A Dame to Remember

A walk through the NH Statehouse is a good way to absorb a little of the state’s political DNA, but it might leave you convinced that we are all descended from old, bearded white guys.

The portrait gallery that fills the walls of the Statehouse features an array of painting styles and subjects from many walks of life dating from recent years to the birth of the nation, but it is largely a bunch of grizzled dudes looking serious. Still, speaking as an old, bearded white guy, I can assure you there are plenty of lessons you can learn from a Statehouse tour.

One is that history doesn’t maintain itself. For all the concern for our historic treasures, the “Hall of Flags” that greets Statehouse visitors is in sad condition. It includes 115 bloodstained and battle-scarred flags, including 88 from the Civil War — all visibly deteriorating.

Fortunately, the hall is at the top of the NH Preservation Alliance’s “Seven to Save” list of endangered state properties. For years, the State Liquor Commission has provided a  painless (or even pain-killing) way to assist, selling commemorative bottles of liquor with proceeds going to the preservation effort. The latest bottle in the series is decorated to look like a small section of the Hall of Flags, and it’s filled with good American whiskey — unlike earlier commemorative bottles containing vodka(!).

It’s been a while since I had a chance to wander around the Statehouse. It’s amazingly wanderable as a museum, and I was reminded what an enlightening resource it is while working on this month’s feature about women and power, “Persistence” (page 48). Since women could not even vote until 1920 (the year my dad was born), it’s really no surprise that dudes dominate the portrait gallery, but I was surprised by one of the rare women I found hung in a place of honor in those halls.

Harriet Patience Dame was born in North Barnstead in 1815. During the Civil War, she joined the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers as a unit nurse and “hospital matron.”

She appears formidable in her portrait, though a closer look reveals a sparkle and just a hint of a smile. It gives me the impression she had a good sense of humor. If so, she needed it. The plaque by her portrait explains that her regiment marched more than 6,000 miles, fought in 20 pitched battles (including Fredricksburg and Bull Run) and lost more than 1,000 of the 3,000 men assigned to it.

“Dame’s fame as a nurse spread far and wide,” reads her plaque. “She declined offers of higher office to recruit more nurses for combat, twice captured, she was twice released with apologies and high praise by her captors.”

According to historian Janice Brown, who writes the excellent Cow Hampshire blog (cowhampshireblog.com), she nursed soldiers through smallpox and worked all night treating the wounded and burying the dead, all for her army salary of $6 a month. She endured all the privations of the troops, often as the only woman among them. The colonel of the 2nd Regiment, Gen. Gilman Marston, said, “Wherever the regiment went, she went, often going on foot, and sometimes camping on the field without a tent. … She was truly an angel of mercy, the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a battery without flinching.”

The nurses singled out for excellence in this issue (page 66) may not be battle-tested as was Harriet Dame, but they carry her spirit with them.

Next time anyone needs a little inspiration to face the struggles of this world, I recommend a stroll around the Statehouse portrait gallery. And then, maybe, raise a glass of good American whiskey (or your own favorite libation) to those who made our past, those who preserve it and those still working on our future.

Categories: Editor’s Note