In January 1864 Sarah Gregg, a milliner from Ottawa (La Salle County), arrived at Camp Butler near Springfield to begin service as hospital matron. Over the next year and a half Gregg cared for sick and wounded soldiers and their visiting relatives, and worked with local civilians to provide comforts for wounded warriors. The diary she kept during that service provides a window into an important corner of life in the wartime North-that of caring for living casualties of the war.
Early service and frustration
Sarah Gregg provided aid to sick and wounded soldiers in early 1863 while working at the military hospital at Mound City, Illinois. Her diary opened with frustration when Mary Livermore and other officials of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission, based in Chicago, refused to issue Gregg supplies, “I not being a detailed nurse. There seemed to me to be too much red tape about this matter and may God forgive them for no one else will.”
In August, having returned to Ottawa, Sarah sought supplies from the local soldiers’ aid society only to be told that she must wait until the organization’s next meeting, and that if aid was approved it would be arranged through “Mrs. Livermore’s hands.” Refusing to be stymied in her efforts, Gregg wrote, “I thought the thing over and made up my mind that it would take so long…through that channel that I at once concluded I would take the responsibility of getting up and forwarding a box myself. So I put on my bonnet and started out on a begging expedition. I called on every drug store, grocery and saloon in the city and did not meet with one denial. I succeeded in raising delicacies of all kinds enough to fill a large box.” That box shipped for Mound City the next day.
Matron at Camp Butler
In early January 1864 Sarah was offered the post of hospital matron at Springfield’s Camp Butler. She wrote in her diary that she would accept if paid $50 a month. “They seemed to think that was high. I told them I thought I could do as much good in the army as a colonel and I ought to have as good wages.” It appears that she settled on $25 per month, almost double the $13 pay of a private in the infantry. Late in the month she began her work, reporting “There are over 400 sick and wounded soldiers here in miserable condition. But with God’s help I will make them more comfortable.”
Sarah soon established a relationship with the Springfield Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society, which from the war’s early days had provided supplies to Camp Butler hospitals. Her requests for food, hospital clothing, and other goods were met with a quick response. Three weeks after arriving at Camp Butler Sarah wrote with relish that she had informed Mary Livermore of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission that “I was confident that the state commission and the Ladies Aid society at Springfield would supply all the sanitary supplies necessary without the aid of the northwestern commission.”
Even with enthusiastic aid from local sources Sarah’s job was not an easy one. It involved regular loss of men she had come to know. An early indication of what she would face came in early February when she recorded, “Ten of our soldiers were buried today. They were taken from the dead house and put into a wagon. A band accompanied them playing a dead march. The wagon was drawn by four mules. That was the saddest sight I ever saw.” In November she lamented that death during wartime was not like that during days of peace, having become almost commonplace: “How sad it seems to see no mourners at a funeral.”
Other losses touched Sarah. She wrote on February 26, 1864 that there were “two soldier sick wives to take care of, a Mrs. Collins and Mrs. Shrum. The latter was in her confinement, a female child born, a very pretty little girl.” The entries continued: February 27, “Mrs. Shrum worse”; February 28, “Mrs. Shrum died this morning”; March 1, “We have Mrs. Shrum’s baby. Mrs Kellogg takes care of it”; March 2, “Mrs. Shrum’s funeral took place today.”
Life in Camp Butler’s hospitals was never uneventful, and surprises were frequent. On June 26 “We were thrown into quite a confusion by having two hundred and twenty sick soldiers sent to our hospital from Sherman’s army in Georgia.” Even the daily grind involved heavy duty. In December 1864 Sarah was preparing a special “low diet” three times a day for 175 patients.
For Sarah even simple joys of springtime suffered by the war. She recorded in April 1864 that “The grass is green the birds singing. Still there is a melancholy that surrounds us.”
Sarah’s life at Camp Butler was not without pleasure. In March 1864 she made a request for garden tools, which were soon put to use in planting vegetables and flowers, and transplanting maple trees to decorate the grounds.
Perhaps the high point of Sarah’s time at Camp Butler’s hospitals was the 1864 celebration of Independence Day. In late June and early July boxes of evergreen cuttings arrived from friends in Ottawa. Sarah meanwhile occupied some of her time in making “ornaments.” A Springfield newspaper reported that “even the weakest took an interest in the decoration of the wards… Our excellent matron and her associate ladies were determined to give the patients a treat that would resemble as much as possible their own dear homes… The walls were trellised with cedar and the branches of kindred shrubs, whilst the windows were decorated with fancy paper trimmings, and from the roof hung beautiful ornaments in different shapes, and the colors caused many a weak voice to cry out… ‘Three cheers for the Red, White and Blue.'” On the morning of July 4 itself “the patients became impatient to get out; and as the morning was fine, they collected in groups, some talking of the days of their grandfathers, some of home, some of Vicksburg…” To top it all matron Gregg provided a special meal, “determined that the ornaments were not our only treats.” The sentiment of all was “God bless the lady for this happy day!”
That sentiment- “God bless the lady” -echoed many others offered in praise of Sarah Gregg. Camp Butler commander James Heffernan celebrated her skill when he wrote in May 1864, asking “how could anything be a failure with you at the head of it?” A year later the superintendent of army hospitals in Springfield, A. B. Buck, declared in a testimonial that Gregg “has not only been faithful & efficient in an eminent degree but has by her uniform kindness, understanding & sympathy, for the suffering made many lasting friends among the unfortunate soldiers & won the respect & high esteem of all officers who have witnessed her untiring efforts.”
The men who enjoyed Sarah’s care were also generous in their praise. By late 1864 she was popularly called “Mother” by those in the hospital. In February 1865 Sarah recorded that patients in several wards had pooled funds to purchase “a nice photographic album,” which was presented to her in a ceremony that made “a very happy day with me.” A few months later W. W. Ebbers, a former patient, wrote to Sarah. In the letter he recalled his hospital days, repeatedly referring to her as “Mother,” and closed by asking for her photograph.
The army bureaucracy was less effusive. One June 17, 1865, a letter arrived stating that “your contract, as Nurse, is hereby annulled, your services no longer being necessary…” On June 20 Sarah Gregg’s war-related service ended. She received a final token of respect-a testimonial signed by 93 wounded warriors who had remained under her care.
Interested in learning more?
A transcript of Sarah Gregg’s diary is in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. A study of the diary as a historical source is Kathleen S. Hanson and M. Patricia Donahue, “The Diary as Historical Evidence: The Case of Sarah Gallop Gregg,” Nursing History Review 4 (1996): 169-86.