Thursday, March 27, 2014

Women in the Civil War: Five Nurses from St. Lawrence County


If war is a test of a nation’s civil, military and spiritual strength, then civil war - neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother - it the ultimate test of a people’s character. The American Civil War (1861-65) tore at the roots of our political and social fabric. During the War Between the States women played a number of roles.

Women from the North and the South organized at home to provide much need support for their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons far from home in the field. Local Ladies Aid Societies knitted socks, rolled bandages, sewed clothing, sent bedding and towels and food. They wrote letters, kept the family farm or local store going, and held the family together as news from the front slowly trickled in.

Some women, not content to stay at home, disguised themselves as men and enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. Of the 400 or so known women who enlisted and served in the ranks, many were not found out until they were wounded or became ill or were killed in battle. Some women served as spies, trading vital military information or taking messages across enemy lines.

The devastating carnage on the battlefields of the war presented other opportunities for women to serve during the war. A few women served as doctors. The best known of these is probably Mary Edwards Walker who earned a Congressional Medal Honor for her medical service. Many more women served as nurses, both in a professional capacity with training, and as private citizens, often caring for a wounded family member.

The "Angel of the Battlefield," Clara Barton, was appalled at how poorly equipped the Union Army was to supply its troops and care for its wounded. As a private citizen, she advertised for medical supplies and food, used her home as a warehouse, and enlisted the aid of her friends to distribute the supplies to battlefields in Maryland and Virginia.

Unappreciated at first, doctors and military men soon came to rely on her supplies and organizational skills. Once the government began to respond to the needs of soldiers and casualties better, Clara Barton began shifting her focus. She set up an agency to local missing soldiers, assisting families to regain contact with missing loved ones. This work eventually led her into founding the American Red Cross after a trip abroad in 1869.

The formal nurses' training service formed early in the war was the U. S. Sanitary Commission under the leadership of Dorothea Dix, who had already made a career of improving the care of mental ill people. She was able to convince many state legislatures to provide the money to move these people, often incarcerated in inhumane institutions and prisons, into state-funded special facilities with provisions for extended care. She had also been active in prison reform.

The skills and expertise she acquired as a social reformer made her an excellent choice to be the superintendent of the Union army nurses. She created and staffed infirmaries, oversaw sewing societies, stockpiled medical supplies, and recruited and trained a corps of women to be nurses. Her requirements in a nurse were strict - not too young, not too pretty, and of strict moral character.

But many more women became nurses during the Civil War because of illness or injury to a loved one serving in the line of fire. One such woman was Maria Eastman Olmstead Eldred. She was born in 1842 to William and Eunice Eastman of Pierrepont, New York. She married George Eastman early in 1863; he enlisted in the 13th NY Cavalry, leaving for Washington, DC in June. Maria gave birth to their only child on January 2, 1864. George was wounded and Maria spent nine months nursing him in Falls Church, Virginia. Her husband died on March 30, 1866 and her son Frankie died on March 16, 1868 at age 4 years. Later she married Holden Eldred, a Pierrepont farmer, and had a daughter, Nettie, who was born in 1876.

Ellon McCormick Looby was born in Ireland in 1834, immigrated to the United States as a teenager, and married another Irishman, Rody Looby, in Waddington, NY 1854. They had three sons, John (1860), William (1866) , and Richard (1870). In December 1863 Rody enlisted in the 14th NY Heavy Artillery at Potsdam and served for several months before he was wounded in the Battle of Petersburg in July 1864. When Ellon received word of her husband’s injury, she “left Norwood with my only child 4 year old in my arms and started for city point.” City Point Hospital was located near Richmond, VA. Rody was transferred to the Central Park Hospital in VA and Ellon served there as a nurse from August 1864 through the end of the war in 1865.

Alvira Beech Robinson came from Pierrepont where she was born in 1835. She married David Robinson and had three children: George (1856), Charles (1860), and Sarah (1861). Two of Alvira’s brothers, Alva and Enos, enlisted early in 1861; her husband David enlisted in the 60th NY Infantry in October 1861. David was killed at Antietam in September 1862 and she returned to work as school teacher with three small children to raise. In May 1863 Alva was shot in the leg and asked his sister to come to nurse him. She left her children with her mother and spent 2 months nursing Alva and also worked in the government printing office to defray her expenses in Washington.

She returned to West Pierrepont in August 1863. Alva came home that fall to finish his recovery and Enos left the army suffering from “the lung fever.”  Alvira undoubtedly cared for both of them, her own three children, and her mother. She continued to support herself and her family, setting up the Pierrepont post office and serving as its first postmaster in July 1876. She operated it out of her own home for 15 years until it was moved a few miles  away.

Two other women who served as nurses during the Civil war were Miss Mary A. B. Young and Mrs. Thomas Rhodes. Miss Young, the sister of Captain James Young of the 60th NY Volunteers, reportedly died of the fever “at her post in Annapolis, MD” along with fellow nurse Miss R. M. Billings in January 1865. She is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Morristown. Mrs. Rhodes, who died on 1893 in Fullerville, Town of Fowler was described as “a nurse in the late war” in a newspaper clipping of her death notice.

- Special thanks to Sue Longshore, Administrative Assistant, St. Lawrence County Historical Association, for the biographical details provided in this Profile.


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