I’ve been going deep in the weeds in research for the current work in progress, the long-put-aside Civil War novel, concerning the experiences of a spinster of independent means, who is active as an abolitionist lecturer in the 1840-1850 time frame, and a battlefield nurse during the war years. Frankly, the research is fascinating in and of itself; the matter of the existence of slavery in the United States was a contentious and hard-fought-over issue in the antebellum years. It’s been quite the antidote to the current 1619 historical fantasy, reading through memoirs and accounts of and by notable abolitionist crusaders of the time. Not only did the existence of the ‘peculiar institution’ in the pre-war South retard economic progress there (as industry and immigration favored the North) but the fight against it was sustained and uncompromising. The first half of the book is just about complete – it’s the second half, concerning the war and most particularly the operation of field hospitals that has me deep in another field of weeds now, discovering some extraordinary stories and some extraordinary women.
One of the reasons that I love writing historical fiction – I very rarely need to create anything of whole cloth and imagination; generally, the honest-n-truth version of events often surpasses anything I could possibly make up. So it is with the epic of a little-recalled national volunteer relief organization called, most prosaically, the United States Sanitary Commission, which mobilized women for the war effort to an extraordinary degree – as nurses, administrators, counselors and organizers of countless benefits to raise funds for military support, the care and healing of the wounded, and later, for the welfare of veterans.
The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corps. Hospitals at various forts and camps were minimal, usually no more than thirty or forty beds. There was no large centralized military general hospital; medical care of the sick or injured normally fell to orderlies or those soldiers who themselves were convalescent. All of that went out the window when recruiting surged, upon secession of Confederate states and the fall of Fort Sumter. Almost the moment that the newly-formed companies and regiments marched away, the wives, sisters and mothers of those new soldiers went home and ransacked their cupboards and pantries for home comforts – food, clothing, blankets, bits of this or that, writing materials, bandages and medicines for the lads recruited for a regional unit. Some of these first efforts were either ridiculously useless or went astray in transit – inexpertly canned items rotted, jars broke, and the contents of such ruined whatever else they had been packed with. It was all a muddle, at first – but in the middle of June, 1861 Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission, and it took off with a roar, mostly because many smaller regional and local relief groups eagerly joined their considerable efforts to the national Commission.
Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war, and those accounts make for stirring reading. (There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period, and many of the best-known women campaigners were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends and associates.)
One of the best and most readable accounts that I am exploring was by Mary Ashton Livermore, who also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist husband owned. Mary Livermore was co-head of the Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission and penned a particularly vivid description of what a day at work at “the office” involved – the sounds, the bustle of draymen delivering and dispatching boxes, the sights, the and the smells. (An account almost unique for a lack of florid Victorian purple prose, thickets of which must be metaphorically hacked through in other contemporary accounts.) Donations and items of all sorts arrived from all over the state and the mid-west, to be unpacked, sorted, inventoried, re-packed according to commodity, and sent out to those hospitals which had urgently requested them. That was on the first floor of the building housing the Chicago branch -the second floor was given over to sewing machines and volunteer seamstresses producing shirts, necessary linens, and hospital garments. The Commission office also served as a communications hub – for families wanting news of their soldiers, and for dispatching parties of nurses to hospitals where they were needed – especially following on a battle or a military advance.
One of those notable nurses was the formidable widow Mary Jane Bickerdyke. A curious thing that perhaps we do not consider today was how large a porportion of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid. Mary Bickerdyke had cared for her invalid husband for years before he passed away. It must have been much the same for other women volunteer nurses – they had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of any formal medical training as such. And so, they followed the armies, to tend their boys, their sons and brothers.
(To be continued – the adventures of Mary Jane Bickerdyke in the Union Army of the West. The story is that one of General Grant’s juniors fumed to the General about ‘that damned bossy woman, and couldn’t the General do something about her?’ To which General Grant is supposed to have replied long the lines of, ‘I can’t – she ranks me.)