Civil War Nurse and Teacher
In 1862 Eliza Porter helped organize hospitals in Illinois to care for the wounded from the Battle of Shiloh, then traveled South. In Memphis she established a school for African American children before returning to the care of wounded Union soldiers in the field.
Eliza Chappell was born on November 5, 1807, in Genesee, New York. She began teaching school at age 16, and after moving with her mother to Rochester, New York, she opened a school for small children in 1828. In 1831, she traveled to the frontier settlement on Mackinac Island (now part of Michigan) as a private tutor, and within a short time she had opened a school for mixed-race Indian children.
After a trip east to recover from an illness and to secure support for the founding of more schools, she established schools at St. Ignace, Michigan in 1833, and the small settlement of Chicago. In 1835, Eliza Chappell married the Reverend Jeremiah Porter, a Presbyterian clergyman from Chicago, Illinois.
In the spring of 1861, immediately after the Civil War began, while sitting one morning at her breakfast table – with her husband, eldest son, and two nephews – she said: "If I had a hundred sons, I would gladly send them all forth to this work of putting down the rebellion." The three young men then present all entered the army.
During the summer of 1861, Mrs. Porter visited Cairo, Illinois, where hospitals had been established, and carried what things were most needed by the sick and wounded soldiers. In October of that year, Illinois was first roused to cooperate in the work of the Sanitary Commission.
The Northwestern Sanitary Commission was organized to solicit, collect and distribute food, medical supplies, and other provisions for use by the Union army and in military hospitals. At the request of Mr. E. W. Blatchford and others, Mrs. Porter took charge of the Commission Rooms that were opened in Chicago. Her zeal and abilities, as well as her hospital experiences of the summer, had fitted her for the arduous task, and she accepted the appointment.
In April 1862, Eliza Porter abandoned office work for field service. She escorted a group of volunteer nurses to Cairo, Illinois, and there and in nearby Mound City she helped organize hospitals and direct the work of caring for the large number of casualties from the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing).
Eliza's husband, who the previous winter had been commissioned as Chaplain of the First Illinois Light Artillery, was then at Cairo, where he had been ordered to work in the hospitals there. Mrs. Porter, visiting Cairo and Paducah, placed the nurses she had brought with her from Chicago in those locations.
At Cairo, Mrs. Porter made the acquaintance of Mary Jane Safford, who was called the Cairo Angel, and cooperating with her, and with Mr. Porter and various surgeons, received and temporarily cared for seven hundred men from the field of Pittsburgh Landing, and then transferring them to the hospitals at Mound City, Illinois.
Soon thereafter, Mrs. Porter went to Pittsburgh Landing, where she received an order for several female nurses from the Medical Director, Dr. Charles McDougal, for his department. She hurried to Chicago, rounded up the volunteers, accompanied them to Tennessee, and placed them at Savannah with Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who had been with the wounded since the Battle of Shiloh.
From there Eliza went to Corinth, which had just been taken by General Grant. She was accompanied by several benevolent ladies from Chicago, like herself bent on doing good to the sick and wounded. At Corinth, Eliza joined her husband, and traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, with him after he was ordered to join his regiment there.
She worked there, principally in the hospital of the First Light Artillery at Fort Pickering, through the summer of 1862, and afterwards returned to visit some of the southern towns of Illinois in search of supplies from the farmers, which she added to the supplies from the Commission.
While at Memphis, Mrs. Porter became deeply interested in the welfare of the escaped slaves and their families who were gathered there. Receiving aid from friends in the North, she established a school for African American children, and spent her leisure time teaching there. The school flourished, and others entered into the work, and other schools were established. Teaching, feeding, and clothing the former slaves kept Eliza busy at Memphis and in its vicinity until June, 1863.
After her schools had become well-established, Mrs. Porter felt the need to again devote herself exclusively to the soldiers, a large number of whom were languishing in Southern hospitals in an unhealthy climate. After a short stay at Vicksburg, Eliza returned to Illinois to plead with Governor Yates to bring home his disabled soldiers, then went back, by way of Louisville and Nashville, to Huntsville, Alabama, where she met and worked with friends from Chicago, and again Mrs. Bickerdyke.
After a few weeks spent there in comforting the sick, Eliza followed the army to Chattanooga, Resaca, Kingston, Allatoona Pass, Marietta, and Atlanta. The following letter was extracted from the Report for January and February 1864 of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission:
Chattanooga, January 24, 1864
I reached this place on New Year's Eve, making the trip of the few miles from Bridgeport to Chattanooga, in twenty-four hours. New Year's morning was very cold. I went immediately to the Field Hospital about two miles out of town, where I found Mrs. Bickerdyke hard at work, as usual, endeavoring to comfort the cold and suffering, sick and wounded. The work done on that day told most happily on the comfort of the poor wounded men.
The wind came sweeping around Lookout Mountain, and uniting with currents from the valleys of Mission Ridge, pressed in upon the hospital tents, overturning some, and making the inmates of all tremble with cold and anxious fear. The cold had been preceded by a great rain, which added to the general discomfort.
