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Union matron of New Hampshire: Harriet Patience Dame

Posted on Friday, January 13, 2017 at 10:50 am

Dec/Jan Companion CoversMiss Dame was born in Barnstead, New Hampshire (or North Barnstead) to James Chadbourne and Phebe Ayers on January 5, 1815. In 1843, Dame moved to Concord, New Hampshire and worked at various occupations. By 1861, she was running a student boarding house.  She had no formal training as a nurse prior to the war.

When war came, Harriet, aged 46, approached the recruit training station at Camp Union in Concord and offered her services to officers. As a result of no infirmary at the camp, Harriet was put into service as a nurse. She served with the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry from April, 1861 to December, 1865. She served the entire time without a furlough. This was through two enlistment periods of the regiment.

This regiment was mostly men from Concord and Exeter, led by Col. Gilman Marston.  Miss Dame marched and camped alongside the troops. Most of the time, she was often the only woman among the regiment of one thousand men.   Col. Marston said of her: “Miss Dame was the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a cannon battery without flinching while a man took refuge behind her for safety from flying shells. She was always present when most needed.” She saw action at first Bull Run, second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.

Concord, in 1861, was the site of political rallies. It may have been those gatherings that fired Harriet up and made her want to do her patriotic duty with the boys in the Civil War. Whatever the reason, it is written in The Barnstead Reunion, “That at once aroused her patriotism and she anxiously desired to aid the Union cause. Not being permitted to carry a musket, she decided to become an army nurse and joined Second Regiment NH volunteers, as hospital matron.” The pay of a hospital matron at that time was six dollars a month, ($240.00 in today’s dollars). But Harriet probably was less concerned with her salary than she was helping the soldiers who were fighting in the war.

If Harriet wanted to get close to battle, her wish was granted in April of 1862, when she was helping inside the trenches to treat the wounded at Fair Oaks, Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign. “She was inside the trenches at Fair Oaks while the rebels were bombarding them and a shell tore through the tent just as she left it, and another burst overhead while she was cooking some broth. In the ambulance and hospital she was a ministering angel and saved the lives of many men by careful nursing. After that battle, the troops having retreated, she walked a long distance and assisted the sick and wounded on the march. One very dark night she passed in the thick of the woods, not knowing whether she was near friends or foes.

Miss Dame said:  “I remember an incident of one morning on the Chickahominy. The men came to me and wanted me to make them some tea, which I did. It seemed to refresh them greatly. I walked away from the fire and saw a man sitting on a stump at the edge of the woods. His face was in his hands, he acted greatly fatigued. I asked if he were ill. He said, ‘No,’ but he had been in the saddle for a whole day. As he looked up, I saw that he was a major-general, and offered him some tea, which he gladly accepted. I did not know the man, but years afterward, in looking at some pictures, I came across that of General Kearney, and he was the man on the stump.’

Due to her courage and compassion, Harriet was well known among all the soldiers and deep respect was always shown no matter where she went and nursed the men.

When Union General Joseph Hooker announced that all soldiers who could not walk to Harrison’s Landing, Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign would be left behind to certain death, Miss Dame first organized the sick and wounded so they could help each other during the 120-mile trek and later won space for them on wagons. Her leadership and ability to organize saved the lives of many.

Indeed, Harriet traveled extensively and saw the worst of the worst: she was with the 2nd NH regiment at Harrison’s Landing and treated the sick and wounded among them. Soon after, she was put on a hospital boat and sent to Fortress Monroe to aid the wounded that had been evacuated. From there she was ordered to accompany a shipload of sick and wounded soldiers to New York for treatment in a General Hospital.

Not long after, Harriet was back on the battlefield nursing the wounded. She was at the Second Bull Run battle. After the fight, she was captured while in route to accompany soldiers to a hospital at the Stone Church. Her captors thought that she might be a spy. She was taken to none other than Stonewall Jackson himself. A written account of the meeting stated that, “The grand old warrior sat alone. He glanced at [Ms. Dame], and when she showed her bandages for the wounded, her flask and her medicines. General Jackson thundered: ‘Take that lady back to the Northern lines! He detailed a guard of eight picked men to guide this nurse safely back to Northern lines.’”

In December ,1862, she was a nurse at the battle of Fredericksburg and suffered from exposure, but remained with the sick soldiers until they were deemed able to be removed to Washington D.C. Harriet once again packed her traveling bag and accompanied the wounded.

