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

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

Mary Ann E. Keen: A Soldier in the Army of Nurses

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

Nurse Mary A.E. Keen of Seminary Hospital, Washington, D.C., and Chesapeake Hospital, Fort Monroe, Virginia. ca. 1862. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division.
Nurse Mary A.E. Keen of Seminary Hospital, Washington, D.C., and Chesapeake Hospital, Fort Monroe, Virginia. ca. 1862. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division.

A Union private passed around the portrait of a young woman with more than a little pride. “In showing it to my comrades it has been my boast that it was the picture of my sister who has been a soldier as long as I have,” he wrote during the war.1

The private, farmhand Thomas E. Keen2 of the First Nebraska Infantry, initially had no plans to join the army. But the combination of a lackluster crop and a call to arms from the territory’s governor prompted his enlistment on July 3, 1861.

A few weeks later and 900 miles east in his native state of Pennsylvania, Thomas’s older sister Mary Ann, 25, joined the army of nurses. She had been living in Pittsburgh with her parents, Lewis and Susannah, when the war began. Though her exact motivation for enlisting is not known, evidence suggests that neither she nor her brother was aware of the other’s decision to serve.

On July 23, 1861, Mary Ann reported for duty at Seminary Hospital in Georgetown in the District of Columbia. She remained on duty there for the next two-and-a-half years, tending to patients wounded during the fighting of many of the major battles fought in the East. During this time, she kept up a lively correspondence with her brother. Some of his letters to Mary Ann have survived, and they reveal her concerns for his welfare as he and his comrades garrisoned various outposts in southern Missouri and eastern Arkansas.

In August 1862, Thomas wrote from camp near Helena, Arkansas, “I heartily reiterate your wish of being close enough to you so as you could send me a box of ‘goodies,’ but if you have them to spare give them to some other soldier and believe me there is nothing encourages a soldier more than such small attentions. It makes him feel that he is remembered at home.”3

In this same letter, Thomas compared Mary Ann’s assessment of care during the Peninsula Campaign to his own experience at the recent Battle of Shiloh: “I am much pleased with your description of the kind treatment of the poor wounded in the battles before Richmond. What a difference between that and the treatment of the wounded of Shiloh. There many of our wounded laid for days in tents and on the river bank for days without hardly anything to eat or drink, their wounds undressed and uncared for. The sanitary committees of Ills. and Ohio found them in a horrible condition, both friend and foe. They soon had things fixed a little different. Really, if it was not for those kind and good sanitary committees, the sick soldiers of the west would fare badly.”4

Wounded soldiers carried to waiting trains after the Battle of Seven Pines, part of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. June 3, 1862. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings. Prints & Photographs Division.
Wounded soldiers carried to waiting trains after the Battle of Seven Pines, part of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. June 3, 1862. Morgan Collection of Civil War Drawings. Prints & Photographs Division.

A year later, in May 1863, Thomas wrote to Mary Ann and referred to her as a soldier. He added, “Us western soldiers have great respect for you nurses. In all my wanderings, and I believe I have been in every hole occupied by our troops in the west, I have never seen but six lady nurses in hospitals.”5 The photograph he shared with his comrades on this and other occasions may be the ambrotype pictured here.

Thomas left the army in August 1864 when the regiment concluded of its three-year term. Mary Ann continued on at Seminary Hospital until November 1864, when she transferred to Chesapeake General Hospital in Old Point Comfort, Virginia, part of the sprawling complex of care facilities in the vicinity of Fortress Monroe.6 She remained until July 1865, when she was discharged after almost four years of service.

Mary Ann made Washington her home after the war and clerked for a time in the Treasury Department. In 1870 she married fellow clerk Milton Woodworth. A few years later, they became parents to George, their only child.

Mary Ann maintained a low profile in the nation’s capital. Records indicate she did not participate with her sister nurses in reunions or related activities. This may be explained by nervous exhaustion, with which she claimed to have suffered after the war.7 Despite the condition, she lived until age 86, dying in 1922. Her husband and son survived her. Brother Thomas, her reliable correspondent during the war, died in 1908.

Notes

  1. Potter, James E. “‘I Thought it my Duty to Go’: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Edwin Keen of the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry.” Nebraska History 81 (2000), p. 157. (Return to Text)
  2. Thomas Edwin Keen served in Company H of the First Nebraska Infantry. The regiment was converted to cavalry in October 1863. He returned to Pennsylvania after the war and worked as a carpenter in Pittsburgh. He never married. (Return to Text)
  3. Potter, James E. “‘I Thought it my Duty to Go’: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Edwin Keen of the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry.” Nebraska History 81 (2000), p. 146. (Return to Text)
  4. Ibid. (Return to Text)
  5. Ibid., p. 157. (Return to Text)
  6. Mary A.E. Woodworth pension file, NARS. (Return to Text)
  7. Ibid. (Return to Text)