By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
For three days in June 1864, thousands of wounded and sick soldiers poured into the newly established Union base at City Point in Virginia. All were victims of heavy fighting that raged in front of Petersburg during a desperate push to destroy the Confederate army.
Hundreds of black men in blue from the Ninth Corps numbered among them. Upon their arrival, they were removed to a makeshift hospital separate from the whites. There were little if any resources. “It was, however, in no other sense a hospital than that it was a dépôt for wounded men,” observed one writer. “There was defective management and chaotic confusion. The men were neglected, the hospital organization was imperfect, and the mortality was, in consequence, frightfully large.1
Stories of their suffering reached the nurses, many on the brink of exhaustion due to the overwhelming numbers of patients. No one volunteered to help the African-American troops.
Finally, a slight woman with a resonant voice, dressed in gray flannel, stepped forward. Helen Gilson knew by instinct and experience that her duty was plain.
Fellow nurses pleaded with her not to go. They told her she would not survive.
Helen replied, according to one source, “that she could not die in a cause more sacred,” and set out alone to aid the neglected men.
This was quintessential Helen, who often went where no others dared to go.
Her early life experience reveals a young woman who overcame adversity. Helen hailed from modest circumstances in Boston, where she and her two sisters became orphaned after heart-related ailments claimed the life of her father in 1849, and her mother two years later.2 She went to work as head assistant at the all-boys Phillips Grammar School in Boston, but left after several years due to her own health issues.
The start of the war found her in the Boston suburb of Chelsea, in service as governess to the three children of prosperous businessman and town mayor Frank B. Fay.3 He was fourteen years her senior. According to his postwar reminiscences, Helen “expressed her strong desire to serve in the army as a nurse. She had noble qualities of mind and heart. She was a winning personality, and she was strong and brave, and we knew she would do good work there.”4
A letter of application was promptly sent to Dorothea Dix, the autocratic superintendent of army nurses in Washington, D.C. Dix invited Helen to join if she met the minimum age requirement of thirty. Helen, only twenty-six, did not qualify. The authors of the 1867 book Woman’s Work in the Civil War noted that Helen’s rejection was one of Dix’s greatest miscalculations.5
Helen remained in Chelsea, became active in local aid societies, and also worked as a contractor to make army clothing for soldiers.6
Meanwhile, Mayor Fay’s life took a dramatic turn. When word reached him that several of his fellow townsmen had been wounded and killed in the July 18, 1861, skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford along Bull Run in Virginia, he caught the next train to Washington to bring them home.7 The events that followed stirred his soul, for he was a philanthropist at heart, and called him into service to relieve the sufferings of soldiers.
Time passed. In April 1862, Helen received an urgent request from Dix to report to Washington. According to Mayor Fay, “Miss Dix was surprised to find her so young and attractive, and to her eyes so unfitted for service,” that she dismissed Helen as a serious candidate for a nurse. Dix sent her off to a Washington hospital in an unofficial capacity with no serious duties.8
Helen did not remain in administrative limbo for long. Later that spring, Mayor Fay made his way back to Washington from the Army of the Potomac, then engaged in the Peninsula Campaign. At Fortress Monroe, he crossed paths with Rev. Frederick N. Knapp, a prominent player in the powerful U.S. Sanitary Commission.9 Knapp was headed with a boatload of supplies and nurses for the front. A conversation ensued. Mayor Fay discovered that Knapp needed recruits and recommended Helen. Knapp recalled meeting her in Washington, and asked Mayor Fay to send her down to Virginia.
Helen jumped at the chance. She headed south without Mayor Fay, who had returned to Chelsea to resupply. She soon arrived at White House Landing, the advancing Union army’s main supply base along the Pamunkey River outside Richmond. One of her first actions proved her mettle. “I saw the transport Wilson Small in the offing, and knew that is was full of wounded men; so, calling a boatman, and directing him to row me to the vessel, I went on board. A poor fellow was undergoing an amputation; and, seeing that the surgeon wanted help, I took hold of the limb, and held it for him. The surgeon looked up, at first surprised, then said, ‘Thank you;’ and I staid (i.e. stayed) and helped him.”10
Towards the end of June 1862, Helen and others were forced to abandon White House Landing after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates seized the offensive against his plodding nemesis, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Helen found safe passage on a vessel downriver to the safety of Fortress Monroe, then promptly caught a tugboat headed up the James River to the new forward supply base at Harrison’s Landing.
Helen arrived on July 3, and found the Union army in full retreat at the end of the Seven Days Battles. “Our small tugboat on which we were packed came alongside the Monitor, which was anchored at Harrison’s Landing. We were almost surrounded by gunboats, and the firing was kept up all about us. We could see the bursting shells and hear the explosions,” she recalled.11
This was the first of many times that she came under hostile fire.
The next day, the Fourth, all was chaos as Union forces made a hasty withdrawal from the shores of the James in the face of the advancing enemy.
“The shore was alive with troops, and steamers were constantly arriving for the transport of the sick and wounded who were lying on the ground, to be counted by acres,” Helen observed.12
Trainloads of the ill and injured kept on coming. Helen continued, “It was a touching sight to see these brave youth of our country, reduced by disease, come tottering towards us, entreating with imploring tones for a piece of bread or a cup of cold water. Everybody was in a whirl of activity, and the rush, heat, and confusion on shore one can never forget, as these overloaded trains arrived with their suffering freights of the wounded, who were fairly thrust upon these waiting boats.”
