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Civil War Nurse, Civil War Nursing: Rebecca Usher of Maine

From: Civil War History
Volume 41, Number 3, September 1995
pp. 190-207 | 10.1353/cwh.1995.0039

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Civil War Nurse, Civil War Nursing:
Rebecca Usher of Maine
Elizabeth D. Leonard

Elizabeth D. Leonard, assistant professor of nineteenth-century U.S. and women's history at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is the author of Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (1994).


1. Frank Moore to Rebecca Usher, Mar. 31, 1866, Rebecca Usher Papers, Collection 9, Maine Historical Society, Portland. Unless noted otherwise, all of Rebecca Usher's correspondence is found in these Papers. I hereby acknowledge with much gratitude the assistance I received from various librarians at the Maine Historical Society during my time of research there. I particularly would like to recognize Nicholas Noyes for his help.

2. Frank Moore to Rebecca Usher, Apr. 13, 1866; Frank Moore, Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice (Hartford, Conn.: S. S. Scranton and Co., 1866), 453-64. Linus Brockett and Mary Vaughan, authors of a second massive commemorative of Northern women in the Civil War, also included Usher in their work, although they did not devote an entire chapter to her. See Linus P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy and Co., 1867), 456, 461-63.

3. In handwriting that bespeaks mature years, Usher on at least one occasion drew up two separate lists of what appear to be chapter titles, one list for her time in Chester, the other for City Point. Usher Papers. Rebecca Usher to William Lochran, Feb. 16, 1894, Rebecca Usher Pension File, no. 1132097, RG 15, National Archives. I am extremely grateful to Prof. Jane E. Schultz of Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis for sharing her photocopies of the material from Usher's pension file with me. This is material to which I otherwise would not have had access at the time this paper was being prepared. I am also grateful to Professor Schultz for her preliminary reading of this article in manuscript.

4. Martha Usher [Osgood] to Rebecca Usher, Dec. 26, 1840. That she did not marry does not necessarily indicate that she had no suitors. Indeed, among the letters she received at the convent was one from a George Woodman (Mar. 27, 1841), which addressed her as "Dear Friend" and bore evidence of considerable affection for her. And there are other suggestive references to George Woodman in Usher's correspondence with "Mattie." See Rebecca Usher to Martha [Usher] Osgood, undated letter. That Usher did not marry later in her life is also made clear by the fact that when she applied to the United States government for a nurse's pension in the 1890s, she (and others writing for her) used her maiden name. See Usher Pension File.

5. The Union army had named well-known reformer Dorothea L. Dix its "Superintendent of Women Nurses" in June 1861, her commission delegating to her the responsibility "to select and assign women nurses to general or permanent military hospitals, they not to be employed in such hospitals without her sanction and approval, except in cases of urgent need." Helen Marshall, Dorothea Dix: Forgotten Samaritan (1937; reprint, Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1967), 202. Dix's appointment does not seem to have been followed by either a rapid dissemination of material informing prospective female nurses about the opportunity for service under her direction or an enthusiastic embrace by male medical personnel of the idea of women serving in a nursing capacity in Civil War hospitals. I have written about these issues elsewhere: see my Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), chap. 1. Only the growing knowledge of the war's inevitable (if unanticipated) bloodshed drew large numbers of women into the nursing service and compelled their acceptance. A. F. Quinby to Rebecca Usher, Oct. 17, 1862, Usher Papers. Rebecca Usher to William Lochran, Feb. 16, 1894, Usher Pension File. This list differs somewhat from the list given in a letter Usher wrote early in her stay at Chester, indicating either a lapse of memory by 1894 or, more likely, some turnover in the female nursing staff at the hospital...