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Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography

Using a photographic portrait of Eleanor Ransom from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point, this essay highlights the life and experiences of an individual nurse.

Eleanor Ransom

By Elizabeth Lindqwister, 2019 Liljenquist Fellow, Prints & Photographs Division.

Throughout the Civil War, many volunteer nurses earned praise for their kindness and selflessness toward wounded soldiers. Men would describe an approaching nurse as an “angel” or cry in joy to see a nurse they grew fond of. Because of their close proximity and caretaker relationship to these men, many nurses earned nicknames: Annie Etheridge became “Gentle Annie,” Janet Jennings became the “Angel of the Seneca,” and many seemed to adopt the affectionate title of “Mother”.

One matronly and celebrated nurse was Eleanor Ransom, later nicknamed “Mother Ransom” and “Aunty Ransom” by the soldiers she worked with in Indiana and on transport ships.

Eleanor C. Ransom, Civil War nurse, with Union soldier who is showing her a bugle. Between 1861 and 1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Eleanor C. Ransom was born on December 18, 1815. Sometime early in her childhood, she and her family moved to Moores Hill, Indiana, where Eleanor would spend most of her pre-war life. While in Indiana, she met Stillman Ransom, a farmer and gardener who hailed originally from Vermont. Both Stillman and Eleanor were residing in southeast Indiana when they married in January 1837. They married and settled in Ripley County, Indiana, and by 1850 had two children named Nancy Jane and Sarah A., both born in Indiana.

Though Eleanor’s early life is largely ignored, her contributions to the Civil War and to postwar civil service are more widely documented. In 1862, Eleanor was among the first to join the War as a recognized army nurse on the Union side. She began her nursing career already over 40 years old and having already raised two children. Familial ties aside, Eleanor left for Indianapolis that same year and was accepted as an official Army nurse. Her first deployment was in 1863, when the Union sent her to Memphis, Tennessee, to work in Gayoso Hospital. Over the course of the next two years, Eleanor moved in and out of various Tennessee hospitals – including Jackson New Hospital and Adams Hospital – as her health allowed. She left the Tennessee hospitals for a brief period in 1863, when she returned to Indiana after falling ill while in service, and again in 1864, when her daughter Abbie fell ill and passed away.

Even in the wake of her daughter’s death, Eleanor returned to nursing at Tennessee’s Adams Hospital. She remained at Adams until she was sent further south and ordered to accompany hospital transport ships moving between New Orleans and New York. Sent there by Union doctor McClintock, Eleanor arrived at the New Orleans port ready to work in November 1864, and she later boarded the Government’s North America ship, hired as the transport’s nurse. North America was exactly as it was described: a hospital transport that, at capacity, held over 200 sick soldiers and housed only four women total, including Eleanor. It is assumed that she was the only official nurse on board, yet was still accompanied by Dr. McClintock.

The ship departed Louisiana on December 16, 1864, and floated on calm waters for the first leg of the journey. The deceptive quiet of their initial travels was brought to a startling and deadly halt on the morning of December 22, when the North America was reported to be leaking at an alarming rate – so fast that the crew was helpless to seal it in time. The ship immediately sent out a distress signal, which was seen and responded to by the Mary E. Libby, a nearby goods transport ship. But because of choppy sea waters and the already-listing North America, both ships collided and further damaged the North America. The Libby had thankfully not suffered significant damage after its collision with North America.

By the next morning, however, North America was practically unsalvageable and the weather entirely unforgivable. Eleanor writes that crewmembers jumped ship, soldiers prayed in vain on the lurching top deck, and the captain frantically began to send soldiers off on rescue boats.Eleanor left the North America on one such rescue boat, and described how it was almost capsized by the ocean: “The storm was so severe, and the waves rolling so fearfully, each word echoed over the sea and back into our hearts.” Though Eleanor was lucky to escape the wreckage with her life, the catastrophe of the North America resulted in the deaths of 194 passengers, the majority of them wounded soldiers. The surviving passengers were picked up by the Arago, a steamer also heading toward New York.

Following the disaster, Eleanor expressed her guilt that she survived a mostly-fatal trip. She lamented, “they were taken, and I was saved,” distressed that so many injured soldiers had died even after they already sacrificed their health to their country. With grief in her heart, Eleanor later followed Dr. McClintock’s orders to report to the U.S. Sanitary Commission headquarters in New York City. Once there, the Commission nursed her back to health and offered her a small payment for her sufferings aboard the North America. She was recommissioned out to Tennessee where she resumed some of her nursing duties at Adams Hospitals. Adams was the last place Eleanor served at, and she left the Army at the close of war in March 1865.

Eleanor never entirely shook off the physical and mental toll of the North America sinking. Sources note that her health was severely impaired after the event and after her previous two years of nursing in Tennessee – so much so that she was “hardly able to take care of herself” by the time the war ended. In spite of these physical and emotional ailments, Eleanor dedicated her postwar life to helping women in need. She focused on aiding homes for “friendless women” in Richmond, Indiana, before moving to Los Angeles, California, in her early seventies. By this point, Eleanor had successfully filed a pension application to Congress and received a $12 monthly payment for her services in the War.

Eleanor continued her charitable work in Los Angeles and founded a handful of religious missionary organizations in the area. This work included founding a First Methodist mission in a Los Angeles Chinese community, supporting the Home Missionary Society, donating her personal belongings to more “friendless” women and girls, and generally serving the First Methodist church until her death. She also dedicated her time and finances to the Women’s Relief Corps, and was present at the fourteenth and fifteenth national conventions of the organization.

By 1900, Eleanor was living as a boarder in a house full of women and dependents, her husband having passed away some time in the 20 years prior. The house she lived at was run by Matron Jennie Bowlsby, and was probably the Door of Hope Home, located also in Los Angeles. Given her age, experiences as a nurse, and interest in helping friendless women, it is possible that Eleanor acted like a motherly figure to the women and children residing within.

Eleanor passed away in 1909, after falling and injuring herself. She was 93 years old.

Shall we meet beyond the river,
Where the surges cease to roll?
Where, in all the bright forever,
Sorrow ne’er shall press the soul?

- Excerpt from a hymn included by Mother Ransom after recounting North America’s demise.


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