Part I: "The Lady Nurse of Ward E" watches the Civil War come to Washington, D.C.

With Confederate troops looming just outside of Washington, D.C., July 1864 was an exciting and scary time to be a nurse in the city. Curator Diane Wendt shares what those daring days were like 150 years ago through the matter-of-fact diary entries of nurse Amanda Akin.

While nurse Amanda Akin's diary is more cursory than poetic, I was drawn to her account because of the proximity of her hospital to the Smithsonian, and because we share, albeit 150 years apart, this common ground. Her original diary is in the collections of the National Library of Medicine and was the centerpiece of a small exhibition I curated a few years ago.

Amanda Akin had this photograph made in April 1863, just before leaving her home in Quaker Hill, New York, to travel to Washington, D.C. OB1180
Amanda Akin had this photograph made in April 1863, just before leaving her home in Quaker Hill, New York, to travel to Washington, D.C.

Akin left home to work at Washington's Armory Square Hospital at age 35 and began work in April 1863. By July 1864, she was preparing to end her nursing service and return home to Quaker Hill, New York. We pick up her story on the morning of July 9, when she first heard word of the Confederate advance on Washington:

July 9, 1864. Spent morning in ward framing and changing some of the pictures, etc. Received exciting news of another raid into Maryland. An order came to have every man able to carry a musket ready to leave tomorrow. […] Sang in Miss Merrill's ward my new song, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and tried duets with her; then went to my ward and repeated it. The general ward master came in and brought a tenor, and we had quite a musicale.

In order to strengthen the defenses of the city, all able-bodied men were called to duty, including many of the hospitals assistants and clerks—even any patients well enough to serve. Perhaps the excitement of the call to arms inspired Akin to try out her "new song" during the evening entertainment. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," one of the most enduring Civil War tunes, was first published in 1863, and became popular in both the North and South.

Cover of sheet music for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” words and music by “Louis Lambert” (Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore), Boston: Henry Tolman & Co., 1863-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_21566
Cover of sheet music for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Words and music by "Louis Lambert" (Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore), Boston: Henry Tolman & Co., 1863.

July 11, 1864. Began my packing. Another order for men from the hospital. Found only the ward master, with ward attendants—two for the dining room and bathroom. Johnny Hegeman, my orderly, volunteered, as the orderlies were to be exempt for the present.

Armory Square Hospital had ten wards and usually one female nurse assigned to each. Akin was assigned to "Ward E." Convalescing and disabled soldiers were put to work as orderlies and ward attendants. Johnny Hegeman was serving as Akin's primary assistant—her orderly—when the call to arms came. He had joined the military service underage, but had come down with fever and landed at the hospital before his regiment reached the front. New recruits were particularly susceptible to infectious diseases including typhoid, measles, and smallpox. One can imagine that Johnny Hegeman was excited to finally have the chance to see "action."

The rebels are skirmishing before Fort Stevens, formerly Fort Massachusetts, only five miles from the city. Baltimore is in great excitement. General Lew Wallace was in command, and the fighting going on all day Saturday, but our men were obliged to fall back, as the enemy was superior in numbers. […]

"A Ward in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-33750 (digital file from original item) LC-USZC4-7976 (color film copy transparency) LC-USZC6-45 (color film copy transparency) LC-B8184-B198 (b&w film copy neg.)
A hopsital ward in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Confederates under General Jubal Early approached Washington from the northwest. Two days before reaching Fort Stevens, they encountered General Lewis (Lew) Wallace's troops at the Battle of the Monocacy, not far from Frederick, Maryland. Although the Union was defeated, the battle slowed the Confederate advance on the city and allowed Union reinforcements time to reach Washington from the south. Wallace had borne much of the blame for Union losses at Shiloh in 1862, and his actions at Monocacy, dubbed "The Battle that Saved Washington," helped restore his reputation.

[…] After "Taps" sat on the chapel steps with Sisters Merrill and McClellan, in the moonlight. Our nerves were too over-wrought for us to separate, and we were wondering what news the morning would bring. As we were returning we were called out again to hear the band from the Sixth Corps, which passed here to-day on a forced march and returned to treat us, playing most beautiful music for a half hour. Part of the Nineteenth Corps, from New Orleans, also passed; in fact all day troops have been hurriedly massing to protect Washington.

Print of an 1864 wood engraving of the "scene of the fight in frton of Fort Stevens, July 12 and 13" by artist E.F. Mullen. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-138377.
Print of an 1864 wood engraving of the "scene of the fight in front of Fort Stevens, July 12 and 13" by artist E.F. Mullen. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Confederates reached Fort Stevens on the outskirts of the city on July 11th. The fort was located north of the city on the 7th Street Pike [Georgia Avenue], the major north-south route through the city. Armory Square Hospital also sat on 7th Street, and Akin witnessed the passing of the Union reinforcements as they arrived at the Sixth Street docks to the south and marched north through the city to reach the fort. Akin’s nervousness on the evening of July 11 was indicative of the atmosphere throughout the city, as an anxious population awaited the outcome of the confrontation at the north edge of town.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I'll continue Amanda's story. 

Diane Wendt is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History. She has previously blogged about what it was like to survive rabies 100 years ago

Posted at 12:05 pm EDT in Civil War 150

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