A Civil War Nurse

While often paired up for lists of oxymorons, the words “civil” and “war” combine without irony in one arena of the bloody War Between the States: hospitals, where nurses healed all the wounded with courtesy and kindness.

Speaking as someone with a number of nurses in my family (two of whom have worked in pediatric ICU for decades), I have nothing but respect for these warm souls that minister to us at the most vulnerable and uncertain moments of life.

So it was with some personal joy last year that we decided to add the nursing profession to those we honor in our pages with a list of best practitioners. Working with the New Hampshire Nurses Association on the process of selection (and the plans for an awards party) was so easy and seamless it was a reminder that these are people whose gift in life is getting things done for the good of all in any circumstance.

While working on the profiles for this year’s group of most excellent nurses, I encountered the story of one nurse from New Hampshire whose story is well worth sharing — nurse Sarah Low of Dover.

I discovered her, as I have discovered so many fascinating things during my life, by reading a comic book.

Our Informer section this month (page 26) opens with a story about Marek Bennett, a multitalented guy from Henniker who performs in a Civil War reenactment band called The Hardtacks and is working on the second book of cartoon stories based upon the Civil War diaries and letters of a teacher from Henniker named Freeman Colby.

Bennett was finding plenty of material from Colby’s correspondence, but his discovery of Sarah Low opened up a whole new vista of the war. Low’s many letters and writings illuminate the perspective of a war nurse, coping with the aftermath of battle, dressing ghastly wounds and providing comfort to soldiers in a variety of difficult circumstances.

You can see Bennett’s sketches of hospital scenes with Sarah Low on the Informer spread, and there’s an excellent description of her service as a war nurse on the Dover Public Library website. Here’s an excerpt:
“Sarah Low’s entire life was beautiful and unselfish, wholly spent in the care for others. And so it was not surprising that at the outbreak of the War Between the States Sarah Low was eager to be of service to the battle wounded men. Her family did not approve of her leaving Dover to undertake such a mission … Sarah Low was very petite and seemed hardly capable of physically coping with the rigorous services which she was to perform.”

Nonetheless, on the morning of September 10, 1862, she boarded a train to the Philadelphia war hospital just as a train arrived from Baltimore with many wounded soldiers on it.

Low soon learned that, closer to battle, the wounded were often transported by “corduroy roads” paved with fallen trees, creating a lurching, bumpy ride for bleeding men with missing limbs and improvised tourniquets. Low termed the suffering as “indescribable.”

She also offered telling insights: “Attending to the wounds is only one part of a nurse’s duty, but it is the pleasantest part. Seeing that the ward is kept neat and that the incompetent attendants do their duty is the wearing part.”

The nurses in this issue are not dealing daily with fog of war or the gangrenous horrors of battlefield wounds, but they must contend with the stresses of a largely uncivil war over the funding of healthcare. They and their colleagues must deal with the unique mortifications of the flesh that our decade has wrought: the opioid crisis, the epidemic of mental health challenges, and knowledge that the bloody specter of battle now sometimes makes tiny, tragic war zones out of places once assumed to be the safest of all, our schools, places of worship and entertainment venues.

It’s to their courage, tenacity and willingness to offer selfless care for all who suffer on any side of a conflict that we dedicate this issue.

Categories: Editor’s Note