By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
Almira Fales acted in a most peculiar way during the first weeks following the election of Abraham Lincoln. She began preparing lint for bandages and squirreling away hospital supplies for a war she believed would descend upon the country.
Frightened friends and acquaintances ridiculed Almira as a crazed freak.1
They later praised her as prescient when, a few months later, rebels bombarded Fort Sumter and inaugurated a long and bloody conflict.
A towering figure with beaming blue eyes, Almira, had attracted attention long before her one-woman crusade to stockpile goods. An anonymous writer recalled that she possessed “an electric temperament, a nervous organization, with a brain crowded with a variety of memories and incidents that could only come to one in a million—all combine to give her a pleasant abruptness of motion and of speech, which I have heard some very fine ladies term insanity.”2
The facts of Almira’s early life reveal joys and sorrows. One of eight children born in the New York hamlet of Pittstown to a cooper and his wife in 1809, she lost her father before her twelfth birthday. Two marriages ended with the untimely deaths of her young husbands and left her stranded in Iowa with a brood of children and stepchildren. There, she managed a large hotel with one husband and taught domestic economy to the Winnebago tribe.3
At some point along the way she met Joseph T. Fales,4 auditor for the State of Iowa. They wed in 1847. Six years later, Joseph accepted an appointment as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office and they relocated to the nation’s capital.
Almira took on boarders in their Washington home for extra income. In 1854 she welcomed a lady who had recently moved from New Jersey and landed a clerking job at the Patent Office—32-year-old Clara Barton.5 The two got along very well together, according to Barton biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who noted that Almira “believed strongly in the necessities of charity and pursued her private projects with a drive that matched Barton’s own. Her enthusiasm and passionate devotion to her northern background would cause her to wholeheartedly embrace relief work during the Civil War—work that was to have a direct effect on Barton’s own role in that conflict.”6
Barton followed Almira’s lead and collected supplies before the war.
A family genealogist recorded that on April 19, 1861, Almira became one of the first woman to offer aid to Union soldiers. They belonged to the 6th Massachusetts Infantry and arrived in the capital bloodied and bruised after pro-secession mobs pelted them with brickbats and other debris as they marched through Baltimore earlier in the day.7
Thus began a nursing career marked by unbridled energy and passion. Almira flew into action with the force of a hurricane. She tended wounded and sick in the wake of the Battle of Shiloh, on hospital transports for the Peninsula Campaign and with her former boarder Clara Barton and other courageous women during the campaign that culminated with the Second Battle of Bull Run. She slept in tents and ambulances, sharing the rigors of life in the field alongside boys less than half her age. Behind the front lines, Almira personally delivered reading material to 60-70 forts, opened more than 7,000 boxes filled with supplies and distributed in excess of $150,000 of comforts to needy patients.
The anonymous writer noted, “Every day you may find her, with her heavily-laden basket, in hovels of white and black, which dainty and delicate ladies would not dare enter. No wounds are so loathsome, no disease so contagious, no human being so abject, that she shrinks from contact, if she can minister to their necessity.”8
Through it all, she managed to keep her quaint sense of humor, which brought smiles to the faces of patients in all the hospitals she visited. Not even the death of her soldier son, Thomas,9 a corporal in the Second Rhode Island Infantry who perished during the Chancellorsville Campaign, slowed her down. “The loss was to her but a stimulus to further efforts and sacrifices. She mourned as deeply as any mother, but not as selfishly, as some might have done,” observed the anonymous writer.10
Almira continued her caregiving efforts and the same whirlwind pace as long as bloodshed continued. She barely survived the close of hostilities, dying in 1868. The family genealogist attributed her cause of death to her great exertions during the war.
Many mourned Almira’s passing. The anonymous writer paid tribute to her in a letter published about a year before she died: “If the listless and idle lives which we live ourselves are perfectly sane, then Almira Fales must be the maddest of mortals. But would it not be better for the world, and for us all, if we were each of us a little crazier in the same direction?”11