Civil War Diaries – Jane Swisshelm on Fredericksburg


Jane Cannon was born on December 6, 1815, in Pittsburg, PA. Jane’s father died when she was just eight years old, leaving Jane to help support her mother, as well as her family. She did so by lacemaking. At the age of just fourteen, she became a schoolteacher.

Then, in 1836, Jane married James Swisshelm. The two then moved to Louisville, KY. Here, Jane became involved in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. In 1848, Jane started an anti-slavery newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. In this paper, Jane also spoke out for women’s rights. Jane also contributed to the New York Tribune.

Jane made history on April 17, 1850, when she became the first woman to sit in the Senate press gallery. Jane then moved to Minnesota and created the St. Cloud Visiter. Jane ran a column responding to comments and letters with advice. In 1853, these columns were published in a book called Letters to Country Girls.

A pro-slavery mob attacked her printing press and destroyed it. She then bought another one and created the St. Cloud Democrat.

When the American Civil began, Jane sold her newspaper and began working as a nurse for the Union army. Jane served in Washington and Fredericksburg.

Jane Swisshelm on Fredericksburg

The following is an account written by Jane Swisshelm following the Battle of Fredericksburg:

This building was on Princess Ann street. The basement floor was level with the sidewalk, but the ground sloped upward at the back; so that the yard was higher than the floor.

The mud was running in from the yard. Opposite the door, in a small room, was a pile of knapsacks and blankets; and on them lay two men smoking. To get into the large room, I must step out of the hall mud over one man, and be careful not to step on another. I think it was six rows of men that lay close on the floor, with just room to pass between the feet of each row; they so close in the rows that in most places I must slide one foot before the other to get to their heads.

The floor was very muddy and strewn with debris, principally of crackers. There was one hundred and eighty-two men in the building, all desperately wounded. They had been there a week. There were two leather water-buckets, two tin basins, and about every third man had saved his tin-cup or canteen; but no other vessel of any sort, size or description on the premises – no sink or cesspool or drain. The nurses were not to be found; the men were growing reckless and despairing, but seemed to catch hope as I began to thread my way among them and talk.

I found some of the nurses – cowards who had run away from battle, and now ran from duty – galvanized them into activity, invented substitutes for things that were wanting – making good use of an old knapsack and pocket-knife – and had tears of gratitude for pay.

One man lay near the front door, in a scant flannel shirt and cotton drawers, his left thigh cut off in the middle and the stump supported on the only pillow in the house. It was six by ten inches, stuffed with straw. His head was supported by two bits of board and a pair of very muddy boots. He called me, clutched my dress, and plead:

“Mother, can’t you get me a blanket, I’m so cold; I could live if I could get any care!”

I went to the room where the men lay smoking on the blankets; but one of them wearing a surgeon’s shoulder straps, and speaking in a German accent, claimed them as his private property, and positively refused to yield one.

The other man was his orderly, and words were useless – they kept their blankets.

After I returned to the large room, I took notice about clothing, and found that most of the men had on their – ordinary uniform; some had two blankets, more had one; but full one-third were without any. There was no shadow or pretense of a bed or pillow, not even a handful of straw or hay!

I spoke the first night to Dr. Porter about blankets and straw, or hay for beds, but was assured that none were to be had. Supplies could not reach them since being cut off from their base, and the Provost Marshal, Gen. Patrick, would not permit anything to be taken out of the houses, though many of them were unoccupied, and well supplied with bedding and other necessaries. I thought we ought to get two blankets for those two naked men, if the Government should pay their weight in gold for them; and suggested that the surgeons take what was necessary for the comfort of the men, and give vouchers to the owners. I knew such claims would be honored; would see that they should be; but he said the matter had been settled by the Provost, and nothing more could be done.

On Monday morning I sent for Dr. Porter, and stated the trouble about nurses shirking. He had them all summoned in the front end of the large room, and in presence of the patience, said to them:

“You see this lady? Well, you are, to report to her for duty; and if she has any fault to find with you she will report you to the Provost-Marshal!”

I have never seen a set of men look more thoroughly subdued. There were eleven of them, and they all gave me the military salute. The doctor went off, and I set them to work.

When there was so much to be done, I would do the most needful thing first, and this was ridding the wounds of worms and gangrene, supporting the strength of the men by proper food, and keeping the air as pure as possible. I got our beef into the way of being boiled, and would have some good substantial broth made around it. I went on a foraging expedition – found a coal-scuttle which would do for a slop-pail, and confiscated it, got two bits of board, by which it could be converted into a stool, and so bring the great rest of a change of position to such men as could sit up; had a little drain made with a bit of board for a shovel, and so kept the mud from running in at the side door; melted the tops off some tin cans, and made them into drinking cups; had two of my men confiscate a large tub from a brewery, set it in the vestibule to wash rags for outside covers to wounds, to keep off chill, and had others bring bricks and rubbish mortar from a ruin across the street, to make substitutes for pillows.

I dressed wounds! dressed wounds, and made thorough work of it. In the church was a dispensary, where I could get any washes or medicines I wished, and I do not think I left a worm. Some of them were over half an inch long, with black heads and many feet, but most were maggots. They were often deeply seated, but my syringe would drive them out, and twice a day I followed them up. The black and green places grew smaller and better colored with every dressing. The men grew stronger with plenty of beef and broth and canned milk. I put citric acid and sugar in their apple sauce as a substitute for lemons. I forget how many thigh stumps I had, but I think as many as twelve.

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