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Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography

Using a photographic portrait of Jean Margaret Davenport Lander, from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point, this essay highlights the life and experiences of an individual nurse.

Jean Margaret Davenport Lander: Her Greatest Role

By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.

Jean Margaret Davenport Lander, actress and Civil War nurse.
Jean Margaret Davenport Lander, actress and Civil War nurse. Between 1860 and 1864. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division.

Jean Lander burst unannounced into a home in Union-occupied Beaufort, South Carolina. “Gentleman,” she declared to startled officers quartered there, “to-day I must remove every bedstead in the house to the hospital building.”1

Her entrance and lines were likely not as spontaneous as they may have seemed. They were probably well-rehearsed and calculated for effect, for she was a celebrated stage star known across America as Jean Davenport.

The story of how she came to Beaufort might have flowed from a playwright’s pen.

Born in England, Jean practically grew up on stage. Her father, Thomas, had set aside his legal career to become an actor and theater manager. Her mother also acted. Jean made her first appearance in a play at age eight, starring as Little Pickle in The Manager’s Daughter. The London Observer declared that she performed the part with “an archness and an intelligence far beyond her infantine years.”2

According to one account, Jean’s stage presence inspired literary master Charles Dickens. He modeled the Crummels family, an acting troupe in the classic Nicholas Nickleby, on Jean and her parents. The star of the fictional family, Ninetta Crummels, the “Infant Phenomenon,” bore a striking resemblance to Jean.3 Over the next two decades, Jean performed to packed houses in the great dramatic centers of Europe and America, winning acclaim from critics and adoration from theatergoers. In the early 1850s, she made the United States her home and continued to tour on both sides of the Atlantic. Along the way, she met a dashing engineer from Massachusetts, Frederick W. Lander, who had made a name for himself in California. During the Gold Rush years, the government hired him to survey western railroads. In the latter 1850s, he led another survey team to blaze a new route to California through Wyoming Territory. His Lander Trail became part of a national wagon road for eager settlers seeking new lives in the West. Frederick Lander’s exploits made him a celebrity on par with another popular pathfinder, John C. Frémont

Frederick West Lander, 1821-1862.

Frederick West Lander, 1821-1862. [no date recorded on caption card]. Biog File. Prints & Photographs Division.

Jean and Frederick wed in San Francisco in October 1860. “She has left the stage forever, and will hereafter reside in California. By this marriage the American stage had lost one of its finest artistes, and the public will have to wait a long time before they see her equal in certain characters,” noted one press report, which also mentioned that her acting career had earned her a fortune estimated as high as $100,000.4

Six months later came the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. The newlyweds headed back East, where Lander accepted a brigadier general’s commission and distinguished himself in early actions in western Virginia but a severe leg wound received in battle and the rigors of the campaign ended with his death from pneumonia in March 1862 at age 41. Northerners and Southerners mourned his loss. A report in the New Orleans Delta paid him a compliment, at the expense of his fellow Union generals, when it observed, “Our generals always lead their commands; theirs generally snuff the battle from afar off. Lander, however, was not one of these; he was a fighting man and an energetic officer.”5

A widow at 32, Jean devoted herself to perhaps her greatest role—the aid of Union soldiers. Getting started proved a great challenge. According to Thomas Wentworth Higginson,6 the reform-minded minister, abolitionist and soldier from Massachusetts, “She had tried to establish hospitals, but had always been met by the somewhat whimsical opposition of Miss Dorothea L. Dix, the national superintendent of nurses, a lady who had something of the habitual despotism of the saints.”7

It is easy to imagine that the stern and autocratic Dix, who preferred older and plainer-looking nurses, frowned on the independent-minded Jean’s involvement.

In December 1862, Jean finally scored a success when the federal government engaged her to serve in hospitals located in the Department of the South. She made her headquarters in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and toured various locations from the Palmetto State into Northern Florida.

Meanwhile, efforts were underway by Higginson and others to recruit a regiment of escaped slaves for military service. Their efforts were successful. The First South Carolina Infantry8 mustered into federal service in January 1863 with Higginson as colonel and commander. One of his friends, Dr. Seth Rogers, served as the regiment’s surgeon. Rogers described a dramatic encounter with Jean in an April 1863 letter home, “Mrs. General Lander drew up her splendid steed before my tent door this afternoon and assured me she would do all in her power for our General Hospital for colored soldiers, now being established in Beaufort.”9

At some point later that year, Jean occupied a small home in Beaufort and converted it into a shelter. Ironically, two of her inhabitants were Rogers and Higginson. Both officers were recuperating from illnesses when Jean barged in and demanded beds for the new building she had secured for a hospital. Higginson did not note whether or not she secured enough beds or converted the building for its intended use.10

By the middle of 1864, both officers had returned to Massachusetts. Jean also returned to the North about this time. In October 1864, she announced her intention to resume her acting career. She made her triumphant return to the stage in February 1865 as Mrs. General Lander. She continued to act until her retirement in 1877.11

Jean split her later years between residences in Washington, D.C., and Lynn, Massachusetts. Her death in 1903 at age 74 made national news. An adopted son, Charles Frederick Lander, survived her.12

Notes

  1. Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, pp. 264-265. (Return to Text)
  2. Observer (London, England), October 1, 1837. (Return to Text)
  3. Phelps, Players of a Century, p. 214. (Return to Text)
  4. Racine Daily Journal (Wisconsin), November 12, 1860. (Return to Text)
  5. This report was reprinted in the March 26, 1862, edition of a Mississippi newspaper, the Natchez Weekly Courier. (Return to Text)
  6. Harvard-educated Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) was a militant abolitionist, as evidenced by his membership in the Secret Six, or Secret Committee of Six, who funded John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Higginson started his military service in September 1862 as a captain in the 51st Massachusetts Infantry, but left after only a few months to accept the colonelcy of the First South Carolina Infantry (33rd U.S. Colored Infantry). (Return to Text)
  7. Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays, pp. 264-265. (Return to Text)
  8. The regiment was later designated the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. (Return to Text)
  9. Dr. Seth Rogers to his family, April 4, 1863. “Letters of Dr. Seth Rogers, 1862, 1863.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 43 (October 1909-June 1910), pp. 385-386. (Return to Text)
  10. Higginson left South Carolina for his home in Massachusetts about May 1864, and resigned in October of the same year. Rogers resigned his commission in late December 1863 and lived until 1893. (Return to Text)
  11. Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), October 26, 1864; Nashville Union, January 27, 1865; Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), August 30, 1903. (Return to Text)
  12. Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 3, 1903. (Return to Text)