Skip to main content

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

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

Mary Morris Husband

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

John White Hurn, photographer. Mary Morris Husband, Civil War nurse in Philadelphia. Between 1861 and 1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Despite his importance in early American history, Robert Morris is one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers. Morris was regarded as the “Financier of the Revolution,” for his role in developing the United States financial system. His descendants went on to provide for their country in a similar way. His son, Thomas, became a member of the New York State Assembly and a representative in Congress. His granddaughter, Mary Morris, was a prominent Philadelphian who served as a nurse in the Civil War hospitals.

Nineteenth century biographers claimed that Mary Morris Husband’s success and personal character could be attributed, in part, to her biological connection to a tenacious Founding Father. Familial relations aside, Mary’s record as a heroic Civil War nurse in multiple transport hospitals earned her recognition both during and after her time serving in the war.

Mary Morris Husband was born on July 7, 1826 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a “good” Philadelphian family. Her early life is not addressed in many places, but records note that she was raised with access to education and other privileges afforded to a family of steady finances.

Of the thousands of nurses who applied to serve in the War, Mary was an ideal candidate: she was well over 30 years old, already married, had conceived children by the time War struck, settled into a life of relative ease with her family in Philadelphia. Mary’s husband, Joshua L. Husband, was an affluent lawyer and “highly respectable member” of the Philadelphia bar association.  The Husbands had two sons, Henry and John, who both abandoned their professional aspirations--one was studying medicine--in favor of serving their country.

Mary soon followed her sons and began her nursing career at a Philadelphia hospital in 1861 or 1862. The primary hospital she worked at was located on 22nd and Wood streets, and she remained there for one year, employed as part of the Ladies’ Aid Society. Her tasks included standard nurse caregiving-- like dressing wounds and making wounded soldiers comfortable in the hospital-- but also involved certain cooking duties. Because Mary was already a “skilful (sic) housewife and cook,” much of her early work involved preparing meals that were suitable for soldiers in delicate health. This routine changed dramatically when her sons John fell ill with disease while fighting with Co. C, 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, during the Peninsula Campaign. Mary spent the following weeks splitting her time between nursing her son to health and providing aid to other soldiers in the hospital.

Once her son returned to full health, Mary left the Philadelphia-area hospitals in favor of joining the hospital transports traveling with Union armies. She was initially sent on transports to Harrison’s Landing, and by 1863 was assigned the position of Lady Superintendent of a hospital transport moving to and from New York. Mary’s dedication on these transports earned her recognition from peers and soldiers alike--many of them affectionately called her “mother” when she walked by--and brought her promotions from Nursing Superintendent Dorothea Dix herself. Upon Superintendent Dix’s order, Mary became temporary head of Camden Street Hospital; she remained here for a few weeks before moving to the battles at Antietam, where she was stationed at the Smoketown Hospital. Working closely with fellow nurse, Maria M.C. Hall, Mary saw the physical horrors of the Battle of Antietam. Despite the devastating wounds and mortality present at Smoketown, Mary continued providing near-constant aid from her tent as well as nourishing milk punch and tea (soldiers reported that Mary’s flaxseed tea--unlike any others--“was never insipid”).

Brady's National Photographic Galleries. Maria M.C. Hall, Civil War nurse at Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. Between 1861 and 1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
Mary Morris Husband worked alongside Hall at the Battle of Antietam.

The rest of Mary’s nursing career was spent on the road, traveling between hospitals, divisions, and army camps. Many of the anecdotes about her service highlight her seemingly-endless energy and ability to dress wounds, comfort soldiers, and report for duty at any hour of the day or night. Though her hospital transport position called on her to travel between regiments frequently, Mary remained with the Third Division of the Third Corps for the longest period of time and worked with them through the deadly Battle of Chancellorsville.

Though Mary frequently attempted to provide aid on the battlefronts,she was once rejected permission at Gettysburg. Mary still managed to find work at Camp Letterman in Gettysburg and was eventually offered the matron position at the Third Corps hospital. Mary’s ability to break through to the battlefronts of major battles was not without difficulty; many nurses (including Red Cross founder Clara Barton and nurse superintendent Mother Bickerdyke) faced similar obstacles to gaining battlefront access. Mary Husband and other female nurses were often barred from the fields and from performing the extent of their duties by field doctors, who preferred male nurses to work on the battlefront.

Group of soldiers, some in uniform and some with crutches, pose in front of the woods at the hospital at Camp Letterman in Gettysburg. Between 1861 and 1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
Mary Morris Husband was a nurse at Camp Letterman while she toured Gettysburg-area hospitals. She eventually had to leave the Camp after contracting a fever. 

After the Battles at Gettysburg came to a close, Mary continued to work with various hospital transport divisions through to the end of the War. In this period, she worked with the Second and Sixth Corps and at the hospitals of Port Royal, White House, and City Point--the latter of which would be the last Civil War hospital she provided services for.

Mary Morris Husband was known for her resolute and pragmatic attitude in even the most trying situations. Even when afflicted with illnesses before and during the War, Mary was able to serve in multiple hospitals and transports, often bustling between 300 wounded soldiers in the height of post-battle injury. She eschewed traditional hoop skirts in favor of more practical free-flowing dresses, and was known to sport a pocket-heavy apron, laden down with medical supplies and small tokens for wounded soldiers.

And even though Mary provided medical aid from within hospital walls, she continued to advocate on behalf of soldiers outside of just healthcare alone. In one instance, she gathered resources from her own pocket and from her friends, and then used those funds to purchase clothing and goods for decommissioned soldiers; throughout the war, she became a legal advocate of sorts for convicted soldiers. Because of her varied work with the soldiers, veterans affectionately cheered on their “Mother Husband” at postwar marches, and many wrote letters to testify to the sheer amount of lives Mary saved.

When Mary appealed to the United States Congress for a pension--a small repayment for her years of volunteer service--she was presented over a dozen testimonies from supporting veterans and from Congressional Records noting how the War had taken a toll on her personal finances. Mary spent upwards of $2,000 on hospital and transport-related needs in her time as a nurse, and lost much of her property and familial support after the War. She was eventually granted a $25 pension in 1884, which she received until her death in March 1894.

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.