Who’s the woman in the pictures?


From Hennessy (click here for another post on these photographs and Abby Hopper Gibbons):

Many of the photographs taken in Fredericksburg in May 1864 have become famous–some of them due to the legendary work of Bill Frassanito, others at the hands of Noel Harrison.  May 1864 was a remarkable, intensely interesting period for the town, as more than 26,000 wounded Union soldiers flooded the place over a 17-day period. The Union army scrambled to provide care, and the civilian population of the North mobilized too.  As many as 500 civilian relief workers came to Fredericksburg to help care for the wounded, and within them lies a hundred stories, and a singular story, not yet told.

In an earlier post we looked at the famous (and very valuable) view along William Street showing the front of the Sanitary Commission offices in Heinichen’s shop.  The photographer also did work behind Heinichen’s place, taking images of both the wounded and some of the relief workers. The most famous of these is the view of Union wounded clustered around the door of a building on Charles Street (above). This is invariably published because of its vivid portrayal of Union soldiers with a variety of wounds.  But look in the middle of the view.  There’s a woman sitting amidst the soldiers.  Apparently one of the relief workers.

Here’s another view, and there she is again, sitting in the center.  And here’s a final image.  Look closely at the cluster of women on the right of the image.  Magnified you can see her clearly once again, and again with the hatted woman again sitting beside her.


According to a collection of letters compiled by Sarah Hopper Gibbons Emerson, the woman in the first photo is her mother, Abby Hopper Gibbons, and from that clue it is easy to see that Abby Hopper Gibbons appears in all three images. It is also easy to surmise  that the woman with the hat next to her is likely her daughter, Sarah. Mother and daughter Gibbons were among (by my estimate) about thirty women who joined the relief efforts in Fredericksburg in 1864.  The entourage included names now familiar to historians and the public:  Cornelia Hancock, Julia Wheelock (whose letters are among the most expressive of their genre), Arabella Barlow (General Barlow’s wife), Jane Swisshelm, an uncommon woman who published a newspaper in Minnesota, Clara Barton (whose presence, by the way, was rarely noted), and Helen Gilson, who may have been the most tireless of them all. Collectively these women represented a force for societal change.  Many were suffragists, others were abolitionists.  Most were considered decidedly strident for their day, including Abby Hopper Gibbons.

Once  a Quaker and a pacifist, Gibbons became an abolitionist, an advocate for reform, and an ardent supporter of the Union war effort.  She is most identified with efforts to reform the treatment of female prisoners.  With the onset of war she and her daughter Sarah volunteered as nurses.  They spent fifteen months at Point Lookout, MD, in 1862 and 1863.  In May 1864 they answered the call for volunteers at Fredericksburg.  At age 62, Abby Hopper Gibbons was likely the oldest of all the female volunteers caring for the wounded in Fredericksburg.. Mother and daughter (who was newly widowed) arrived on May 19, and the images shown here were likely taken the next day.   Another nurse recorded Abby’s and Sarah’s arrival:  “Mrs. Gibbons arrived last night and she and her daughter are assigned to a fearful place and are working hard.”  The two would remain in Fredericksburg for a week.

[An aside:  the effort to save Gibbons’s home in NYC was recently declared successful. Check out this site for a chronicle of the battle and more on Gibbons.]

Working with the dozens of accounts that chronicle the May 1864 civilian relief effort in Fredericksburg reveals a couple of interesting things.  First, a much higher percentage of the female relief workers left behind written accounts of their experiences than did their male counterparts–I’d adjudge that nearly half of the women wrote about their experiences, while about 10% of the male workers did.  And another thing: the women’s accounts are often vividly revealing of the emotional toll the role of caregiver to thousands took on these women.  Their correspondence and memoirs–much of it readily available on sites like Google Books–are powerful.  Indeed, I’d offer that perhaps one of the reasons the public today perceives “Civil War nurses” as dominantly female (it was in fact a male-dominated profession) is because the writings of the women are so vivid, so quotable.  Their presence in secondary accounts is out of proportion to their presence on the field or behind the lines.

We have no letters written by Abby Hopper Gibbons while in Fredericksburg, but we do have some written by her daughter Sarah.  You can see the entire collection here, but here is a short excerpt that speaks to their experience in Fredericksburg in May 1864 (pages 90-91).

