined the regiment with him.

Annie’s bittersweet letter to Frank was written two and a half years later. She had just learned that he had re-enlisted for three years without telling her. She figured this might mean postponing their wedding until 1867, when his hitch in the army ended.

She poured out her feelings. Her love lit up all six pages of the letter, but anger simmered beneath it. At one point, after promising not to complain about his re-enlistment, she couldn’t help herself, writing: “Angels cheer your way – though you will never know how hard it has been for me to do so.”

In Our War, my book about New Hampshire in the Civil War, I used this letter and other records to tell the couple’s story. Annie’s letter worked. Frank took a leave. On March 20, 1864 – 27 days after she wrote him – they rode in a carriage to Penacook, where Pastor Joseph H. Gilmore, son of the governor, pronounced them husband and wife.

A few weeks ago, by chance, I found a letter Frank wrote Annie less than three months later. He started it on June 11 from a trench before Petersburg, Va., as the long fight for that city began, and finished it three days later from Bermuda Hundred, a contested river town near Richmond. Confederate forces had mauled Union invaders at nearby Cold Harbor a few days earlier.

Except for a line about mortar shells passing overhead, First Sergeant Frank Buzzell left battle smoke out of his letter to his bride. His message was one of love and caring. “I often think how lonesome and anxious you must be thinking of me,” he wrote.

Frank possessed a habit of mind that seems crucial to a successful marriage. Annie wanted his approval on decisions she faced back home in New Hampshire. Should she move in with his mother, and on what terms? Should she take a factory job? Frank responded in detail to these questions but left their answers to Annie. His mantra was: “I wish you to do as you wish and I know it will be all right.”

The lives of Annie and Frank Buzzell took another turn just weeks after he wrote this letter. On July 19, once again in the trenches before Petersburg, he was hit between the right wrist and elbow by a minié ball. It shattered his ulna. Doctors removed four inches of the bone, his fingers stiffened, and gangrene nearly cost him his pinky.

He spent seven months in military hospitals in Brattleboro, Vt., and at the railroad depot in Concord. When he was discharged from the army on Feb. 18, 1865, the fingers on his right hand had atrophied and the tendons of his ring finger and pinky remained exposed. That year, the town of Andover paid the couple $50.40 from its wartime family aid fund. The federal pension bureau declared Frank unfit for manual labor and gave him a small monthly stipend.

It would take a deeper records search than I have made to figure out the Buzzells’ later life, but some facts were easy to find. Frank’s family was from Maine, and in 1878 he was appointed postmaster of East Bangor. A devout man, he became a Seventh Day Adventist at some point. He wrote the editor of the denomination’s magazine in 1910 to describe the church’s founding. In his account, Rachel Preston had started it in 1844 by converting her fellow Baptists in Washington, N.H., to her beliefs.

By the time of that writing, Frank and Annie Buzzell lived in Chicago, possibly to be near their only living daughter, Helen. Born in 1866, she had married a Brown-educated ironwork architect named Clarence Verdine Roberts.

Age was catching up with Annie and Frank. In 1914, when Frank was 76, he moved to a veterans’ home in Quincy, Ill. Annie soon joined him there. He died on March 16, 1916, two weeks after getting blood poisoning from an ulcer, according to his obituary. Most likely, Annie cared for him in those final days.

The mutual love they had expressed with such feeling during the Civil War had endured. They had been married for 51 years.

(Mike Pride is the editor emeritus of the “Monitor” and the retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He lives in Bow and Goshen.)