I must admit to a sneaking fondness for the Civil War nurses who found a way to work outside Dorothea Dix’s nursing corps. Some of them, like Cornelia Hancock, were too young and/or too pretty to meet “Dragon Dix”‘s specifications. Others, like Clara Barton, were too independent. Amy Morris Bradley was simply too ornery.
When the war began in 1861, Bradley was working in Boston as a freelance translator of business documents from English to Spanish–not a typical job for a cobbler’s daughter from rural Maine.*
When the war came, she was determined to serve as a nurse. She met the qualifications for Dix’s nursing corps: she once described herself as “homely as a stump.” But instead of applying via Dix, she began a persistent campaign to serve with the Third Maine Volunteers, many of whom were old friends and former students, including the regiment’s surgeons, Dr. George E. Brickett and Dr. Gideon S. Palmer. Both Brickett and Palmer expressed concerns about the hardness of the life, especially since Bradley had suffered from serious respiratory illnesses her entire life, but ultimately welcomed her into the regiment.
Bradley served with the regiment for eight months. (During that period she visited Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria three times and decided that nursing in a general hospital would mean too many stairs, too many patients, and too much authority to defer to.) After that, she served on the United States Sanitary Commissions hospital transport ships until they were shut down in August 1862. In September, she accepted the position of supervisor at the USSC Home in Washington, which served as a way station for soldiers in transit who were under financial or physical duress. Her main job was to supervise the staff who cleaned and cooked, care for the men, and help them navigate through the government red tape needed to receive their back pay, return to their regiments, or go home. She also had the authority to visit camps and hospitals as an official Sanitary Commission relief worker. It seemed like a job made to order for Bradley.
On September 23, Bradley made her first visit on behalf of the Sanitary Commission to Camp Convalescent, known to its inhabitants as Camp Misery, where she found a level of suffering she had never seen before. Thereafter she visited on a regular basis to distribute warm clothing, food, and blankets and began an ardent campaign, in conjunction with Sanitary Commission inspector Mary Livermore, to improve conditions at the camp. After several months of determined lobbying by Bradley and Livermore, who even managed a personal interview with President Lincoln on the subject, the authorities agreed to move the camp to higher ground.** They also approved Bradley’s appointment as “Special Relief Agent of the US Sanitary Commission at the Convalescent Camp in Alexandria.”
On December 16, 1862, Bradley left the comfort of the Sanitary Commission Home for hardship duty at the convalescent camp. She had assumed she would be able to build on existing administrative systems, but instead found that no systems existed at all. No barracks had been erected at the new site, and the men were in tents, sleeping on the half-frozen ground. Many had only a single suit of ragged, fever-soiled clothes and one army blanket. With no laundry in the camp, items were used until soiled, then thrown on the ground and left to rot by the thousands.
Bradley’s first step was to requisition woolen shirts and attend the Sunday-morning inspection with the officer. “On that damp and chilling day, on the banks of the Potomac in mid-winter,” she found seventy-five men with nothing warmer than thin cotton shirts. That problem was easily solved. Next she requested hospital tents with floors and stoves for the sick. She installed a washhouse so clothing and linen could be cleaned and purchased a bathtub, evidently an amenity previously lacking in the camp.*** Recognizing the value of amusement for men forced to be idle, she brought in playing cards, backgammon boards, checkerboards, chess sets, dominoes, and Chinese checkers.
With the men adequately clothed and fed and the sickest among them made as comfortable as possible, she turned her attention to “another wretched class”: men who were no longer capable of serving but who had not yet received their discharges or their arrears of pay. In some cases their papers had waited for several weeks in the surgeon’s office, “while they were too weak or ill-clad to go out in the cold and stand till their turn came.” Bradley brought these men to her hospital tents, where they were warmed, fed, and clothed; she then applied for their papers, arranged their transportation orders, and sent them to Washington in her ambulance.
Between May 1 and the end of December 1863, she traveled to Washington with almost every discharged soldier, settled him in the Sanitary Commission Home, and walked him through the process of settling his accounts with the government–almost 2,000 soldiers in total. She also helped reinstate some 150 soldiers on the army’s records so they could receive their back pay. She noted with justifiable pride that “the sum total of the moneys thus paid in settlement to soldiers whose accounts were placed in my hands during the years, is between seven and eight thousand dollars,” the equivalent of between $136,000 and $156,000 today.
When Bradley was sent to Camp Misery, she was asked what she wanted to accomplish. Her answer was “Ultimately to break up the camp,” and she succeeded. On January 14, 1864, thirteen months after she arrived, the army issued Special Order No. 20, which provided that “Camp Convalescent will hereafter be known as ‘Rendezvous of Distribution’ and the place from which all men fit for field duty arriving at the Department of Washington will be distributed to their regiments. In future, none but men fit for field service, and deserters, will be sent to Rendezvous.” Bradley’s last task at Camp Convalescent was to organize the transfer of the remaining convalescents to hospitals or their homes. Camp Misery was no more.
*How she got from Maine to Boston via Costa Rica a long, fascinating story of first class shin-kicking. You can find a short version in Heroines of Mercy Street or the longer version in Diane Cobb Cashman’s Headstrong: The Biography of Amy Morris Bradley 1823–1904, A Life of Noblest Usefulness (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing, 1990) Cashman’s book is long out of print and difficult to get hold of, but worth it.
**One of the problems was its location at the foot of a long slope that drained into the camp. Always damp, it turned into a quagmire when it rained. Just the place you want to build a camp for convalescents. You can file this under “what the hell were they thinking”.
***One bathtub. More than 1500 men.