By Elizabeth Lindqwister, 2019 Liljenquist Fellow, Prints & Photographs Division.
Of the thousands of nurses who provided service in the Civil War, few were as daring or as celebrated as Annie Etheridge. As a nurse, vivandière, and “Daughter of the Regiment,” Etheridge cemented herself in Civil War history as a woman unafraid to provide aid in the heart of a battlefield.
Lorinda Anna Blair “Annie” Etheridge was born on May 3, 1839 in Wayne County, Michigan. Raised in a family of average wealth, Annie spent most of her childhood living between Wisconsin and Michigan. From an early age, she cared for her ailing father and took up a nursing position at a local hospital, where she grew passionate about providing quality healthcare. She married fellow Michigander James Etheridge in early 1860, and the couple settled down for a brief period of time in Detroit, Michigan.
When the Civil War broke out later that year, it became little question that both Annie and James would enlist. By 1861, the Etheridges joined the Union army under the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment – James was to be a soldier, and Annie would continue to provide aid as a regiment nurse. While the young couple was, on the surface, ideally suited to join the Union army, the strength of their personal union turned out to be insufficient for the patriotism and bravery needed to survive the War’s bloody battles. James ended up deserting his post, joining the dozens of other soldiers and 19 Second Regiment nurses who found the hardships of battle too difficult to bear.
Annie stayed behind. She served as a nurse for the entirety of the war, and even took up positions as a vivandière and Daughter of the Regiment. This meant that in addition to her regular nursing duties in the regiment’s off-field hospitals, Annie would physically enter the battlefield on horseback alongside the soldiers, providing water and medical services in the midst of battle. Her duties extended outside the battlefield as well, and Annie was often tasked with cooking, washing clothes, and generally providing comfort for the soldiers in her regiments. She held these positions in the Second, Third, and Fifth Michigan Infantry Regiments.
Annie’s wartime service is notable not simply because she saved hundreds of lives, but because of the courage and patriotism she expressed throughout her years running literally through the battlefront. She was known to wear dresses constantly stained and dirtied by her work on the battlefields; her skirts – and sometimes her own body – were holed by wayward bullets; she was often seen riding on horseback, weaving between wounded soldiers; she was unafraid of walking directly in front of a pointed gun in order to reach a wounded soldier.
The 32 battles Annie participated in include some of the most notorious. She followed the Army of the Potomac through every battle, went onto the fields of the Battles of Bull Run, Williamsburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and she was even injured in a skirmish at the Battle of Chancellorsville. At the latter, a bullet intended for a Union soldier had grazed her hand and sent her riding horse into a frenzy. The soldier hid in fear behind Annie, who remained calm and continued steadily administering medical care to others, even as her hand demanded urgent attention. Multiple regiment generals noted that her valor in these situations – and her stern words for cowardly soldiers -- galvanized the regiment to fight through injuries and fear.
Fellow nurse Mary Morris Husband claimed that Annie was extremely respected within and outside of her regiment, precisely because she was “very prudent, unobtrusive & modest in demeanor,” and because she held her regiment accountable to such a high standard of courage and effort. It was also widely known that Annie participated in the War as an unpaid and unpensioned volunteer. She was an unusual combination of gentle nursing care, uncompromising vivandière spirit, and extraordinary bravery – all of which she harnessed to provide for fallen soldiers stuck in unsafe situations. These values led to soldiers and generals nicknaming her “Gentle Annie,” in honor of her selflessness and bravery in battle.
For her relentless service and patriotism, Annie was awarded the Kearny Cross military decoration. She remains one of only two women to have ever received this distinction. Following the war, she remarried, earned a coveted job in the Patent Office and Treasury Department, and was awarded a pension twice the size of most other Civil War nurses. Annie died in 1913 and can be found buried in Arlington National Cemetery, having been lain to rest with veteran’s honors.