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Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Remarkable Annie Etheridge

By LTC Peter L. Platteborze, Brooke Army Medical Center


Few people today know the story of Annie Etheridge who was once nationally acclaimed as the iconic nurse of the North. Various accounts indicate that she served admirably, without pay, through the entire four bloody years of the American Civil War functioning in a role that we consider today as a combat medic. One national newspaper commented “that if England can boast of the achievements of Florence Nightingale, we of America can present a still higher example of female heroism in the person of Annie Etheridge.”

She was born Lorinda Anna Blair on 3 May 1839 in Detroit, Michigan. Little is known about her youth other than she spent considerable time aiding her sick father and had worked in a hospital with a poor reputation for patient care. At the age of 21, she married James Etheridge and shortly after the April 1861 outbreak of the Civil War they both patriotically enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. She signed on with 19 other women to serve as a vivandiere, or daughter of the regiment, with duties to serve as a nurse as well as a cook and laundress. Prior to the Civil War, American women did not officially serve in the military; most vivandiere were outfitted in a feminine version of the regimental uniforms.

In June 1861, the 2nd Michigan marched to Washington D.C. to join the Army of the Potomac. Within a month, Annie was the lone vivandiere remaining in the regiment. Unlike her peers, she seemed to thrive in the constant hardships of field service and military camp life. In mid-July, the regiment skirmished with the enemy at Blackburn’s Ford, which subsequently developed into the battle of First Bull Run. On the battlefield, Annie selflessly moved to the wounded exhibiting great courage under fire as well as an amazing silent focus upon her mission of mercy. Thus began her reputation for being found on the front lines caring for the wounded where many surgeons wouldn’t dare venture. After the battle, her husband deserted yet Annie stayed having found her calling earning her the nickname “Michigan Annie.” Her regiment then helped defend the capitol until the spring of 1862 when they supported General McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign designed to capture the Confederate  capitol of Richmond. She participated in the battle of Williamsburg and was then temporarily transferred to duty aboard hospital transport ships operated by the U.S. Sanitary Commission. These steamboats were designated to carry wounded soldiers back to major city hospitals along the East Coast.

In August 1862, Annie returned to the front lines with her regiment at the battle of Second Bull Run. While giving aid to a wounded soldier of the 7th New York, an artillery shell burst nearby immediately killing him. Upon observing this Major General Philip Kearny rode up to her saying “I am glad to see you caring for these poor fellows. When this is over I shall recommend that you be given a horse and rank of sergeant.” Unfortunately for Annie he was killed two days later at the rear guard action of Chantilly and she received neither rank nor pay. This earned her even greater respect and affection from the fighting men, who now began calling her their ‘sergeant in petticoats.’ Thankfully she did receive a horse which allowed her to move to the front much quicker and with more medical supplies and water, and also provided her the ability to transport the wounded back to a field hospital.

In November, the 2nd Michigan was reassigned to the Union’s Army of Tennessee while Annie decided to remain with the Army of the Potomac by transferring to the 3rd Michigan. The following month Annie had another near-fatal incident at the battle of Fredericksburg. She was binding a soldier’s wounds when an artillery shell exploded nearby, mortally wounding him and removing a large portion of her skirt.

She received the greatest notoriety for her role in the May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville. Here, at the front lines (and on her 24th birthday) she received her only wound of the war when a Minie ball grazed her hand.

This bullet struck her horse which frantically bolted out of thick woods with her holding on. Fortunately, it ran into the Union reserve and was quickly subdued. Later that day Annie conspicuously cheered on a heavily wounded and demoralized unit of artillerymen causing them to not abandon their battery, and they subsequently played a pivotal role in the battle. For this noble sacrifice and heroic service on 27 May 1863, she was awarded the Kearny Cross, a decoration given to only two women in the entire Civil War.

Being wounded did not impede her efforts on the battlefield. Multiple reports indicate that she was at the heavily contested Peach Orchard area of Gettysburg during the brutal fighting on 2 July 1863. Following this battle, Annie travelled with the remnants of her regiment to New York City to assist in suppressing violent draft riots.

During this time she received many public visitors in camp to include Hannibal Hamlin, the Vice President of the United States.

In April 1864, the new commanding General of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant directed that all women leave the front. Despite this order, Annie remained in the heat of several battles that spring and summer. In June the three year enlistment expired for the men of the 3rd so Annie and the soldiers who re-enlisted were transferred into the 5th Michigan Infantry. Around this time, Annie was specifically ordered by General Grant to stay away from the front. Soldiers in her division, from privates to the general, signed a petition asking for special dispensation for her to continue serving with them. General Grant did not concur and Annie was forced to report to the large hospital at City Point where she remained until the end of hostilities.

After the war Annie marched with the 5th Michigan in the Army’s Grand Review parade in Washington and was mustered out with them in July 1865. By the end of the war, she had served in an amazing 32 engagements and had directly tended to the soldiers of the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Michigan Volunteers. The lives of many soldiers in the Army of the Potomac were saved due to her tireless efforts.

In 1870 she married Charles Hooks, a Union veteran of the 7th Connecticut Infantry, and settled into work for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. In 1887 she finally began receiving a small pension for her noteworthy services to the Union Army. She died in 1913 and was buried with veteran’s honors in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband. In 1915 the state of Michigan had a white marble headstone erected on her grave site as a monument to this remarkable nurse who embodied the ideal daughter of the Union Army.

From: history.amedd.army.mil/newsletters

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