By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
Soldier patients were dying from the effects of inadequate nutrition in military hospitals. The 1,200-bed hospital at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was no exception. This was the finding of a special agent from the influential U.S. Christian Commission. On March 19, 1864, the agent proposed a special diet kitchen to combat the problem, and the head surgeon approved the plan the next day.1
The agent ordered three volunteers into action. For one of them, Carrie Wilkins, the assignment was her first as a nurse.
A Pennsylvania native, Carrie was ten years old in 1852 when she, her four younger brothers, a sister, and parents moved from Pittsburgh and started a new life in Keokuk, Iowa.
After war divided the country, Carrie became the only member of the family to serve. She joined the Christian Commission in late 1863 or early 1864, just about the time federal forces in Tennessee surged up and over Lookout Mountain and drove Confederate forces out of Chattanooga, and the state.
Little could Carrie, now 21 years old, have known that she would soon be tending to the sick and wounded in Chattanooga. She answered the summons from the special agent, left her family farm in Keokuk, and reported for duty at the kitchen on April 22, 1864.2
While Carrie settled into her relief work, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union forces set off on a campaign into Georgia. His army made slow but steady progress into the northern part of the state, and left in its wake injured and ill men who required care.
Carrie was dispatched, with another nurse, in August 1864, to a field hospital in Marietta, a mountain town north of Atlanta. She toiled here until the fall of Atlanta, and then moved with victorious Union forces into the vanquished city.
According to official documents, Carrie was one of the last to leave Atlanta after Sherman’s army evacuated in November 1864. While the Union soldiers headed south and east to Savannah, she traveled with fellow nurses and medical staff to Nashville. She arrived on November 16, and left the next day for a well-deserved month-long furlough.3
Carrie did not return to the South at the end of her time off. Instead, she received orders to report to the floating hospital Nashville, anchored at New Albany, Indiana. Located along the Ohio River opposite Louisville, Kentucky, the city was a major shipbuilding hub and a center for army hospitals.
Carrie remained aboard the Nashville until the vessel ceased operations in August 1865, then returned to her family in Iowa.4
A few years later, perhaps inspired by wanderlust from her Civil War journeys, she followed one of her brothers to northern California. In 1873, she wed William H. Pollard, a widowed dentist with fur children. The marriage ended three years later when William died, leaving her a widow with her own young daughter to raise.
Carrie never remarried and settled in Maxwell, a town outside Sacramento. She lived until age 82, dying in 1924.