Susan Lee Ward

About Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters

Catherine “Katie” Cary is a hardy Maine girl from Houlton, a small village near the New Brunswick, Canada border. After being wooed by Second Lieutenant Isaac Bowen from Buffalo, New York, a recent West Point graduate, Katie decides to take a leap of faith. Her “gude man” opens her up to new experiences, including romance, military life as an officer’s wife, becoming a mother, travel and its inherent dangers, the hardships of living on the western frontier, and the heartbreak of living so far away from her close family and friends. Letters are Katie’s lifelines. She is a reliable and prodigious correspondent.

In this true story sourced from private, intimate letters spanning 1846 to 1858, the young newlyweds are separated for three years by the Mexican War before they have a chance to set up their own household. Isaac Bowen’s letters to his wife from the front provide a detailed account of his service in northern Mexico, plus first-hand accounts of the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista. Extremely lonely for his new bride, Isaac’s letters alternately express anxiety, depression, exhilaration, boredom, his hardships, the satisfaction of keeping busy, and the happiness that Katie’s weekly letters bring him. She is his lifeline to home.   

After the war, the Bowens are blissfully reunited and posted to Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, where they have a daughter, Margaret Amelia Bowen. They are also briefly posted to Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia. During this time, their baby becomes ill, suddenly dies at the age of 13 months, and is buried in Houlton, Maine. Shortly thereafter, upon Isaac’s promotion to Captain and Chief of Commissary for the New Mexico Territory, Katie and Isaac spend several months during 1851 traveling on the Santa Fe Trail to the newly established supply depot, Fort Union, where they initially live in tents. Katie is pregnant while on the Santa Fe Trail, but doesn’t mention it to her mother. In 1852, their son, William “Willie” Holman Cary Bowen, is the first child born at Fort Union. His sister, Agnes Bowen (later renamed Kate A. Bowen in honor of her mother), is born in Albuquerque, NM in 1854. Millard Fillmore Bowen is born in New Orleans, LA in 1856, and Robert Bowen is born there in 1858. Later, Katie and Isaac look back on their years in northeastern New Mexico as the best of their lives.

Written under many conditions – in Katie’s childhood bedroom, military tents, hotel rooms, carriages, wagons, on stage coaches, trains and steamboats, and at various family homes – the Bowen Love Letters display courage, devotion, determination, hope, humor, and a talent for gossip. The letters include campfire recipes, remedies for diseases of the era, a delight in the change of seasons and its bounties, and a firm belief in the Divine Wisdom of Providence. Katie is sometimes a harsh critic, but softens with motherhood. Isaac frequently chafes at military orders and dreams of becoming a landowner. Their letters also describe their busy social lives with brother officers and their families. They both nurture and cherish close friendships.

Many of their friends and acquaintances are well-known historical figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (known by his pen name, Mark Twain), several future U.S. Presidents (Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Ulysses S. Grant), other political figures of the era, and many of Isaac’s brother officers later serve both the North and the South during the Civil War.

Between 1846 and 1858, Katie and Isaac both change their prejudicial attitudes towards other religions and cultures, eventually finding appreciation for Hispanics and Mexicans, and sympathy for the struggle of native Indian tribes. Their attitudes toward slavery also change. Although Katie grew up with household servants, Isaac was raised in a Quaker household with no servants. In 1851, when Isaac cannot find a reliable household servant for Katie, he purchases Margaret, a young “high yellow” woman from Kentucky. Margaret travels with them to New Mexico and later to New Orleans. She lives with them for seven years and helps to raise their children, who love her dearly and call her Margy. However, despite being a valued member of the Bowen family, Margaret still feels “enslaved” by them. By the end of 1858, Margaret is freed from slavery to start a new life.