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

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

Janet E. Jennings

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

The Civil War is remembered as the bloodiest and most fatal war our country has ever faced. With over 600,000 deaths recorded, it’s difficult to imagine a conflict as emotionally prominent or as socially relevant in the fabric of our country’s history.

But it is precisely because of the Civil War’s magnitude that other proximal battles are ignored or overlooked. By the time the Civil War began, the Mexican-American War had just finished and various American-Indian Wars had been raging on for years. And just three decades after the Civil War’s end, the United States was again involved in a war, this time with Spain. It’s easy to forget, then, that there were hundreds of civilians situated at the juncture of these wars—like those who fought on the battlefields of Antietam and served on the ships of the Spanish War.

Henry Ulke, photographer. Janet Jennings, also known as Jane, Nurse at Tent Hospitals in Washington, D.C. 1866. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

One such person was Janet “Jane” E. Jennings, a nurse who endured two separate wars, enjoyed a fruitful career as an author and reporter, and was known for her service as the “Angel of the Seneca.”

Janet Jennings was born about 1840 in Canada, to a family that grew to include eleven other children. After relocating to Green County, Wisconsin early in her life, Janet was raised in a modest Midwestern household. The Jenningses lived on rural farmland, where Janet, one of the eldest children, was tasked with taking care of her siblings and the household. This upbringing left little time for formal schooling, and yet, Janet became a county school teacher by the time she turned 16 years old.

Though Janet was perhaps most comfortable in her family-centric life in the Midwest, she was eventually drawn to the Civil War, determined to provide aid there in the same capacity as she had at home. Her younger brother, Guilford Dudley Jennings, had already enlisted in 1861 in a volunteer army corps. For the majority of the War, he served with the Third Wisconsin Infantry and Veteran Reserve Corps and rose in the ranks from an enlisted soldier to a Captain.

Guilford Dudley’s grave injuries at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville are what initially brought Janet to the barracks and tents of Washington’s Armory Square Hospital. After having nursed her brother to health that same year, Janet continued working at the hospital, despite being much younger than the average nurse. She served as a volunteer for “hire”, a decision of conscience made by many government nurses. Janet and fellow nurses were all logged on official government payrolls but, by “voluntary agreement,” returned their entire pay to a special “diet” fund for wounded soldiers. Janet herself claimed nurses served “without money and without price.”1

Noble volunteer services aside, Janet’s young age and unmarried status complicated her official hire; nursing superintendents like Dorothea Dix mandated that nurses in her hospitals were of a requisite 35 years old and, preferably, married. Janet, single and younger than 30 years old, met neither of these requirements. But because Dorothea Dix was not the sole figure appointing nurses into hospitals, Janet was able to earn a formally enlisted nursing position at Armory Square in 1864, by the recommendation of hospital superintendent Doctor Willard Bliss. Janet eventually took charge of a few hospital units at Armory Square, where she remained until she was discharged in August 1865. Her successful nursing career led her to the side of Clara Barton, who would become a close associate of hers after the war.2

Though Janet’s contributions to the Civil War should not be overlooked, she is perhaps more well-known and celebrated for her journalism and service in the Spanish-American War. Following the Civil War, Janet found herself settling down into a calmer, yet equally as exciting, life as a government employee and reporter. She worked for the United States Treasury Department for 15 years, retiring only once her health interfered with her work abilities. From this point until the onset of the Spanish-American War, Janet was a freelance reporter, contributing articles for multiple newspapers located in the United States and in countries abroad.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Janet had every intention of traveling to Cuba to cover the budding conflict from her skilled journalist’s perspective. Her reporting plans were met with difficulty, however. The American government had banned female reporters from entering war zones, but made allowances for relief workers and organizations like the Red Cross. Janet did not expect to engage with the army in any nursing capacity—by this point in her life, she was well into her fifties and more interested in reporting—but used her connections with Clara Barton as a way to gain legal entry into Cuba. Janet obtained a Red Cross pass to visit Cuba as an affiliate and reporter for the organization, and set off in June 1898 to work in the port town of Siboney.

Clara Barton. Clara Barton Papers: Diaries and Journals. April 8-10, 1903. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

But when Janet arrived at the Cuban hospitals, they were so desperate for aid and in such disarray that she immediately stepped in to help. Volunteering as a nurse once again, Janet spent many sleepless nights helping patients, while still completing articles for various newspapers. Just under three weeks after arriving in Cuba, Janet found herself working aboard the army ship, U.S.S. Seneca, where she was the only nurse in attendance. The ship was to transfer approximately 100 wounded or sick soldiers from Siboney to New York City.

Janet gained her nickname, “Angel of the Seneca,” in this harrowing journey—and for good reason. The Seneca was a medically ill-fitted and unsanitary military vessel tasked with transporting hundreds of the sickest American soldiers from Santiago back to the States. First-hand accounts describe scenes of soldiers packed side-by-side below deck in musty wooden bunks; Janet was given only a few bandages, one pair of scissors, and one forceps in lieu of proper medical supplies. After months of sitting stagnant the ship's water had gone putrid and food was scarce. Janet was tasked with operating like a fully-equipped nurse in a setting completely unfit for the situation at hand.

William J. Glackens, artist. Berth Deck of Transport. 1898. Cabinet of American Illustration. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

And yet, Janet worked around the clock and preserved every single life on the boat. Her work earned her the praises of fellow passengers, with many soldiers saying she was the “most conspicuous heroine the war has brought out so far.” Even after the Seneca successfully docked in New York, Janet continued fighting for the rights of the ship’s crew and passengers. In a statement to New York newspapers, she spoke about the unsanitary conditions aboard, and she bluntly placed blame on the government for its failure to provide a suitable hospital transport. These criticisms were met with much resentment from parts of the army and government—particularly those who forced the Seneca to sail without proper provisions—but were well-received by President William McKinley. After launching an investigation into the Seneca journey, the government confirmed most of the injustices Janet recounted.3 Her work was vindicated with a verbal concession and the establishment of a nurse reserve corps designed to allow more women to provide aid on the war front—just as Janet had.

Though her lifetime of work included international travel, a government position, and volunteering in multiple wars, Janet eventually left the public realm and returned to her roots in writing and literature. She worked anonymously for a handful of news publications before retiring and moving back to her home in the farmlands of Monroe, Green County, Wisconsin. There, she was said to have been in good company with her dear cow, Pudgie, and was kept busy by writing novels about the American presidents. Janet passed away in December 1917, and was buried in her hometown’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Notes

  1. For her services in the Civil War and in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. government eventually granted her a $12 pension in 1915. (Nurse’s Pension Certificate)  (Return to Text)
  2. It is unclear when Janet first met and befriended Clara Barton, but Gerald Jenny notes that Janet was a supporter of the Red Cross in its early years. (Return to Text)
  3. It is important to note that the government did not blame any one individual for the issues aboard the Seneca. Though they acknowledged the multiple shortcomings of the ship, those issues were attributed to the unprecedented growth of the army and the demand the war had on its resources. (Walsh, 291) (Return to Text)

Sources

The selected titles below link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to online versions are included when available.