A poem honoring the service of the army nurse during the Civil War claims that “she fought the hardest fight … alone, to the sound of dying groan, the sob of failing breath, the reveille of death.” An estimated 3,000 American women served as volunteer military nurses during the Civil War (not including the uncounted thousands who served outside the formal system).
Dorothea Dix, superintendent of nurses in the Army Medical Bureau, specified that nurses be “plain looking” and “middle-aged” (interpreted as over 30) and married – the idea of pretty, young, or unmarried women being subjected to the sights of a hospital ward or flirting with convalescents appalled her.
Some determined women, however, like Mary Roby of Ohio – 17 years old, a bride, and unmistakably pretty even in old age – managed to join the nursing ranks despite the rules. Mary had received word in 1861 that her husband John was lying ill in a Pennsylvania military hospital. She nursed him, won admission to the nurses’ corps in May 1861 and served until the end of the war in 1865.
Amanda Ross Ramsey was another young woman who served despite her youth. From Indiana, Amanda was 22 when she married George Ramsey, a soldier, and followed him into the service. Judging from her daughter’s beauty, Amanda would not have satisfied Superintendent Dix’s demand for plain looks, either.
In 1881, at a time when Americans were joining fraternal and patriotic associations of all kinds, a few of the surviving army nurses formed the Ex-Army Nurses’ Association, which adopted the more pleasant sounding name National Association of Army Nurses (NAAN) in 1881. They elected Dorothea Dix, their old superintendent, as their first president. She served until her 1887 death.
Besides the pride of recognition and the camaraderie of association, the NAAN provided concrete benefits to its members. Women who could prove their wartime service were entitled to small pensions and the right to be buried in military cemeteries with the same honors as male soldiers.
In the 1890s, the twice widowed Mary Roby Lacey and Amanda Ross Ramsey came to Utah and settled in Salt Lake City. Their reminiscences of wartime services were in great demand in Utah, especially in 1909 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the national association for veterans of the Civil War, held their grand encampment in Salt Lake City.
Mary told about serving on the battlefield at Antietam, and how Clara Barton had come to superintend the nurses’ work there. “She is a good woman, but at the same time it is very hard to get along with her.” She also recalled visits by Abraham Lincoln. “I remember how Lincoln would come to our ward, and bending over the cots where the wounded soldiers lay, would speak words of encouragement. And how they loved that great man.”
Amanda told of the patriotic activities of Noblesville, Indiana, early in the war. She, with the other young ladies, wanted to present their local boys with a unique flag made by their own hands. “The flag was most gallantly accepted by the officers and the boys,” she said. But after the troops had gone, they returned the flag with its red, white and blue stripes and asked that it be remade in the standard pattern.
Two of Amanda’s children made enormous contributions to Utah culture. Daughter Emma Ramsey Morris was a professional soprano, and son Lewis A. Ramsey was the artist whose paintings popularized Bryce Canyon as a western beauty spot. Amanda died just before the 1909 encampment.
Mary Lacey attended the 1909 encampment, hosting the two dozen or so old nurses who were able to attend. At the close of their meetings, she was elected president of the National Association of Army Nurses, serving for four years. She died in 1916.
Utah has few direct associations with the Civil War, but we can claim these two notable women as our own.