Don’t Get Too Comfy!

Don’t Get Too Comfy!

Military Spouses

“Your direct influence on your spouse’s career may not be great, but your influence on his morale is. Your attitude toward his job can greatly influence how well he does it, as well as his decision to remain in the service.” Today’s Military Wife by Lydia Sloan Cline

In the United States Armed Forces, military spouses are part of a large sub-culture, along with service members themselves, and their dependents (children). If you are a military spouse, you might find amusement in a current TV series called “Military Wives” and an older series called “Army Wives.”

“Military Wives” centers on a group of women from different backgrounds whose partners are away serving in Afghanistan. Faced with their loved ones’ absences, they come together to form the very first military wives’ choir, helping each other through some of life’s most difficult moments, and quickly find themselves on an international stage. This is described as a feel-good crowd-pleaser inspired by true events.

Army Wives” was a seven-season series that ended in 2017. It centered on four women and one man, each married to a soldier and living on an army base. The story line included infidelity, PTSD and their spouses’ long deployments.

If you are looking for real intel about being the spouse of a solider, there are publications like the magazine Military Spouse ( and its weekly newsletter, MilSpouse ( The magazine also offers The Military Spouse Resource Collection, with all the military spouse resources and downloads you need in one place. From financial planning tips to inspirational success stories to how to prepare for your military-to-civilian transition, the resource collection covers every step in the military life cycle.

In Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters, young Catherine “Katie” Cary Bowen had none of these resources available to her when she married Second Lieutenant Isaac Bowen in on March 15, 1845. Isaac Bowen was a recent graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point (Class of 1842) and was on his second posting. His first post was at Fort Kent, Maine, and then Hancock Barracks, near Miss Katie Cary’s hometown of Houlton, Maine. Isaac was 23 and Katie was 19.

Married for just six months, Isaac was transferred to Fort Pickens, near Pensacola Bay, Florida, where Katie was to join him in the spring of 1846. Abruptly, Isaac’s artillery company was shipped to a camp near Brownsville, Texas, and then to Northern Mexico for what became a long three-year tour during the Mexican War (1846-1848).

Katie Bowen may have been schooled on the expectations and duties of a military spouse by Mrs. Frances Webster, wife of Captain Lucien Webster, Isaac’s commanding officer at Fort Kent and Hancock Barracks, but if so, we don’t have a record of it. There probably wasn’t a handbook for military spouses, and certainly not a magazine or weekly newsletter devoted to the subject. It’s interesting to note that between 1789-1847, families were considered a hindrance to military efficiency and operations. At Hancock Barracks, at least one older officer was married, but it was unusual for a young officer to be married.

War and Separation

My mother married a U.S. Army soldier during WWII after a brief courtship, and then they were separated for 18 months. She tried to keep his spirits up through her letters of encouragement. It was part of her job as a military spouse, especially during wartime.

During their own wartime separation, Katie and Isaac Bowen kept up a steady stream of letters, written every Sabbath under the same moon. Their letters became a lifeline to both of them. Katie was home in Houlton, Maine, but Isaac had her heart. Their letters during those three years of separation comprise Part One of Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters.

The Moves Begin

Part Two of their story begins after a blissful reunion in Houlton in September 1848, and a short trip to visit Isaac’s parents and siblings in Buffalo and East Aurora, New York. The young couple was stationed at Fort Mifflin, on the Delaware River near Philadelphia (now a National Historic Landmark), giving Katie her first opportunity to create her own home and learn to cook. She was determined to learn everything! Their household goods, provided by Katie’s parents as a wedding gift, were shipped to them from Maine, and they were able to purchase furniture at an auction in Philadelphia.

December 3, 1848 – Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia

Dear Father and Mother,

Here we are at last, though not yet settled, as our goods have not arrived, but they must be here in a few days, having been shipped from Eastport on the twenty-fifth ult. We left New York on Tuesday morning and reached Philadelphia at two o’clock the same day. Isaac looked about the city and on Wednesday came down here to see what prospects we had for quarters. We found all quite comfortable. Tuesday morning we purchased a bedstead, mattress, carpet, chairs, &c., and in the afternoon came down here to remain. I preferred doing so, rather than paying $4 a day to remain idle. I am just as happy as though I had a castle, and intend to take a great deal of comfort. Isaac has a happy faculty of making himself useful and helps me fix up numerous things.

