From the author: Finding Harriet Dame

  • Harriet Dame, photographed in 1886, just before her 71st birthday. New Hampshire Historical Society—Courtesy

  • The cover of No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War. —Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 10/23/2022 10:00:28 AM

Late one autumn night in 1883, Harriet Patience Dame sat at her blind sister’s bedside at Pineland, a rest home in Concord. Mary Ellen Shackford, the sister, had broken her arm in a fall. After reading her sister to sleep, Dame turned to a matter she had put off for months.

Congress was considering granting her a pension for her work as a Civil War nurse. The congressman overseeing the bill needed a thorough account of her military exploits. That night, Dame was so tired that her hand soon strayed outside the lines on the paper. It was 3 a.m. before she finished. Her letter was 5,000 words long.

I have been curious about Dame’s story since moving to New Hampshire in 1978, and discoveries like this letter finally allowed me to write her biography. No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War, was published last week.

An elementary school on Concord Heights bore Dame’s name for years. Her portrait hung in the State House, the first likeness of a woman amid all those bearded men. But until recently, her paper trail was too scant to bring her to life.

Finding her long letter to Congress was a revelation, but my biggest break occurred with the discovery of a notebook filled with her wartime letters to Anna Berry, a teenaged relative in Concord. The New Hampshire Historical Society purchased this notebook in 2019.

Born in North Barnstead, N.H., Dame left home in her 20s to work as a dressmaker in Boston. The job gave her a sense of independence and set her on a path to relative wealth for a woman who remained single all her life. She returned to New Hampshire in the 1850s to care for her aging parents, who died before 1861, when the war began.

Dame was running a Concord boarding house when the first volunteers came to the capital to enlist in infantry regiments. Determined to nurse, cook and sew for them in the field, the 46-year-old Dame decided to enlist as a matron. The governor told her the war front was “no place for a woman,” but she ignored his opposition and joined the Second New Hampshire Volunteers, the state’s first three-year regiment, as a matron.

Her war was long and eventful. She never took a furlough or left military service until Christmas Day of 1865, eight months after the war ended.

Dame nursed the wounded at field hospitals after some of the war’s biggest battles, including Second Bull Run, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. She led the sick on a march to safety after another battle and was twice briefly captured. A new governor sent her south to Union-held coastal South Carolina and St. Augustine, Fla., to report on the medical care of New Hampshire soldiers. For months in Washington, she led a mission to connect sick and wounded men with their families in New Hampshire. Later, she ran the kitchen and nursed at a vast military hospital in Virginia.

Early in the war, keen observations from the front filled her letters to Anna Berry. When she came face-to-face with Southerners in Maryland, for example, she found them hard to take.

“What we hear of the Southern people, they are more like Savages than civilized people,” she wrote. “The women are about as bad as the men. I think if the women living near here dared, they would possess every one of us.”

When her regiment reached enemy territory on the Virginia Peninsula, brown ooze covered the campground. Dame spread her mattress on a feedbox in her tent. “At least it kept me from sinking, in life, into the bosom of mother earth,” she wrote. The sight of the Union army thrilled her. “It is said there are two hundred thousand troops in the vicinity,” she observed. “I can go out by my tent & look over the large fields near me & see nearly all of the camps of 50,000. I tell you it is a grand sight in the evening when they are all lighted. Notwithstanding all this bustle & confusion the birds sing just the same & all night long in the woods quite near us, the whippoorwill keeps up her plaintive cry.”

Scott Preston Hardy, a Concord history enthusiast, located the Dame letters to Berry in 2017. He stayed in touch with their owner, a Michigan dealer in historical items. Wes Balla, the historical society’s collections director, examined the letters at a Massachusetts flea market, and the society bought the collection. Berry had bound them into a letter-book. In later years, after marrying a Boston businessman, she also saved postwar newspaper articles about Dame, including three extensive oral histories.

Frances Abbott, a Concord writer, spotted Dame at the dedication of the John P. Hale statue in the State House yard in 1892. Frederick Douglass, an ardent abolitionist, spoke to the huge crowd that day. After the ceremony, Abbott interviewed Dame.

“It is never quite true to say that a woman is in a battle,” Dame told her. “Her place is to take care of the men as they are brought in from the field. But my tent was always pitched within the lines and often I have worked all night on the field, helping to carry off the sick and wounded, and burying the dead.”

Dame had a chance encounter that day with the 95-year-old Nathaniel Berry, who had been governor in 1861. She approached Berry in the crowd and said: “Do you remember, Governor, that when I wanted to go to the front at the beginning of the war, you would not give me a pass because you said it was no place for a woman?” Wise enough in his dotage to concede the point, Berry answered, “I do, but you knew better than I.”

Harriet Dame ignored pushback from men throughout the war. All these years later, it has been a pleasure to discover and tell the story of one of New Hampshire’s true Civil War heroes.

Meet the author

Mike Pride has written several books on the Civil War and its place in New Hampshire history. No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War draws on newly discovered letters written by Harriet Dame and includes many rare photographs of the soldiers who knew Dame best, of the nurses and doctors she worked with, and of Dame herself. This biography convincingly argues that in length, depth, and breadth of service, it’s unlikely that any woman did more for the Union cause than Harriet Dame.

Pride’s new book will be featured Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 South Main Street, Concord.

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