Dr. Mary Blackmar Bruson

An Army Nurse During the Civil War

Prior to her finishing her studies at college, becoming a medical doctor and practicing at Rohnerville in 1870, Dr Mary Blackmar volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War. In this letter she tells of her experiences during the war before coming to Rohnerville. The letter does not address her residency in Rohnerville, perhaps because she left after two months, not having been accepted by the community because of her gender.

From the book: Reminiscences of An Army Nurse During the Civil War, a 1911 text authored by Adelaide W. Smith and published in New York by Greaves Publishing Company.


Jacksonville, Florida,
April, 1910

MY DEAR ADA: At your request I send some incidents of camp life as they come to mind.

After one of the fearful onslaughts at Petersburg, the wounded came pouring into my tent, which was nearest to the firing line, so that a drummer-lad had named it 'The Half Way House'. One lad dropped from the wagon in which he was being transported, as they passed my tent. I ran and cried out to the driver. He coolly replied, 'He is dead, what does it matter!'

I knelt by the boy's side and found a remote evidence of life, but hemorrhage was so profuse it seemed he could not survive. I called the attention of surgeons, but all said 'We must go on'. So with my knowledge that life was not extinct, and that he was so young and had the force of youth, (moreover the hardships of the Confederates had toughened him), I remained on the ground at his side not daring to leave him, but compelled to use my fingers as a tampon.

I remained with him twenty-four hours before I felt safe in having him carried to a ward. Cramped and exhausted from such a strain, in addition to weakness induced by loss of sleep through nights and days previous, I could hardly crawl into my tent. Being cold I heated a brick, put it in my cot and was soon so deeply sunk in oblivion, it seemed I would have remained so forever, but for my companions, Misses V. and M., who came in at midnight. Soon after they retired they discovered a dense smoke filling the tent and were aware of burning wool. They called me again and again, but getting no reply they jumped up and pulled me from the burning cot and finally roused me, so that I calmly dressed.

Morning found my limbs, from ankles to knees, one solid blister, but this I was at first too stupid to realize, or even the danger which I had escaped through my faithful friends. No one knew of the accident but ourselves, and I went about my work as usual. Nature alone was the healer.

One day I asked a poor exhausted soldier - so feeble from disease and exposure that he could only whisper - if there was anything he wished, and said that if so I would try to get it for him. With tears and sighs he replied, "0h, Miss, if you would only get me some fried bacon with molasses poured over it, I would get well!" It was a novel dish to me but was easily attained, and the man's appetite was so quickened by the relishable food that he began to recover forthwith. In later years I learned that very many looked upon it as a special delicacy.

I was finally placed in charge of the Confederate wards, and there saw that grandest of men, President Lincoln. This was after the last assault on Petersburg, and men horribly wounded and sick, from both armies, were rushed into our camp hospital at City Point. I was given especial care of the private Confederates, and my companion, that fine, grand woman, Miss Vance, took charge of the Confederate officers. I had only an orderly to assist me - a boy about sixteen, - and what with the cleaning and caring for each sick, torn body, our powers were strained to the utmost limit of endurance. Our patients' cots were so close together that we could just squeeze between, and our ward so long that it required from three to four tents.

General Grant was at City Point, and President Lincoln came down at this time (***this date would be June 21, 1864*** ed), before our army marched into Richmond. One day both of them were coming slowly down my avenue. The orderly rushed in and cried out - 'President Lincoln's coming!' I was at the extreme end of the hospital tent, but, girl-like, started forward that I might see him. At that instant, oh, such a puny, helpless wail, as of sick and dying infants, issued from every throat: 'Oh, don't leave us, Miss! He is a beast! He will kill us!'

I replied: 'Oh, no! He is a grand good man!' Again and again came forth that puny wail, 'Don't leave us, Miss!' till I finally said, 'Well, I'll not leave you, don't fear!' but by that time I had got to the front of the tent and the orderly had pulled back a flap on my request so that I peered out. Within about fifteen or twenty feet were both men. General Grant with the inevitable cigar, and President Lincoln, so tall, so lank, giving evidence of much sorrow, looming over him. I heard General Grant say distinctly, 'These are the Confederate quarters'. President Lincoln immediately said, 'I wish to go in here alone!'

I drew myself up into the corner as close as possible, and he bent under the open flap and came in. He went at once to a bedside, and reverently leaned over almost double so low were the cots, and stroked the soldier's head, and with tears streaming down his face he said in a sort of sweet anguish, "Oh, my man, why did you do it?" The boy in gray said, or rather stammered weakly, almost in a whisper, 'I went because my State went'. On that ground floor, so quiet was the whole ward, a pin could almost have been heard to fall. President Lincoln went from one bedside to another and touched each forehead gently, and with tears streaming asked again the question, and again heard the same reply. When he finally passed out from those boys, some grey and grizzled, but many of them children, there came as from one voice, 'Oh, we didn't know he was such a good man! We thought he was a beast!'

At the close of hostilities, I, with many others, went with the army to Richmond and Washington, and there saw the final parade of 60,000 troops before the White House. I afterward returned to my college and hospital and completed my studies, and since then have led a strenuous life as a practicing physician in Florida.

As ever,
Your old Comrade,




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