Helen volunteered with others to accompany 500 wounded men on the hospital steamer Knickerbocker. Onboard was Mayor Fay, who had returned from Chelsea.
They made the overnight trip to Washington, where the patients were carefully removed from the Knickerbocker and transported to area hospitals for further treatment.
Reflecting on the massive withdrawal after the Battles of the Seven Days, the editor of Mayor Fay’s wartime papers declared, “It was into such a holocaust of suffering and death as this that Mr. Fay and Miss Gilson began their hospital work.”13
Their highly effective partnership spanned the next three years as they traveled to battlefields in service of the sick and wounded—Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and elsewhere. They functioned as an independent relief agency in cooperation with the Sanitary Commission, who supplied them with resources when Mayor Fay ran low.
That the Commission allowed them to operate is remarkable, for its organizers believed in a single unified system for soldier care. They realized, however, that Mayor Fay and Helen performed a critical function that the Commission could not. One of the Commission’s major fundraisers, Horace H. Furness,14 explained. “Neither the Sanitary Commission nor the Medical Department, admirable as they both are, can alleviate all the misery caused by the war. In reality, about one-eighth of the sum total remains unalleviated.” By supporting them, he argued, “We are helping to diminish that eighth, and in such a way as not to conflict with the method and discipline of the Medical Department, or with the grand federal principle of the Sanitary Commission.”15
The Commission eventually established the Auxiliary Relief Corps in 1864 to extend its battlefield reach. Mayor Fay, credited with the concept, directed the service for a time.
Furness made a special mention of Helen in his comments. “As a general rule, the battle-field is not the place for women; but no one who has ever seen Miss Gilson in the field hospitals can doubt that her case is the great exception to the rule. Never flustered, never complaining, always acting with impartiality, decision, and promptness, she moves about ministering to all wants, introducing order and method where all was confusion; her hands never idle, her mind never resting, and her eyelids scarcely ever closing.”16
Numerous accounts of praise for “Miss Nellie” or “Sweet Helen Gilson” from soldier-patients echoed Furness’s sentiments. Clay MacCauley, a second lieutenant in the 126th Pennsylvania Infantry, noted, “She had a rare power over the soldier’s heart; it acknowledged her sway always. With us, her life was hidden from the world; it lay a constant sacrifice before every needy patriot friend, and rich were we who received its blessings.” Another soldier, unnamed, testified for many when he stated, “There is not a man in our regiment, who would not lay down his life for Miss Gilson.”17
The warmth she radiated reflected her true nature and Unitarian faith. “The more this experience comes to me,” she wrote in one letter, “the more I am lifted into the upper ether of peace and rest; I am stronger in soul and healthier in body; yet, I have never worked harder in my life.” In another, she stated, “I have tested myself sufficiently under shot and shell to know that in danger I can be calm. And that is needed on the field.”18
She never lost sight of her own humanity. According to a biographer, “Miss Gilson’s love of nature, and quick apprehension of its grandeur and beauty, never deserted her. She enjoyed sunset skies and wintry storms, the sound of waters and the perfume of flowers, with a keen and loving earnestness; and her sense of harmony, both in lights and sound, was made to minister to the comfort and pleasure of many a feeble sufferer whom such influences were still potent to reach.”19
Perhaps her finest hour occurred in service to African-American troops. The hospital camp at City Point, set up by the Medical Corps, did not measure up to snuff. She wrote during the earliest days of her efforts, surrounded by dead and dying in temperatures hovering near the one hundred-degree mark, “The dust is intolerable. We have never endured so much. No roses here, nothing of beauty, only a parched and arid plain, —a mile square of hospital tents, filled with sick and wounded men.”20
Helen made it her business to bring it up to the same standards as the white soldiers. She introduced new policies to improve conditions, and did so with the political acumen of a seasoned diplomat to soothe the pride and prejudice of medical authorities. Under her leadership the kitchen and daily routines were established.
Night after night, working by the flicker of candlelight, Helen moved quietly through the wards, alert for the faintest sounds that might signal a need for her attention. Her work brought down the mortality rate and the African-American hospital became one of the best at City Point. She spent most of the last year of the war ministering to the soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops and area freedmen.
In the summer of 1865, Helen and Mayor Fay concluded their work.
Fay continued his philanthropic works. He lived into the 20th century, and was fondly remembered by Chelsea citizens as the “War Mayor.”
In October 1866, Helen married Edward Hamilton Osgood, a Boston merchant active in the Sanitary Commission. Before long, the newlyweds looked forward to bringing their first child into the world. Helen’s health, compromised by the rigors of army fieldwork, deteriorated as her pregnancy advanced. On April 20, 1868, she died at age 32. A biographer recorded her last words. “When the hour came, she put her hand upon her forehead, felt the damp, and said calmly, ‘This is death. The door is open, let me go.’”21
The baby joined Helen in death. Her devastated husband legally changed his name to Hamilton Osgood, attended medical school and graduated in 1870. He remarried that same year and went on to become the father of a daughter. He rose to some prominence as a physician and died in 1907.