This is a guest post by Michelle Smiley, an assistant curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division. It appears in the May-June issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.
Chris Foard went to the Civil War collectors show in Nashville back in 2007, looking for artifacts that combined his two passions, a career as a registered nurse and a devoted pursuit of historical nursing research.
What he found was unexpected and important: a trove of material that sheds light on the sufferings of Abraham Lincoln and his family during the most trying years of his presidency — and the woman who helped them get through it.
Paging through a series of correspondence at the show, Foard discovered a handwritten letter on stationary bearing the Executive Mansion insignia and a vague connection to Lincoln.
Intrigued, he investigated further. The letters, it turned out, came from a collection of correspondence, photographs and personal artifacts related to the life of Rebecca Pomroy, who served as a private nurse for the Lincolns during a time when, in addition to facing the traumas of a bloody war, they had suffered a devastating personal loss.
The collection Foard discovered now resides in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, thanks to a recent donation by Civil War collector Tom Liljenquist. Lincoln’s papers are in the Manuscript Division.
Pomroy, born in Boston in 1817, had tended to ailing family members as a young woman and, after she married at 19, to her husband suffering from chronic asthma. Over a five-year period, Pomroy’s husband, two of their children and her mother passed away.
The losses deeply wounded Pomroy. At a friend’s request, she attended a religious camp in Boston, where she experienced a “calling” to do God’s work. Inspired, by July 1861, she had responded to an advertisement in a local paper seeking nurses to tend to soldiers wounded in the recently begun war. By that September, she was in Washington, D.C., doing just that.
With the diversion of able-bodied men to the front lines, nursing presented a new professional arena for women. Pomroy believed they could make unique contributions: “There is so much that a woman can do,” she wrote,” that a man never thinks of.”
In February 1862, as the war raged, Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, lost their 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, leaving the family in shambles. Their youngest, Tad, still was suffering from the disease. Mary was so distraught over the loss of another child — their son Eddie had died of tuberculosis 12 years earlier at age 3 — that she remained in bed for three weeks and didn’t attend Willie’s funeral.
Fearing for his wife and child, Lincoln sought help. On the recommendation of Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of Army nurses, Pomroy was chosen to serve the Lincoln family. She did not, however, immediately jump at the invitation.
“Dorothea Dix meets with Rebecca Pomroy at Columbian College Hospital and tells her, ‘Pack your bags. We are going to the White House,’ ” Foard said. “But she did not want to go. She was really upset because she thought, ‘Oh, I don’t want to leave my boys.’ ”
Pomroy’s devotion to “my boys,” as she called the soldiers she tended to at the hospital in nearby Meridian Park, testifies to her deep commitment to human care.
Despite her reservations, Pomroy agreed to help the Lincolns, and her talents as a caregiver — and her own experiences of loss and grief — allowed her to grow close to the family. They confided in her. The president discussed the Emancipation Proclamation with her. He accompanied Pomroy on a carriage ride through town and made a special visit to Columbian Hospital, to the surprise and delight of the soldiers and staff.
Although hesitant to request anything in return, Pomroy asked Lincoln to award her only surviving son, George, a commission as second lieutenant in the Army. He obliged. As Pomroy later recounted, “When the President left me, he said he felt that he was still in my debt.”
Still, Pomroy’s inner conflicts lingered — she wanted to get back to the hospital but also to serve the Lincolns. So, Lincoln arranged for Pomroy to resume work at the hospital but still make frequent visits to the White House.
“I have seen the whole of the mansion, and all that pertains to it,” Pomroy wrote on April 23, 1862, “but let me be found sitting at the bed of the poor soldier, wetting his parched lips, closing the dying eyes, and wiping the cold sweat from his brow, rather than be in Mrs. Lincoln’s place with all her honors.”
The letters demonstrate a small sample of the ways in which the correspondence, photographs and artifacts — now part of the Library’s Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs — provide an unparalleled insight into Pomroy’s most intimate thoughts and experiences.
The collection also includes personal objects — a cross made from Pomroy’s hair, a pair of earrings and an assortment of dried flowers picked from the White House garden — that enliven this seldom-told history of the Lincoln family’s private nurse.
“Pomroy deserves recognition given to other heroic women throughout history,” Foard said. “She was an admirable person not to be forgotten. I think that the Library of Congress will see that through.”
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