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Yesteryear: Harriet Patience Dame, War Nurse, To The Rescue

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 30, 2013

Harriet P. Dame

Harriet P. Dame

Not being allowed to carry or fire a musket was frustrating for Harriet Dame. The Barnstead native brings to mind the heroine of that most popular of American novels, Little Women. In the book, the tomboyish heroine, Jo March, desperately wishes to join her father on the Civil War battlefield. She is hindered by the fact that in the 1800s, women were not allowed out of the family home, much less welcomed on the battlefield. War was a men’s-only sort of affair, and for Harriet Dame, it was an insult that she could not aid in the Civil War effort.

But Dame, always a leader rather than a follower, wasn’t to be put off. She swallowed whatever frustration she may have felt and turned instead to nursing, knowing it was as close to aiding the war effort as she would get.

She was so successful and so beloved in her day that her portrait now hangs among those of stately New Hampshire men of honor at the state capitol building in Concord.

Who was Harriet P. Dame and how did a woman from a rural New Hampshire community end up doing so well on her own, without the help of a husband at a time in history when women were more often sitting quietly at home?

Dame was born Harriet Patience Dame on Jan. 5, 1815, in Barnstead. Her parents, James and Phebe Dame, resided in Barnstead for some years and eventually moved to Concord in 1843.

Concord at that time was the site of political rallies and it may have been those gatherings that fired Harriet up and made her want to fight in the Civil War. Whatever the reason, it is written in The Barnstead Reunion, “That at once aroused her patriotism, and she anxiously desired to aid the Union case. Not being permitted to carry a musket, she decided to become an army nurse and joined Second Regiment NH volunteers, as hospital matron in June 1861, and remained connected with the Regiment until it mustered out in December 1865.”

The pay of a hospital matron at that time was six dollars a month, a paltry sum. But Harriet probably was less concerned with her salary than she was helping the soldiers who were fighting in the war.

If Harriet wanted to get close to battle, her wish was granted in April of 1862 when she was helping inside the trenches to treat the wounded at Fair Oaks PA. Under attack, her encampment came close to being wiped out and a shell passed through the tent Harriet occupied. Her courage must have been immense, because it is written that after the battle, and with Union troops retreating, she walked miles to aid the sick and wounded.

Due to her courage and compassion, Harriet was well known among all the soldiers and deep respect was always shown no matter where the nurse went.

Indeed, Harriet traveled extensively and saw the worst of the worst: she was with a regiment at Harrison’ Landing and treated the sick and wounded among them. Soon after, she was put on a hospital boat and sent to Fortress Monroe to aid the wounded. From there she was ordered to accompany a shipload of sick and wounded soldiers to New York.

Not long after, Harriet was back on the battlefield nursing the wounded. She was at the second Bull Run battle. After the fight, she was captured while en route to accompany soldiers to a hospital. She was taken to none other than Stonewall Jackson himself. A written account of the meeting says: “The grand old warrior sat alone. He glanced at [Ms. Dame], and when she showed her bandages for the wounded, her flask and her medicines, he thundered: ‘Take that lady back to the Northern lines!’”

In December 1862, she was a nurse at the battle of Fredericksburg and suffered from exposure, but remained with the sick soldiers until they were deemed able to be removed to Washington DC. Harriet once again packed her traveling bag and accompanied the wounded.

Not long after, Harriet was a nurse at the battle of Gettysburg and what she must have seen cannot be imagined. Her courage in the face of the horrors of war was something she never forgot, but it didn’t stop her from treating the wounded.

During the years Harriet served as a nurse, she followed the New Hampshire regiment through one battle after another and became an almost god-like figure among all soldiers. In September 1864, she was appointed matron of the 18th Corps Hospital and supervised the nurses and also the cooking for the hospital’s sick and wounded which at times amounted to over 3,000 men.

On Christmas day, Dec. 25, 1865, the regiment of New Hampshire soldiers was mustered out of service, and Harriet’s service to the Civil War ended when the men were sent home. General Gilman Marston, colonel of the regiment said of Harriet, “Miss Harriet P. Dame went out with the Second NH Volunteers in June 1861, and remained with that regiment and in the army hospitals until the close of the war. She sought no soft place and wherever her regiment went she went, often marching on foot and camping without tent on the field. She was always present where most needed, and to the suffering, whether ‘Yank’ or Grayback’ it made no difference. She was truly an angel of mercy. Miss Dame was the bravest woman I ever knew. I have seen her face a battery without flinching, while a man took refuge behind her to avoid the flying fragments of bursting shells. Of all the men and women who volunteered to serve their country during the late war, no one is more deserving of reward than Harriet P. Dame.”

In 1867, Harriet was appointed a clerk in the Treasury Department at a good salary, and remained at the job for years (she was still working at age 81!)

In 1886 she deposited $1,000 with a committee of the 2nd regiment veterans to erect a building for headquarters for their encampment at Lake Winnipesaukee. She was the second president of the Ex-Army Nurses’ Association, and she donated personal funds to build the NH Old Soldiers Home in Tilton.

Harriet died on April 24, 1900 in Concord. Governor Frank Rollins and long lines of state militia participated in her funeral ceremony. No long after, in 1901, the State Legislature appropriated funds so that a State House portrait might be painted of Harriet. Her portrait was the first portrait of a woman to be hung in the State House; the City of Concord also named a school in her honor.

A brief obituary in the New York Times on April 25, 1900 stated:

“Harriet P. Dame, war nurse from New Hampshire, known by name to thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers, died to-night. She had the right to wear the insignia of the One Hundred and Eighty-eighth Corps, and the Third Corps of Hookers Division.” 

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