Vermont Women Go to War as Nurses
August 12, 1861. As sons, husbands, and brothers headed off to war in the summer of 1861, some of their mothers, wives, and sisters yearned to go with them. Young women could not volunteer as nurses with the Sanitary Commission because its head, Dorothea Dix, would not accept women younger than 35. And so in Jamaica, Vermont, Estelle Johnson (age 20) and her husband’s sister, Lydia Wood (age 25), simply volunteered to go with the regiment.
“One day in early August, 1861,” Estelle wrote in a memoir thirty years later, “Leonard Stearns came in search of recruits. My husband and his brother-in-law were among those who enlisted, and [my husband’s] sister and I objected, naturally; telling the recruiting officer that if our husbands went we should go too, but not thinking that such a thing could be. . . . In the course of a week Mr. Stearns came and told us that the colonel said that although nurses had not been called for, he wanted us to go.”
The two husbands were assigned to the Fourth Vermont Regiment, Company I, and in September, Estelle and Lydia signed their names to the company roster and were sworn in, in the presence of several officers and the governor of Vermont, to serve in the capacity of nurses to the regiment.
They travelled with the troops by train to Washington. Their unit was posted first near Washington and then in northern Virginia, to help defend the capital against a possible invasion. Estelle had left a daughter at home who turned one year old the day Estelle began living in a tent. When their camp was shelled, the captain wanted the women moved farther away, but Estelle told him that if he thought they “would run at the first fire, he was greatly mistaken.”
At first, most of the nursing consisted of caring for men suffering from typhoid and measles. Estelle’s husband was stricken, but survived. Lydia was not so fortunate; she contracted typhoid and died nine days later. The men of Company I, not wanting Lydia to be buried in Virginia, took up a collection and had her body embalmed and returned to Vermont for burial.
By March, Estelle’s husband would be discharged because he was no longer able to march, and the two of them returned home in early April 1862.
Other nurses stayed with the Vermont troops much longer and cared for countless men wounded in battle. Amanda Colburn Farnham, who enlisted in July 1861 as a member of the 3rd Vermont Regiment, would move from one unit to another, staying in the field four years, including serving during the Peninsula Campaign and on the battlefield at Gettysburg.
— Submitted by Carrie Brown, Ph.D., Etna, New Hampshire
Mary A. Gardner Holland, Our Army Nurses (Boston: B. Wilkins & Co., 1895)
Vermont Soldiers Reenlist
August 25, 1861. The Vermont soldiers who enlisted for ninety days in response to Lincoln’s April 14 call for 75,000 soldiers were mustered out. Six hundred of the 753 members of the 1st Vermont Regiment re-enlisted for three years.