P.S. from Isaac to Katie’s parents – I find myself very happy and contented, particularly when compared with the last three years. Katie will make a careful and economical housewife, the latter a very necessary accomplishment for the wife of an officer.

Their next move was to Schuylkill Arsenal, Philadelphia, which was the supply depot for U.S. military forces at that time (only remnants of the original arsenal wall remain). Since it was close to Fort Mifflin, the Bowens were able to transfer some of their household goods, and sold furniture that didn’t fit their new quarters. With this move, they had to sell their chickens, turkeys, cow, and leave their carefully tilled kitchen garden.

At Schuylkill Arsenal, they made close friends among the families stationed there. Some common themes about the military spouse sub-culture are frequent relocations, usually hundreds or thousands of miles away from family and friends; the constant loss of friendship ties; having to develop a facility for making new friends at each new post; and, leaving behind carefully purchased household goods.

Part Three of Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters begins when the Bowens are assigned to Fort Union, New Mexico Territory, a new military supply depot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Isaac Bowen was promoted to Captain and Chief of Commissary for the New Mexico Territory, a new position authorized by Congress. The Bowens spent some time on leave visiting family and their correspondence picks up as they prepare to travel from Buffalo, New York, to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the staging point for civilian and military wagon trains headed west. Their household goods stored in Philadelphia were shipped to them in St. Louis, along with Isaac’s big dog, Bruno.

March 29, 1851 – St. Louis, Missouri Planter’s House Hotel

My dear Mother,

We arrived here early this morning, about one o’clock I believe, for I was fast asleep in my berth and did not waken till morning. We came ashore before sunrise and are very comfortably lodged at this hotel. Isaac has already been out to visit the Quartermaster and finds a fine wagon ready and waiting for us. Our boxes and chests are in excellent order, looking as clean and smooth as when they left Philadelphia. Our journey has been all that we could wish for, and we have had good luck in everything. We have not lost a pin’s worth, and have spent twenty-one dollars less than expected, so Isaac says I can have that much more to get things for our house. The Quartermaster thinks there can be no doubt that we will be allowed a six-mule team to transport our baggage, and everything seems now prepared for our comfort.

April 28, 1851 – Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

From Katie to her mother

Isaac is having a grocery chest filled with tin boxes to contain everything needed in a family and then I will have everything under control, boxes of different sizes made to fit perfectly into the chest, three tiers deep and the cover of the chest, when let back, makes a table for any purpose. A thin board fits in over the boxes, which will be a grand bread board, and so we carry a whole kitchen in one chest. Candles, soap, flour, sugar, spices—everything has its own box, and a nest of milk pans finish the top. Our cow gives a good mess of milk and I have no misgivings with regard to the future.

May 17, 1851 – Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

From Katie to her mother

It is not entirely settled yet where headquarters will be, but at any rate we will be wherever it is, and at present you had better direct all letters to Santa Fe, New Mexico, via Independence, Missouri, as all mails are made up there once a month. But you must write as often as once in ten days so as to be sure of some hitting the monthly mail package.

Part Four of Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters begins when Katie and Isaac Bowen arrive at Fort Union.   

August 24, 1851 – Fort Union, New Mexico Territory

My dear Mother,

At last we are at our destination, safe in every particular, in health, and our goods in as good order as anything could possibly be after the hard journey they have had. I, for one, have not found the trip at all annoying. The time did not seem long, for everything was pleasant, weather and country. This point is one hundred miles nearer home than Santa Fe, located particularly with a view to the extensive farming operations, and certainly it is well adapted—plenty of water, abundance of wood—and to all appearances a fertile valley with mountains on two sides of us. The hills are close by and timbered with pine— red or pitch pine, I believe. Anyway, it makes good lumber and fine wood and will not fail a supply in a thousand years. We are putting up quarters as fast as possible of timber and adobes, and in the meantime we are living in tents.

