Did you know… the Woolsey Sisters?

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During the early part of the Civil War, the Union was more particular about their nurses, and preferred males. After the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), they began taking almost anyone willing to work.

Many society women on both sides looked for ways to help. Jane Newton Woolsey had eight children. Her husband, Charles William Woolsey died young, at thirty-seven, in the Lexington steamship disaster. Charles was a wealthy industrialist, and left his family well situated.

When the war broke out, Mrs. Woolsey rallied her family, doing whatever she could to support the Union and the cause of abolition. Three of her seven daughters became nurses. Eliza was born in 1826, Abby July 16, 1828, and Georganna Nov 5, 1833 in Brooklyn, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, USA.

At first, they stayed in New York and made supplies for the Union army. Georgeanna became one of the first accepted into the Sanitary Commission by Dorothea Dix. Her sister Eliza received nurse training, and served until her husband was wounded while serving in the Army of the Potomac, and mustered out.

When Georgeanna and Jane arrived at the Alexandria military hospital, the conditions were terrible. Beds consisted of planks with men stacked six wide. Sanitation was non-existent, and even the stairs didn’t work well – a pulley system was used to raise and lower both men and food to upper stories. Their chief duty was to apply and change bandages, serve food according to dietary rules and needs, jockey bedpans, and generally provide such emotional comfort and sympathy as they could manage. They were paid twelve dollars each month, which both sisters used to buy supplies for the hospital.

Later Georgeanna moved to the battlefields, including Gettysburg. When interviewed, Miss Woolsey responded, “We women cannot fight, but we can do our best to support our soldiers. I was a hospital nurse last year, and, oh, how desperately our brave soldiers need good care and supplies.” She looked sadly at the open tents where the suffering men lay, then glanced back to the work at hand. “You must excuse me. I’ve work to finish…”  ~ Blue, Gray & Crimson

At Gettysburg, they oversaw a Sanitary Commission camp at the railway. They oversaw pitching tents, getting food, making sure the wounded made it to the outgoing trains, and aided the harried physicians with emergency care. They held the hands of the dying, promised to write to sweethearts and wives, and offered a sympathetic face to those who suffered in agony.

The Woolsey sisters worked tirelessly for the comfort of the soldiers, both blue and gray. When passing the bed of a wounded Confederate, Georgeanna records, “He may be an enemy, yet he is a suffering human being. I cannot just let him die.” She was concerned for the physical and spiritual well being of the men. When commanders ignored her pleas for more chaplains, she wrote and hand delivered a letter to Abraham Lincoln requesting more chaplains in the wards. Lincoln immediately assigned seven new chaplains.

Jane wrote an extensive memoir called “Hospital Days” published in the 1880s, based on the notebooks that she and Georgeanna always carried. There was also a great deal of correspondence between the sisters, but letters after 1862 were lost to fire.

After the war, Georgeanna became the director for the Connecticut School for Nurses in New Haven. She died on January 27, 1906, in New Haven. Her sister Eliza died in Newport, R.I. in 1917. Abby died on April 7, 1893.

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