Harriet next appeared as a nurse at the Battle of Gettysburg and what she must have seen cannot be imagined. A chaplain described the nobility of Miss. Dame: “I have heard them all tell how she toiled day after day on the bloody field of Gettysburg, sometimes during the battle, between the lines…absorbed and self-forgetful, devoting herself to the relief of our wounded men. And when the darkness of night, and the exhaustion of her energies made rest imperative, she would pillow her head on the gory field, and sleep amid the dead and wounded scattered around her.”

During the years Harriet served as a nurse, she followed the New Hampshire regiment through one battle after another. She became an almost legendary figure among all the soldiers that she served. In September, 1864, she was appointed Matron of the 18th Corps Hospital and supervised the nurses and also the cooking for the hospital’s sick and wounded, which at times amounted to over 3,000 men. The corps was sent first to the Bermuda Hundred, and later to the north bank of the James River. Its first division took part in the successful attack on Fort Harrison on August 29 during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. The corps was also engaged on October 27 in the Second Battle of Fair Oaks, fought over the same ground as the first battle in May, 1862. The corps was discontinued in December, 1864.

On Christmas day, Dec. 25, 1865, the regiment of New Hampshire soldiers was mustered out of service and Harriet’s service to the Civil War ended when the men were sent home. General Gilman Marston, colonel of the regiment, said of Harriet, “Miss Harriet P. Dame went out with the Second NH Volunteers in June, 1861, and remained with that regiment and in the army hospitals until the close of the war. She sought no soft place and wherever her regiment went she went, often marching on foot and camping without tent on the field. She was always present where most needed, and to the suffering, whether ‘Yank or Reb’ it made no difference. She was truly an angel of mercy. Miss Dame was the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a battery without flinching, while a man took refuge behind her to avoid the flying fragments of bursting shells. Of all the men and women who volunteered to serve their country during the late war, no one is more deserving of reward than Harriet P. Dame.”

After the war, Dame was appointed in 1867 by William E. Chandler to a Treasury Department clerkship in Washington, D.C. which she held into old age (she was still working at 81). She did not return to her home state until 1900 after Congress voted her a military pension in 1884.

In 1886 she deposited $1,000 with a committee of the 2nd regiment veterans to erect a building for headquarters for their encampment at Lake Winnipesaukee. She was the second president of the Ex-Army Nurses’ Association, and she donated personal funds to build the NH Old Soldiers Home in Tilton.

Dame served as the third president of the National Association of Army Nurses of the Civil War, in 1884 upon the death of Dorthea Dix and resignation of Dr. Susan Edson. Because of her service, a Senate bill was introduced in the 48th Congress to provide pensions to nurses who worked on the battlefield or in hospitals during the Civil War.

Patience Dame never married. She died in Concord and was buried at Blossom Hill Cemetery on April 24, 1900 in Concord. Governor Frank Rollins and long lines of state militia participated in her funeral ceremony. A brief obituary in the New York Times on April 25, 1900 stated:

“Harriet P. Dame, war nurse from New Hampshire, known by name to thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers, died tonight. She had the right to wear the insignia of the One Hundred and Eighty-eighth Corps, and the Third Corps of Hookers Division.”

“She sought no soft place, but wherever her regiment went, she went, often marching on foot and camping without tent on the field. She was always present when most needed, and to the suffering, whether Yank or Reb -it made no difference- she was truly an angel of mercy. Miss Dame was the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a battery without flinching, while a man took refuge behind her to avoid the flying fragments of bursting shells.” – General Gilman Marston commander of the 2nd NH Regiment.

“I can speak of personal knowledge, for I have seen her under fire on many a hard fought field, and when lying on my back shot through the body, unable to move a finger, with, as everybody thought, my last breath going out, and with shot and shell raining around us, as if the very heavens were about to fall, she at that time was indeed to me a ministering angel, and I candidly believe if it were not for her I could not have written this letter to-day.” – M.A. Dillon 2nd NH Regiment wounded at Second Bull Run.

In 1901, the State Legislature appropriated funds so that a State House portrait might be painted of Harriet. Her portrait was the first portrait of a woman to be hung in the State House. The City of Concord also named a school in her honor.

With the soldiers she was entitled to wear the cross of the Eighteenth Corps, which she accompanied; the diamond of the Third Corps of Hooker’s Division; the heart of the Twelfth Corps and a gold badge given by the Second New Hampshire. The American Nurses Association put her in their Hall of Fame in 2002. She is their only Civil War Matron that they have honored for her nursing.

Until next time
Your obt. Servant,
Surgeon Trevor T. Steinbach