'Unsung heroines' offered care, compassion after Battle of Antietam

September 12, 2012|By JANET HEIM |
  • Susan Rosenvold stands at the Clara Barton memorial at Antietam National Battlefield while talking about the efforts of Clara Barton and other women to provide care for the wounded and dying during the Civil War. Rosenvold is superintendent of Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office, a satellite of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG — 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

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, 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

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.

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