By Elizabeth Lindqwister, 2019 Liljenquist Fellow, Prints & Photographs Division.
“They prayed for love to lose the chain; ‘Twas shorn by battle’s axe in twain!” – Sybil Jones.
A woman driven to service by the love of her religion and her family, Sybil Jones was one of few Quaker nurses working at the Civil War’s battlefront hospitals. Jones was born in 1808, in Brunswick, Maine, to Ephraim and Susanna Jones, and was descended from prominent Quaker families. She married in 1833 to Eli Jones, a Quaker and distant relative.
Before the Civil War began, the Society of Friends was almost uniformly opposed to the institution of slavery, but also to the outbreak of a violent war. The Quakers’ longstanding commitment to goodwill and the equality of all humanity created a frustrating dissonance between their peace-oriented values and the violence of war – a dissonance Sybil and her husband found themselves personally trapped within. Though the Joneses were educators by trade, Sybil and Eli left these positions in the early 1860s first to missionize in Europe, and then to help with the ongoing Civil War in America.
It is estimated that Sybil joined the war cause in 1864, shortly after her son enlisted and died in battle. Sybil was primarily stationed in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where she aided and ministered to wounded soldiers and provided religious counsel for politicians. Despite her Quakerish distaste for the war and her family’s allegiance to the North, Sybil was said to have tended to approximately 30,000 soldiers, prisoners, and affiliates from the Union and the Confederacy. She took it on as her Christian duty to guide any and all wandering souls – regardless of their wartime affiliation – down the path toward “Christ’s invisible kingdom.”
It is unclear whether Sybil’s role as a “nurse” included the wide range of medical duties traditionally associated with the position. Scholars write that she was primarily viewed as a preacher of Quaker gospel for the soldiers, and her services were always described in the context of ministerial blessings and sermons. To Sybil, Christian worship was equally as necessary to a soldier’s healing as was physical treatment. Indeed, when a doctor attempted to bar Sybil from sermonizing to severely wounded patients, she responded, “Our services never disturb.”
By 1867, Sybil departed with her husband to complete missionary work overseas. She never engaged in any formal “nursing” after the war’s conclusion, but she returned to her roots as an educator by founding an all-girls school in Ramallah, Syria. Sybil died of complications from dysentery in 1873, less than a decade after finishing her nursing services in the Civil War.