You can form no idea of the work we had to do in Fredericksburg. I had a hundred and sixty men, all on the floor and not a bed to be seen; four storehouses and one third story, packed so close that the men nearly touched each other; in one room with twenty-three men, fourteen amputations ; not a breath of air until Mr. Thaxter knocked out the windowpanes and afterwards the sashes. We stole straw to fill ticks, stole boards to make bunks, stole bedsteads, took nails from packing boxes, and yesterday every man was comparatively comfortable. The filth exceeded anything you ever dreamed of—stench terrific. The Sanitary Commission has been the only decent feature of the place. Some of the Christian Commission have worked splendidly too. The Sanitary agents washed men, dressed wounds, and did everything. They have saved hundreds of lives, for provisions were terribly scarce and nothing was to be had in the city. I think it was Sunday morning, the report was that 23,000 wounded had been sent on, 7,166 remained, besides 1000 sick.

I left a dear little boy, Frank Doherty, Fiftyseventh Mass., sixteen years old. He was shot through the arm, the ball passing through one lung and out at his back ; as innocent as a baby, delirious most of the time, and in a dying slate. Over and over again, he said: ‘I want you to take me to your room ; you must be a friend to me now that I have no other; this ice is so rich—it is so beautiful—take me out into the sunshine—goodnight;’ and all such broken sentences, snatches of prayer one moment and military orders the next. He was an apothecary’s boy and did not need to go into the fight, but begged his captain for the privilege.

I said to him, ‘ Oh, Frank, you were too young.’  ‘ Ask my captain if I did not do good service,’ was his answer.

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6 thoughts on “Who’s the woman in the pictures?

  1. The first reference I had ever seen of this being Abigail Hopper Gibbons, was in Juanita Leisch’s 1994 book, “An Introduction to Civil War Civilians” and in there Juanita included a now prevalent post war portrait of Mrs. Gibbons. Very clearly it is A. H. Gibbons in this group.
    There are other images of some of these same Sanitary Commission volunteers at a house, now correctly identified as taken further south on Charles Street, at the Scott home “Scotia.”
    One evening in late 2004, modern wet plate photographer Robert Szabo and I were discussing over the phone, some of the hi-res scans of Civil War photographs available on the Library of Congress website. Bob had been browsing the Fredericksburg images, reveling in their exceptional details at high-resolution. With both of us now looking at these images on our computers, Bob pointed out a group of civilians on the front porch of a house identified as the “Headquarters of Sanitary Commission at Fredericksburg, Va.” I pointed out that this image in particular, had otherwise been long identified in other sources as “Scotia”. Bob asserted that the one woman on the front porch image certainly looked like one of the same women in yet another photograph, with the same identification of “Headquarters Sanitary Commission.” This second image had been identified in 1995 by Noel Harrison as being “…nurses atop the east portico of the Gordon House…” on the southwest corner of Princess Anne and Fauquier Streets. Based on Bob’s observation, I began to examine the structural details of the buildings in both images. Quickly it was clear that the “Gordon House” image was in fact the rear of Scotia, and I began to point out further details to concretely make that identification along with Bob. Both photographs were “Scotia”, and in both, Mrs. Gibbons is clearly present.
    When I later shared this discovery with Noel Harrison, he was anxious to get the corrected information in print, and was able to do so in the 2004 issue of CVBT’s “Fredericksburg History and Biography.”
    Noel’s presentation credits myself as co-author and “discoverer” of these revelations, but unfortunately Bob Szabo’s participation did not translate into print. Here I would like to point out that had Bob not called me that evening to examine, together, these images, the structure identification, and additional pictures of Mrs. Gibbons would remain unknown.

    • Richard: The site of these photographs is today largely consumed by a small block of townhomes behind 1003 Charles Street. The door visible in the first image is still intact today, but is not visible from the street and not accessible because it’s private property. When I get a chance, I’ll put up a shot from Google Maps that shows an aerial view of the area.

  2. Thank you, John. Sorry, I’m just fascinated with modern views of civil war photographs. I have all the Frassanito books and seek out these spots when I can!

  3. Pingback: A vivid image of an 1864 hospital–the Washington Woolen Mill « Mysteries and Conundrums

  4. Pingback: National Geographic’s “Civil Warriors” airs Monday - Past is Prologue

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