While Clara Barton’s care of the wounded and dying during the Civil War is the stuff of legend, it took the hands of just about every area woman and girl over the age of 13 to tend to the thousands of patients from the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam, according to Susan Rosenvold, superintendent of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office.
The efforts, from the Hagerstown-based Ladies Aid Society to local families whose homes were forcibly converted to hospitals, helped save lives and offered compassion and care both to those who would live and to the dying, Rosenvold said. The Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office is a satellite of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.
The North’s two predominant civilian aid organizations, the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission, headquartered at the Susan Hoffman farm, were vital in obtaining and distributing supplies after the Battle of Antietam, according to www.historynet.com.
In military hospitals, nurses’ duties were mainly domestic in nature. They distributed linens, clothing and other supplies, and helped prepare and serve meals, based on doctors’ dietary recommendations.
They also provided emotional support by talking to, reading to and writing for injured soldiers. Rarely would they assist in surgeries.
Those who helped, by choice or not, put themselves at risk of death by disease or weapons. Typhoid fever, smallpox, measles, mumps and dysentery were rampant, because of unhygienic conditions.
“Two-thirds of those who died during the Civil War died of camp disease, not battle wounds,” Rosenvold said.
Although there are no concrete figures, some historians estimate that as many as 10,000 women, many of them volunteers, nursed the fallen during the Civil War.
While other women volunteers did not receive the media attention and accolades Barton did, not all their efforts went unmentioned.
According to www.historynet.com, the Baltimore American praised Mrs. Susan Harry and the Hagerstown-based Ladies Aid Society as they repeatedly “assembled at different houses, sewed bandages, scraped lint and made up such things as would relieve the sufferers, and from sun-up to sun-down. You could find them in every nook of the town, and through the country, searching for, begging and buying such articles as the sufferers might ask for or want. At morning, noon, and evening, you would see these ladies, accompanied by their husbands, children and servants, with baskets, buckets, pitchers and plates in their hands winding their way to the hospitals.”
Some who were mentioned
Other care providers at Antietam included Lizzie Brown; Mrs. C. Evans; Mrs. Holihan; Mrs. Cadwalader; A. Anna Edmunds; Helen Gilson and Mrs. Gray, both at the Hoffman farm; Mrs. Mary Lee, who worked at several locations; and Ophelia Gehrt, who worked at a field hospital for the 33rd New York Volunteers on the Susan Hoffman farm.
At the Smoketown Hospital, Maria Hall, Mrs. Francis Barlow, Mrs. Mary Morris Husbands, Mrs. John Harris, Mrs. Howard Kennedy and Miss Tyson complemented the staff of surgeon Bernard Vanderkrieft, according to www.historynet.com.
Rosenvold said Mrs. Elizabeth Pry cared for at least two officers as patients in her home and cooked for many. Only high-level officers, such as Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and Maj. Gen. Israel Richardson, and their staffs were treated in the house.
The Pry barn served as a larger field hospital for enlisted men and served more than 400, primarily Richardson’s troops.
Elizabeth and Philip Pry had six children at the time of the battle. Richardson died in their house, in what Rosenvold believes was the children’s room, which covered the length of the upstairs portion of the house. It was used as a storeroom afterward, because the children refused to go into that room after his death.
Food and bandages
Rosenvold said there were many civilians in the area, and some found “you were pressed into service and expected to help.”
Others chose to help.
Kathleen A. Ernst’s book “Too Afraid to Cry — Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign” recounts how on the day after the battle, Union soldiers tending the wounded and burying the dead were astonished by how quickly visitors arrived on the field for sightseeing and relic-hunting.
“But many of the newcomers were volunteers, wanting to provide aid,” Ernst wrote. “In Hagerstown, members of the Ladies’ Union Relief Association collected supplies, ripped heirloom linen tablecloths into bandages, and sent well-laden nurses to Sharpsburg. Miss Mollie Magill, daughter of a Hagerstown physician, provided such tender care in Sharpsburg hospitals that the men called her “the Angel of the Confederacy.”
In Funkstown, Angela Davis and her husband organized a bipartisan relief effort, letting neighbors know they would transport to the field anything brought to their home by 9 a.m.
“So we sat up most of the night, killing and cooking chickens,” Angela wrote, “and the next morning our dining room, kitchen, and wash house were all filled with jars or crocks of mashed potatoes, fried ham, chicken and beef sandwiches, and in fact everything that was available in a small country town.”
Local historian John Schildt of Sharpsburg said in a phone interview that several diaries of Massachusetts soldiers referred to the fresh garden produce, including tomatoes, brought by a Mrs. Lee, a frequent visitor to the Hoffman Farm on Keedysville-Hagerstown Road.
Jacob Lair of the 20th New York lost an arm during the battle and was taken to the Hoffman farm. For the next several weeks, he lay among the wounded and dying in their barn, his days brightened only by “the good ladies of the Hoffman family, bringing fruits, cake, pies, etc. to the wounded,” based on an account in “Too Afraid to Cry.”
The largest field hospital was at Smoketown, a tiny settlement consisting of “three small houses and a pig pen” north of Sharpsburg. There, more than 600 men were cared for in tents, Ernst’s book relates. Mrs. Kennedy of Hagerstown was among the women who organized relief efforts for the Smoketown hospital, which was about two miles north-northeast of Dunker Church.
In addition to the regular nurses, there were three women identified at Smoketown Hospital for their “self-sacrificing benevolence” — Mrs. Husbands, Mrs. Lee and Miss Hall.
The Smoketown hospital, which had patients until May 1863, was the last Antietam hospital to close, Rosenvold said.
“Many women on the farms were the unsung heroines,” Schildt said.
They included some who provided care at the German Reformed Church in Sharpsburg, now the United Church of Christ, which served as a hospital for the 16th Connecticut regiment.
Schildt recalled a story of how Elizabeth Pry was to have prepared breakfast for President Lincoln on Oct. 4, 1862, before he took the train back to Washington, D.C. He had been visiting Gen. Israel B. Richardson, who was still a patient at the Pry hospital and died in November 1862.
Mrs. Pry received a thank-you note from President Lincoln, which was packed among the family’s possessions as they moved their belongings to Tennessee, their Sharpsburg farm so devastated by the Battle of Antietam that they decided to start over.
Pry family tradition has it that there was a wagon accident and the trunk containing their important documents, including the letter, fell out and the wind carried away some of the papers.
Ernst recounts in her book how Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the 20th Massachusetts had been shot in the neck and left for dead among the corpses in the West Woods. A friend found him, bandaged the wound and sent a telegram to Holmes’ father in Boston.
Holmes was tended in a little white-washed log cabin in Keedysville by Margaret Kitzmiller and her daughters before being sent on to Hagerstown. Anna Kennedy saw him stumbling toward the train station, sent one of her sons to bring the captain inside and nursed him there for several weeks.
As time went on after the battle, concerned family members began streaming in to the area. Ernst wrote that “countless Sharpsburg women opened their homes to the desperate people searching for their loved ones — feeding them, taking them to hospitals, comforting them in their grief, making arrangements for coffins and transport. Their own losses — of crops and horses and clothes and potatoes — sometimes dulled in comparison.”
The nights grew colder as autumn set in, with disease swelling the number of patients needing care. At one farm north of Sharpsburg, 60 sick and wounded soldiers tried to stay warm in the barn.
According to Ernst’s book, when the farm wife became ill, it became the young daughter’s responsibility to feed the surgeons staying there and to tend to other domestic needs. The girl’s father, who had some medical training, administered quinine and whiskey to the patients.
When he, too, got sick, the daughter took up that duty, eventually contracting typhoid fever herself.