Harriet Dame: New Hampshire's Angel of Mercy

One of the Civil War’s most dedicated nurses, New Hampshire native Harriet Patience Dame (1815-1900) served with New Hampshire’s troops for the entire course of the war, providing critical medical care to soldiers on the front lines at a time when women were generally viewed as too delicate and sensitive for such work. Her efforts saved hundreds of lives and forged a new path for professional women.

Born in Barnstead on January 5, 1815, the youngest of six children, Dame spent the first half of her life at home with her parents, never marrying. Following her parents’ deaths in the 1850s, she converted the family home in Concord into a boardinghouse and took in tenants from the nearby Biblical Institute.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Dame offered her services as a nurse to the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, which mustered in Concord. She had no formal medical experience or training, which was typical of the middle-class women who worked or volunteered as nurses during the conflict. Professional nursing schools would not be created until nearly a decade after the war ended.

Dame joined the 2nd Regiment at its formation in June and stayed with the men she would call “her boys” until the regiment was disbanded in December 1865. Initially, her efforts were confined to camp, caring for the sick, but after the regiment began seeing action—starting with First Bull Run in July 1861—Dame insisted on traveling to the front lines, where she believed her services were most needed. The Confederates captured Dame twice but released her both times. During her second capture, she was initially taken for a spy and threatened with being shot. The intervention of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson got her released.

Dame’s decision to stay with her boys regardless of her own danger and discomfort was not without controversy. New Hampshire Governor Nathaniel Berry denied her request to go to the front lines, stating that it was no place for a woman. Dame went anyway, enduring years of hardship and privation while providing medical care to the sick and wounded, in conjunction with a small team of doctors. Superintendent of Army Nurses Dorothea Dix also objected to Dame remaining in the field rather than nursing in a hospital, but Dix proved as incapable as Berry of separating Dame from the New Hampshire troops. By 1863, Berry had come to rely on Dame to distribute supplies shipped from New Hampshire and to report back to him on conditions among the regiment. Dix, too, admitted a certain grudging admiration for Dame’s efforts, as did the women of the U.S. Sanitary Commission who initially regarded Dame’s ragged appearance with horror. Characteristically, Dame laughed off their squeamishness, joking that her appearance was not all that surprising given that she had spent weeks as the only woman among a thousand men.

In later years, Dame and her medical colleagues would recount stories of shellings, starvation, unsanitary conditions, burying details, and sleeping rough. Dame often walked with her boys, carrying all of her possessions in a haversack and going for weeks on end without changing her clothes or sleeping with a roof over her head. Gilman Marston, commander of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment, later wrote of her, “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, not one is more deserving of reward than Harriet P. Dame.” While with her boys, Dame witnessed countless battles, later claiming that among the worst were Fair Oaks, Yorktown, and Gettysburg. The men likened her to an angel of mercy and affectionately called her “Aunt Harriet.”

In the spring of 1864, Dame finally consented to transfer her operations to a hospital, taking charge of the nurses as matron at the 18th Corps Hospital in Virginia, where she remained for the remainder of the war. Her experience during the war was atypical, though. Most of her peers remained in Washington hospitals for the duration of the conflict and saw nothing of the battlefield.

After the war, Dame remained in Washington, D.C., working as a clerk for the Treasury Department. In 1887, she succeeded Dix as president of the Army Nurses Association, where she campaigned vigorously for recognition of the contributions made by Civil War nurses. She also remained active in veterans’ organizations and supported efforts to provide continuing care for wounded soldiers, donating large sums of her own money to build centralized veterans’ homes.

During her lifetime, Dame received substantial recognition for her contributions and was awarded numerous awards and ribbons. In 1884, over 600 soldiers signed a petition requesting the U.S. Senate grant her a pension for her wartime services. The Senate complied later that year, apparently impressed with the testimonials provided on Dame’s behalf.

Even after her death in April 1900, Dame continued to receive tribute. In 1901, her portrait was placed in the New Hampshire State House, making her the first woman to be so honored. In 2002, the American Nurses Association inducted her into the Nursing Hall of Fame. And in 2015, following a campaign led by the Daughters of the American Revolution, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan proclaimed December 2015 Harriet Patience Dame Month, commemorating the 200th anniversary year of Dame’s birth.

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