Mrs. Bickerdyke went from tent to tent in the gale, carrying hot bricks and hot drinks to warm and to cheer the poor fellows. "She is a power of good," said one soldier. "We fared mighty poor till she came here," said another. "God bless the Sanitary Commission," said a third, "for sending women among us!" The soldiers fully appreciate "Mother Bickerdyke," as they call her, and her work.
Mrs. Bickerdyke left Vicksburg at the request of General Sherman, and other officers of his corps, as they wished to secure her services for the then approaching battle. The Field Hospital of the 15th (Sherman's) Army Corps, was situated on the north bank of the Genesee river, on a slope at the base of Missionary Ridge, where, after the struggle was over, seventeen hundred wounded and exhausted soldiers were brought.
Mrs. Bickerdyke reached there before the din and smoke of battle were well over, and before all were brought from the field of blood and carnage. There she remained the only female attendant for four weeks. Never has she rendered more valuable service. Dr. Newberry arrived in Chattanooga with Sanitary goods, which Mrs. Bickerdyke had the pleasure of using.
The Field Hospital was in a forest, about five miles from Chattanooga, wood was abundant, and the camp was warmed by immense burning "log heaps," which were the only fireplaces or cooking-stoves of the camp or hospitals. Men were detailed to fell the trees and pile the logs to heat the air, which was very wintry. And beside them Mrs. Bickerdyke made soup and toast, tea and coffee, and broiled mutton, without a gridiron, often blistering her fingers in the process.
A house in due time was demolished to make bunks for the worst cases, and the brick from the chimney was converted into an oven, when Mrs. Bickerdyke made bread, yeast having been found in the Chicago boxes, and flour at a neighboring mill, which had furnished flour to secessionists through the war until now.
Great multitudes were fed from these rude kitchens. Companies of hungry soldiers were refreshed before those open fireplaces, and from those ovens. On one occasion, a citizen came and told the men to follow him, he would show them a reserve of beef and sheep which had been provided for General Bragg's army, and about thirty head of cattle and twenty sheep was the prize.
Large potash kettles were found, which were used over the huge log fires, and various kitchen utensils for cooking were brought into camp from time to time, almost every day adding to our conveniences. After four weeks of toil and labor, all the soldiers who were able to leave were furloughed home, and the rest brought to the large hospital where I am now located. About nine hundred men are here, most of them convalescents, and waiting anxiously to have the men and mules supplied with food, so that they may have the benefit of the cars, which have been promised to take them home.
There was great joy in the encampment last week, at the announcement of the arrival of a train of cars from Bridgeport. You at home can have little appreciation of the feelings of the men as that sound greeted their ears. Our poor soldiers had been reduced to half and quarter rations for weeks, and those of the poorest quality. The mules had fallen by the wayside from very starvation.
You cannot go a mile in any direction without seeing these animals lying dead from starvation - and this state of things had to continue until the railroad was finished to Chattanooga, and the cars could bring in sustenance for man and beast. You will not wonder then at the huzzas of the men in the hospitals and camps, as the whistle of the long looked for train was heard.
The most harrowing scenes are daily witnessed here. A wife came on yesterday only to learn that her dear husband had died the morning previous. Her lamentations were heart-breaking. "Why could he not have lived until I came? Why?" In the evening, came a sister, whose aged parents had sent her to search for their only son. She also came too late. The brother had gone to the soldier's grave two days previous. One continued wail of sorrow goes up from all parts of this stricken land.
I have protracted this letter, I fear, until you are weary. I write in great haste, not knowing how to take the time from pressing duties which call me everywhere. Yours, etc.,
Eliza C. Porter.
Excerpts from Eliza's journal, kept during this period, were published without her knowledge in the Sanitary Commission Bulletin. The diary was begun on May 15, 1864, while she was following Mrs. Bickerdyke to Ringgold, Georgia.
Together they arrived at Sugar Creek, where but two miles distant the battle was raging, and spent the night at General Logan's headquarters, within hearing of its horrible sounds. They were not being permitted to go on the field, but cared for the wounded as they were brought to the rear.
Again, writing from Alatoona, Georgia, on June 14th:
I have just visited a tent filled with 'amputated cases,' They are noble young men, the pride and hope of loving families at the North, but most of them are so low that they will never again return to them. Each had a special request for "something that he could relish," I made my way quickly down from the heights, where the hospital tents are pitched, and sought for the food they craved.
I found it among the goods of the Sanitary Commission – and now the dried currants, cherries, and other fruit are stewing; we have unsoldered cans containing condensed milk and preserved fruit – and the poor fellows will not be disappointed in their expectations.
At the close of General Sherman's campaign, Mrs. Porter finished her army service by caring for the travel-worn and weary soldiers as they came into camp at Washington where, with Mrs. Stephen Barker and others, she devoted herself to the distribution of supplies, attending the sick, and in various ways comforting and relieving all who needed her aid.
When Eliza and her husband moved to Brownsville, Texas, in 1868, she reopened the coeducational Rio Grande Seminary that she had founded on an earlier visit. Over the next 15 years, she conducted schools there, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and at Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming, as her husband was transferred.
Eliza Porter died on January 1, 1888, in Santa Barbara, California.