By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
A carriage filled with jellies and other delicacies bumped along a country road outside Philadelphia one November morning in 1861. It was headed on a relief mission for sick soldiers at nearby Camp Wayne, a Union training and recruitment center.
Inside sat the woman who organized the expedition, Debbie Hughes, who lived a few miles up the road in Charlestown. She happened to be on furlough from her regular duties as a nurse in the nation’s capital.
Her sister nurses in Washington would probably not have been surprised to learn that Debbie used part of her break to help those in need. One admirer noted, “When the dark cloud of war hovered over our country, and the call came for noble, self-sacrificing women to volunteer as nurses to our ‘Grand Army,’ she was among the first to answer it—among the first to give her services; and heroically, faithfully has she labored ever since for the poor soldier.”1
Debbie was overqualified for the job. Five years earlier, she had earned a medical degree from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1850 to establish a career path for women as doctors, it was the second such institution in the country. The first, in New England, had been founded in 1848.
Debbie submitted her thesis on cancer in January 1856. Her Dissertation on Carcinoma reveals a keen sense of observation, and a passion for critical study and problem solving.2
After she arrived in Washington in 1861, Debbie impressed many with her skills as she treated the war’s first sick and wounded soldiers. Among this number was the hard-to-please Dorothea Dix, who superintended army nurses in the city. According to one writer, Debbie “was one of the most devoted nurses here, and was a great favorite with Miss Dix and those with whom she was thrown in contact in her labor of love.”3
Debbie was assigned to Columbian College Hospital, where a fellow nurse recalled, “I shall ever remember her dear, pale, interesting face, (which I had a fine opportunity of studying as she sat opposite me at the table.)”
The furlough she received in the autumn of 1861 provided her with an opportunity to visit family in Charlestown. When she got wind of suffering soldiers at Camp Wayne, she characteristically took action.
On the morning of November 11, she started out on her relief mission with a sister, Hannah, in a wagon driven by William Williams,4 a teenager from town.
They never made it to their destination.
According to news reports, as the carriage approached a railroad crossing, an approaching train spooked the horse. The vehicle careened towards the tracks, slammed into the engine and was dragged some 20 feet before breaking loose. Hannah was thrown from the carriage on impact and landed beneath the locomotive. She was crushed to death. William and Debbie, caught up in the leather harnesses and other trimmings, were dragged along with the rest of the carriage. They were found clear of the tracks. William suffered severe injuries that required the amputation of a leg. He died the same day.5
The doctors who examined Debbie found cuts, bruises and internal injuries. Despite the serious nature of her injuries, they offered an upbeat assessment of her condition with hope of a full recovery. As a precaution, Debbie made her last will and testament the same day as the accident.
Their initial optimism soon faded, for tetanus set in and she succumbed to the infection a week later. Debbie was 39.
News of her death left many mourners—family, friends, former patients and fellow nurses. One newspaper summed up her loss when it reported, “The nurse corps of the Army have lost in her one of its most accomplished and kind-hearted members.”6