After two years at Fort Union and living quite comfortably, Isaac was transferred to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  

October 31, 1853 – Fort Union, New Mexico Territory

My dear Mother,

You will not be glad to hear that we are going to Albuquerque, but the captain got orders two days ago, and we will move in two or three weeks. I have been making shirts for the captain and got a dozen done—all but one and a half—when the orders came. I immediately laid the unfinished ones aside and commenced to get Willie warmly clad for the journey. I have not much to hurry about and the captain will do all the packing.

Our Quartermaster here is relieved and will go on to our station in a few days. He promises to have quarters ready for us to go into as soon as we arrive, and the getting settled will not be very much. If carpets want altering, there are always plenty of tailors glad of the job for a few shillings. I am not going to worry myself for anything, and mean to take this life easy. The distance is about one hundred and sixty miles and south of Santa Fe.

November 27, 1853 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My dear Mother,

You would enjoy the sight from our porch—a large vineyard and orchard of peach and apple trees. As yet we have not had much policing done, and the place is dusty and covered with sticks, but after a while the ground will be kept sprinkled and swept and be as hard as ground can be made. The walls and floors of all the houses here are of mud, but so smooth and polished that you would think them the best plaster. The Mexicans use gypsum for whitewash and it is much cleaner than lime wash.

The Quartermaster furnishes a kind of domestic carpeting and calls it floors, and we put our own carpets over it—although for common rooms the domestic carpeting Berber is very clean looking, being made of black and white wool, sometimes woven in plaids, and sometimes striped. The captain is thoroughly disgusted with this move and would throw away what we have and start tomorrow for home, if he could telegraph to Washington this afternoon.

By the end of October 1854, the Isaac Bowen was transferred again.

My dear Mother,

The captain went to Santa Fe to look out for a house and brought back the mail. We are packing and expect to move on the second or third of the month. We will have a very nice house with parlor, bedroom, and dining room all in a row, opening one out of the other, a large storeroom, and kitchen and servant’s room in back, a fine well of water close by the kitchen door, and a small creek running at the foot of the garden. The captain will have his office in the same building so that I will never be alone, and the greatest consolation of all: that we will be two or three days nearer home. The society will be larger and pleasanter and I will be very glad of the change.

 November 28, 1854 – Santa Fe, New Mexico

My dear Mother,

At last we are moved and settled, and I am pleased with the change. This town is the pleasantest and cleanest that I have seen in territory, and we have a house that suits me in all particulars. The rooms are small, but vastly cozy and warm in this November weather. We reached here on the eighth of the month just after a heavy rain and snow, and every house had leaked by barrels full. This one was ankle deep in mud (I suppose you understand we have no floors) and it took nearly a fortune to buy wood enough to dry the ground. While this was going on, we occupied one room that a young bachelor had, and which was almost the only dry room in town.

The captain was almost down with his colic turns and I had the superintending to do, which made settling rather a different affair from what it has ever been before, for the captain always has one room fixed before he will let me put a foot within. This time I did the unpacking and had good luck with my undertaking. The children have been perfectly well and we like our new home much better than we did in Albuquerque.

Finally, Isaac Bowen received orders to return to the states in August 1855, after having been assigned to the New Mexico Territory for five years without leave.

Part Five of Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters finds Katie and Isaac Bowen, along with their three children, posted to New Orleans, Louisiana. Due to the yellow fever epidemic there in 1853, the Bowens were very unhappy at being posted in such a “sickly” city, but they had no choice. By November 1856, the Bowens were settled into a boarding house near St. Charles Avenue. After selling nearly all of their belongings before crossing the Santa Fe Trail back to the states, the Bowens found that renting a house in New Orleans was too expensive, especially as it would be empty for several months if Isaac was able to take leave. One of the consequences of living in a boarding house with regular family-style meals cooked for the boarders is that both Katie and Isaac gained weight. However, an unexpected benefit of living in New Orleans was that the Bowens daily met some old friends there who were passing through, which rendered living in the city more attractive.

