Saturday, January 26, 2019

Quilt for a Civil War Nurse: Sarah Graham Palmer Young

Quilt made for Sarah A. Graham Palmer Young
State Historical Museum of Iowa

We're beginning our Hospital Sketches BOM Wednesday so I thought I'd look for quilts associated with women hospital workers who served during the Civil War. The State Historical Museum of Iowa owns this red and white signature quilt made for Sarah Graham Palmer Young about the turn of the 20th century.

The picture, while indistinct, gives us a good idea of the quilt's style, probably Turkey red and white cotton squares with embroidered names images and sentiments, a popular look at the time. In 1896 the Clinton Corps #10 of the Women's Relief Corps, Union veterans' auxiliary, presented an "embroidered commemorative counterpane" to Sarah Young to celebrate her 65th birthday, likely this quilt.

Sarah Palmer Young (1830 or 1831-1908)
The portrait is from her 1867 memoir of her Civil War experiences.

The subtitle of the book is "Ninth Corps Hospital Matron"

Sorting out her role and identity reveals that Aunt Becky was a nickname she chose during the War. The wounded soldiers tended to call her "Mother," a name that she at 30 years old did not like. So she suggested Aunt Becky and by that name she became quite famous as an Army nurse.

Her story, which began with her 1867 memoir, eclipsed many of the true events recorded in the book. When she died in 1908 dozens of newspapers printed this short obituary, identifying her "Aunt Becky Young, the first woman to offer herself as a nurse when the civil war broke out...."

The accurate role of matron, administering hospital food services and housekeeping, had evolved into nurse and the superlative first was often used to describe her pioneering patriotism as the "First Civil War Nurse."

Her quarters depicted in her memoir, a rather spacious view of her tent,
her cloth home

She recorded that she left her home in Ithaca, New York in September, 1862, almost a year and a half after Fort Sumter, to join Company G of the 109th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and find a place to volunteer at a hospital in Beltville, Maryland. The regiment was guarding railroads in Laurel and Annapolis Junction. 

Fairly soon she found a role as kitchen supervisor, a common occupation for female hospital workers who ordered provisions, supervised the cooks, oversaw food, bedding and clothing donations and sometimes fed the soldiers themselves. In off-times they soothed patients, wrote their letters and changed their dressings.

Much of what we would consider nursing today was
confined to men, sometimes recovering prisoners, sometimes
paid workers, occasional volunteers and in the South conscripted slaves.

When she left New York Sarah A. Graham Palmer was a widow with two young girls, whom she left in family care. She had married Abel O. Palmer in 1849.

She moved on to a hospital in City Point, a miserable place during the long siege of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864 and 1865. She kept a diary during the war but only the pages from the last few months there survive (see the end of the book) where she confides her loneliness and misery at the deaths she witnessed as she made her rounds in her "bed-tick dress." By then she was a salaried Union Army employee, earning $12 a month, which was never easy to collect.

Sarah Palmer Young, photo published at the end of the century
in a volume of women's biographies

Once the war was over she saw the grand celebratory parade in Washington and arrived back in New York in June, finally receiving a check for $165 in back pay. But she was without a job and had two daughters to support. Her fellow veterans of the 109th suggested a "memorial should be presented to Congress...asking an appropriation of two thousand dollars with which to purchase her home." 

But she'd considered an option open to ladies in reduced circumstances, writing a book. According to the preface in her book (the preface has none of the authentic voice of her diary entries) she replied "Let those who would help me buy a book....Congress has enough of its own little bills to pay."

The book was published in 1867 and sold enough copies to make Aunt Becky somewhat of a legend in superlatives. That year she also remarried, moving to Des Moines, Iowa with new husband David C. Young, listed in a county history as a contractor, and daughters Belle Innis Palmer, about 14 and an unnamed younger daughter.

Her 67th birthday warranted a giant party... the whole city of
Des Moines turning out to give the good old soul an ovation.

After 1880 Sarah as Aunt Becky became a fixture in the newspapers as well as an in-demand speaker at Decoration Day ceremonies, Union veteran reunions and G.A.R. parades. It's a little difficult to understand why this particular woman, one of hundreds of hospital volunteers, achieved such fame. Her book probably contributed, but it also may be that Sarah was good at book marketing. Perhaps she brought books with her to the veterans' encampments and the graveyard events.

Or maybe she was just good copy in an era of blue and gray reunions
when Union army nurses were lauded even in Richmond, Virginia newspapers.

She might also have been using her story to publicize two other causes, one the War in the Philippines for which she sponsored a Sanitary Commission, benefiting wounded soldiers. The other--- the movement to provide federal pensions for female Civil War "nurses". In 1896 she began receiving a monthly pension of $20 under the 1892 "Army Nurses Pension Act," which required a good deal of public pressure to persuade Congress to pass.

Iowa's State Historical Museum has another patchwork gift made for Sarah Young, " silk and wool blocks ... presented to Aunt Becky Young by units of the Woman's Relief Corps in Iowa and by her fashioned into a quilt. The quilt was still unbound at the time of her death in 1906." Both quilts were donated to a Daughters of Union Veterans group named for Aunt Becky Young when daughter Belle Palmer Bolton died in 1936 and later transferred to the Historical Museum.

Read the book by Sarah Palmer, The Story of Aunt Becky's Army Life (New York: J.F. Trow, 1867)


kathyinozarks said...

thank your for sharing her story

julieQ said...

As a modern day nurse, I salute her...making their own bandages, growing food and cooking for the patients...amazing people!!

WoolenSails said...

That is an amazing story about an amazing woman. I wish I had known more about when my grandmother was a nurse during the war in NY. I was given a rosary that was given to her from a patient, who appreciated the care she gave him during the end of his life and wanted her to have it, since he had no family. She is the one I got my creativity from, she made clothes, quilted, rug hooking and owned a pottery shop with her sister.


Judy said...

I look forward to reading more stories. I’m sure the term “nurse” has had many meanings through the years.

Kim bac kue said...

I have a bandages quilt too, from Ohio, with names of soldiers and prominent persons inked onto the white sections. I can send pics if you like to see them.

Barbara Brackman said...

Kim, send pictures.