By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
Fridays were usually reserved by Sister Adeline Tyler for her weekly errand of mercy to prisoners at the Baltimore jail. She was about to leave home for the crosstown carriage ride on April 19, 1861, when word arrived that a riot had rocked the city.
She could never have guessed that the event set her on a course for a new mission that touched uncounted lives—and made her a footnote in American history.
The first news Sister Tyler received indicated that the route to the jailhouse was unsafe, and it prompted her to delay her journey by a few hours. When she finally did set out, the violence had largely subsided. But she sensed heightened tensions as her carriage moved through the streets. She observed injured citizens being helped into homes and other places to be treated.
By the time Sister Tyler arrived at the jail, or sometime soon afterwards, she had learned the basic facts of the event that would become known as the Baltimore Riot of 1861 or the Pratt Street Riots: Pro-secessionist mobs had attacked a regiment of Union troops as they marched through town to catch a connecting train to Washington. Moreover, that the soldiers hailed from Massachusetts and that some number of them had been killed or wounded.1
The latter detail touched her personally, for Sister Tyler was a Bay State native. Born Adeline Blanchard more than a half-century earlier, she had spent most of her 55 years in Boston. She might have remained in her home state, but fate intervened with the death of her husband, John Tyler, in 1853. A well-known auctioneer in the city 26 years Adeline’s senior, he had suffered a stroke.2
An active member of the Episcopal Church, she advanced to deaconess and laid the groundwork for a mission of charity to the sick. A major step in her development involved a trip to the Deaconesses’ Institute in Kaiserswerth, Germany, to study nursing. One of the its notable students, Florence Nightingale, had trained there in 1851.3
Sister Tyler returned to America at the conclusion of her classwork and embarked on her mission. Her good works in the city ended in 1856 when she accepted an invitation to lead a church-funded infirmary in Baltimore. She proved an able leader who managed a rapidly expanding organization, though some insiders privately complained that she was overzealous in her charity. In early 1860, her power was curtailed after the church created a new leadership position and installed a man to run the infirmary.
Sister Tyler promptly resigned as Chief Deaconess, but stayed on to train apprentice deaconesses. The change also allowed her to invest more time with the sick, the poor, orphaned children and prisoners.
She worked in this capacity when Southern military forces bombarded the federal garrison of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. A week later, the war came to Baltimore when secession sympathizers pelted the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry with bricks and stones as it marched through the city in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to put down the rebellion of Southern states.
That afternoon at the jailhouse, Sister Tyler absorbed the enormity of the news and took action. She dashed off a note to a friend to help her find out the fate of the wounded Massachusetts soldiers, cut her visit short and left for home.
The friend soon reported back to Sister Tyler. She learned that some of the wounded soldiers had been left behind as the rest of the regiment escaped aboard the Washington-bound train. The abandoned men were taken by the police to a station house, and had received medical attention—though the latter report could not be verified.
“This roused the spirit of Mrs. Tyler,” noted biographers Linus P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan in their 1867 book, Woman’s Work in the Civil War. “Here was truly a work of ‘charity and mercy,’ and it was clearly her duty, in pursuance of the objects to which she had devoted her life, to ensure the necessary care of these wounded and suffering men who had fallen into the hands of those so inimical to them.”4
The carriage carrying Sister Tyler soon arrived at the police station. By this time, night had fallen. She knocked at the door and explained to the individual who answered that she had come to care for the injured soldiers. Her physical presence must have added emphasis to her heartfelt plea—standing six feet tall and presumably clad in clothing similar to the outfit worn in the carte de visite pictured here, she cut an imposing figure.
Her request was denied with the explanation that the most serious cases had been transported to a local infirmary, and the remainder rested comfortably in an upper room. A skeptical Sister Tyler renewed her request, at least to satisfy herself that they were comfortable. She was again refused admission.
Sister Tyler pushed back. “I am myself a Massachusetts woman, seeking to do good to the citizens of my own state. If not allowed to do so, I shall immediately send a telegram to Governor Andrew, informing him that my request is denied,” reported Woman’s Work.5
The threat of contacting Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew worked. Sister Tyler entered the station and was escorted to the upper room to see the soldiers.
Her worst fears were realized. Two of the soldiers were dead. Two or three more lay in beds and the rest on stretchers. All were still dressed in their uniforms and their wounds had been minimally treated with large pieces of cotton cloth despite that hours had passed since the injuries had occurred. It appeared that they had been drugged.
Sister Tyler determined that two of the men were in critical need of care and negotiated their release. One man, a private, had been shot in the hip. The other, a sergeant, had been clobbered with a glass bottle that left a ghastly wound with shards in his neck. She and her carriage driver managed to enlist the services of a furniture van to transport the soldiers to the Deaconess’s Home, where Sister Tyler lived. There they were treated and eventually released.6
It may be fairly stated that Sister Tyler was the first nurse to attend Union soldiers wounded in hostility.7
A year later, on the first anniversary of the riot, Sister Tyler received a formal Vote of Thanks from the Massachusetts House of Representatives for her actions.8
By this time, Sister Tyler had left Baltimore under a cloud of suspicion. Following her life-saving efforts after the riot, she was placed in charge of a military hospital on Camden Street in Baltimore. Here her patriotism came into question after she stated that patients who entered her hospital were treated equally no matter where their loyalties lay. This left an impression that she was a rebel sympathizer, and she was discharged.9
Her situation could have been much worse, for others suspected of disloyalty had been stripped of their positions and imprisoned. Sister Tyler left Baltimore with no formal charges and found refuge with friends in New York City.
By mid-1862, the patriotism paranoia that had swept Baltimore and some Northern cities had largely subsided. Sister Tyler lobbied to get back into action. Her reputation was resurrected when she was offered and accepted a leadership position at a military hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania. In this role, and later at the Naval School Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, her talents for organization benefitted staff and patients.
Stress from her unrelenting schedule led to exhaustion that ended in her resignation in May 1864. She traveled to Europe to restore her health, and returned to the United States in November 1865.
Sister Tyler went on to become Lady Superintendent of the Midnight Mission, a New York City facility for prostitutes and other women deemed “fallen” by society. She resigned her position in 1872 after learning she was ill with breast cancer. She succumbed to the disease in Massachusetts three years later at age 69.
“She will always be remembered as identified with the war from the very beginning,” observed an admirer. “She was the only woman in Baltimore who came forward on the 19th of April, 1861, when the men of our Massachusetts Sixth were massacred in passing through that city.”10