After Isaac Bowen was denied summer leave in 1857, he stayed in New Orleans while Katie and their three children traveled home to Houlton, Maine. Travel was expensive, difficult, dangerous, and tiresome, but it was important for Katie to see her aging parents and visit with her siblings and their families in Maine. While Katie was enjoying the cooler summer weather in Maine, Isaac Bowen was miserable in hot, humid New Orleans.

August 16, 1857 – New Orleans, Louisiana

From Isaac to Katie

You ask about mosquitoes—they are the plague of my life. Lately there has appeared a kind that do not sing, and are of the most venomous description. They will take a nip and are away before one knows of their presence, but in a few moments a white swelling often as large as a pea will fret me for an hour or two. They are so quick in their motions that I rarely succeed in catching one, but I have a feeling of gratified vengeance whenever I have that good fortune.

While still living in the boarding house in New Orleans, the Bowens welcomed another son.

Katie wrote to her brother in March 1858:

The army in Utah is going to be a great shock to all quietly disposed officers, and many a one will be cursing his luck in being ordered to pursue the Mormons. There will be many lonely homes and if the captain is not sent, I will feel that this is a very good post after all. We ought to be promoted—faced the yellow fever and lived through it. Then if we could defy the climate.

Isaac commented in the same letter:

Kate seems determined that she will not go north this summer unless I go too. It is hardly probable that I will be able to get away, and I suppose the matter will be compromised by sending her and the children across the lake to Mississippi where I will be able to visit them periodically. I will be much pleased when I get stationed where we don’t have the scourge of mosquitoes. I would rather go to San Antonio, Texas, than anywhere else, and would agree to a two-year stay.

Letters are sparse after that, but the Bowens ended up in Pass Christian, Mississippi, living in a cottage. Isaac could receive mail from New Orleans and perform his military duties from afar.

June 6, 1858 – Pass Christian, Mississippi

From Katie to her brother in Maine

We have a comfortable cottage with plenty of ground, garden, and yard. The houses all front on the lake, and only a carriage road divides us from the water and bath house. Each family has its own wharf (running a distance out the lake) and bath house attached, and we all bathe at high tide, which is about eleven or twelve o’clock in the day. At other times, we use the wharf for fishing—catch plenty of sea crabs, which are excellent in salad or baked in their shells. Oysters abound and shrimp are a drug. The captain has a net for drawing the latter. We have no fish like your trout, nor living of any kind in fact. Our vegetables even seem not to have the flavor that they possess at the north. We have blackberries in profusion, and have had a dish or two of fresh figs.

After a while, we will get plenty of grapes. We have our own garden— green corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, and cabbage—which we enjoy much. Next week we will have cantaloupes—or musk melons—and in ten days or more, watermelons. Peaches will be a drug. Mulberry trees in great variety bear abundantly, but we have no fruit to compare with your strawberries.

The last surviving letter from Katie was written on September 19, 1858 to her brother, Holman Cary.

Saluting My Father’s Military Service

In terms of my own family’s history of not getting too comfy, we moved frequently and promised to write to our friends at each different post, but time went by, we lost touch and made new friends. We did not have cell phones, email, and social media to help us stay in touch. During my formative years, we lived in three different houses in El Paso, Texas, on and off base (Ft. Bliss). Next came Germany where we lived in two different houses, on and off base. After Germany came Killeen, Texas, where we lived in three different houses, on and off base (Ft. Hood). My father retired from the military in 1966 and we moved back to El Paso, where I attended the same high school for two years. Fortunately, we lived in a community where many of the kids were also Army brats and were more welcoming of new kids than I had ever experienced. Not many people can say that they loved high school, but I did because of the friendships that I was able to develop and maintain to this day.

Personally, I’m grateful for my father’s military service for a variety of reasons, including frequent moves and living overseas. Our many moves encouraged me to be resilient and adapt to new environments.

I salute my father’s thirty-four years as a member of the United States Armed Forces, the organization that protects the U.S. and its allies, and guards the way of life of the free world. He helped to ensure that our rights to vote, to free speech, to assemble peaceably, and to worship as we will, are not taken away. Regardless of rank or job, every service member performs his duties for those reasons.