(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News as “Comfort for casualties of battle,” February 27, 2013.)
Newport’s own Katharine (also spelled Katherine) Prescott Wormeley took an active role in public affairs throughout her life, founding the Girls Industrial School in Newport before the Civil War, and serving as one of the first women during the War to assist the Medical Bureau and Sanitary Commission in caring for sick and wounded soldiers.
In her book, The Other Side of War with the Army of the Potomac, she describes the origins, duties, and early work of the newly-formed United States Sanitary Commission. “It was the outgrowth of a demand made by the women of the country” because both men and women wanted to contribute to the war effort. “As the men mustered for the battlefield, so the women mustered in churches, schoolhouses, and parlors….”
The Commission came into existence on June 9, 1861, a few months after the beginning of the War. It was “to inquire into the materiel of the volunteer army, to inspect recruits, and examine the working of the system by which they were enlisted; it was to keep itself informed as to the sanitary condition of the regiments, their camps, sites, drainage, etc; as to the means of preserving and restoring the health and promoting the general comfort and efficiency of the troops; as to the proper provision of cooks, nurses, and hospitals ….” Based on this information and applying “the fullest teachings of sanitary science,” it was to make suggestions to the Medical Bureau and the War Department on the health, comfort, and morale of the army. Finally, it was to aid the Medical Department “in the care of the sick and wounded as the generosity of the people, and especially the efforts of the women of the country [allowed].”
The majority of her book consists of letters she wrote after volunteering to join the “Hospital Transport Service” in April, 1862. In her first letter of the book dated April 27, 1862, written from Newport to a friend, she relates her convictions. “I am thinking of going to Yorktown. How should you view it? … I suppose this will rather startle you. But why should it not be done?” … “A drawing together of circumstances seems to point to this thing, and I enter upon it as if it were obviously the next thing to be done.”
By May 10, she was writing from the Daniel Webster, a floating hospital. As one of four women on the ship, her duties were “very much that of a housekeeper.” She had just received, stowed, and fed 245 men, most ill with typhoid fever. As each man came aboard, “I gave him brandy and water,” and later, tea, bread and butter. The “fever patients are very dreadful, and their moans are distressing. The men were all patient and grateful. Some said, ‘You don’t know what it is to me to see you.’ … ‘To think of a woman being here to help me!’” “We shuffle about without hoops; Mrs. Griffin says it is de rigueur [the normal condition] that they shall not be worn in hospital service.”
In a subsequent letter she describes a normal day on the ship. “I took my first actual watch last night…. We begin the day by getting them all washed, and freshened up, and breakfasted. Then the surgeons and dressers make their rounds, open the wounds, apply the remedies, and replace the bandages. This is an awful hour; I sat with my fingers in my ears this morning. When it is over, we go back to the men and put the ward in order once more … giving clean handkerchiefs with a little cologne or baywater on them. We sponge the bandages over the wounds constantly, –which alone carries us round from cot to cot almost without stopping, except to talk to some, read to others, or write letters for them; occasionally giving medicine or brandy …. Then comes dinner, which we serve ourselves, feeding those who can’t feed themselves. After that we go off duty, and get first washed and then fed ourselves; our dinner-table being the top of an old stove, with slices of bread as plates, fingers for knives and fork ….”
After her time on the hospital transports, she was named “Lady Superintendent” of Portsmouth Grove Hospital, here in Portsmouth, RI. She accepted the position in August 1862, and was responsible for its “domestic management.” The hospital came to have 28 ward buildings with 60 patients per ward. She named women to key supervisory roles, formerly occupied by only men.
With her health failing and with a sick mother, she resigned her position in September 1863. After regaining her health, she became in 1864 associate manager for Rhode Island of the Boston Branch of the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association, performing charitable work for Rhode Island veterans.
In her later years she gained fame for her translations of French works, such as The Works of Balzac, several works of Alexandre Dumas, a number of plays by Moliere, and the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon.
The former Wormeley home in Newport today
(Photo by Fred Zilian)
Her home in Newport still remains at the Corner of Red Cross Avenue and Old Beach Road. Her cremated remains are buried in a cemetery in Newport.
Note: For further info on the Portsmouth Grove Hospital, see Frank L. Grzyb, Rhode Island’s Civil War Hospital.
(The author would like to thank Mr. Bert Lippincott of the Newport Historical Society for his help with this article.)