Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Part II: "The Lady Nurse of Ward E" Bids Adieu to Washington, D.C.

By Diane Wendt, 7-31-2014

This post continues the story of Civil War nurse Amanda Akin, which began in Part I.

"July 12, 1864. The bridge over Gunpowder River, sixteen miles from Baltimore toward Philadelphia was burned. The 7.30 A.M. train yesterday was attacked, the passengers ordered out, and the train then run on to the bridge and burned. This afternoon the "extras" say a few miles of double track between this city and Baltimore were torn up, so I am a fixture for the present. […]"

General Jubal Early sent one unit of his Confederate forces around Baltimore to cut supply and communication lines that connected the Capitol to the North. Telegraph lines, track, and bridges were destroyed on the Northern Central Railway and the bridge over the Gunpowder River (near Joppa, Maryland) on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad was burned. This railroad is now part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Until the railroads were repaired, Akin would be unable to return home.

"[…] After "Taps" went with Sisters Helen and Mac to Smithsonian, where Misses Lowell and Ware had preceded us, to see the shells from the Smithsonian Tower; but as they came down and reported only "signal lights" to be seen, we felt too weary to attempt to climb so many flights. Professor Henry's daughters came to the door and were cordial."

The familiar bugle call for "lights out" known as "Taps" had its origins during the Civil War. The top of the Smithsonian's highest tower afforded a grand view of the city of Washington and the surrounding country, although the climb proved too much for Akin and her companion on the evening of July 12th.

"July 13, 1864. The rebels have retreated, but many precious lives have been sacrificed. Major Jones of the Sixth Maine, just returned to his regiment from a furlough, was killed; his term of service would have expired in two days. […]"

By July 14, the Confederate troops had retreated to Virginia, crossing the Potomac River near White's Ford (just up river from where White's Ferry crosses today). With the threat to the city over, Akin resumed her preparations for leaving. On July 15, Akin visited Mathew Brady's gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue to purchase a picture of Abraham Lincoln and an album for her cartes-de-visite. The next day, she noted in her diary that the trains north were running again but were much too full for her to get through.

"July 16, 1864. Our ward at present is very quiet; only a few of the patients (the most severe cases) still in bed. Captain Constantine Lippe, of the 188 Pa. Vols., who would not consent to have his leg amputated, after weeks of suffering lying on his back, losing flesh and strength, as he knew he must until the crisis was passed, is now gaining. His fine physique and good health have borne the strain. […]"

Constantine Lippe was the son of Adolph Lippe, a prominent American homeopathic physician and teacher at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. Constantine was also a homeopathic physician and his "irregular" medical training probably influenced his decision to refuse amputation. Although surgeons were often accused of being too eager to amputate limbs, few other options were available to prevent fatal infections and repair shattered limbs. Lippe had received his leg wound at the battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. He continued to suffer from pain and ill health after the war, and his death in 1885 was judged to be a result of the war wound.

Akin's last entry is dated July 20, 1864. Few were left in her ward to bid her adieu except for Captain Lippe and Captain Newton May Brooks, who had been at the hospital since May after being severely wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania:

"July 20, 1864. The day has at last arrived to bid adieu to my ward and its absorbing duties, now realizing, reluctantly, how my life has been rounded within it for eight months. So with an inexpressible regret to leave even a few whose watchful eyes and patient smiles would bid me stay, though with an unspeakable longing for home and loved ones there, have given them my hand in good fellowship, and over a glass of native wine made my good wishes to Captain Lippe, my brave Philadelphian, and Captain Brooks of the Twelfth New Jersey Volunteers. WILL I EVER RETURN?"

I do not know if Akin ever returned to Washington, nor do I know much else about the rest of her life. She married Dr. Charles W. Stearns in 1879. He had been a surgeon in the 3rd New York Infantry, but it is doubtful their paths crossed during the war. Akin was widowed in 1887, and apparently had no children. In 1909, at age 81, she published an account of her nursing experience, "The Lady Nurse of Ward E", under her married name of Amanda Akin Stearns. She died in February 1911 and is buried with her husband in Pawling, New York, the town that includes her home at Quaker Hill.

Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. She has previously blogged about the influenza vaccine. Want to learn more about Amanda Akin? Her book "The Lady Nurse of War E" is available online. The Smithsonian Institution Archives has other interesting resources related to the Confederate attack in July 1864.


Image: The chapel for Armory Square Hospital where Akin sat with her fellow nurses on the evening of July 11th. The nurse’s quarters were just to the left of the chapel. The capitol dome can be seen in the distance.


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