Sunday, March 26, 2017

The determination of Civil War nurse Mary Douglass


This is Lucas County's Mary A. Douglass, who while mourning the death of an infant son after husband, Luther, marched off to war from Chariton during the fall of 1862, marched off herself to volunteer as a nurse, caring for the wounded, sick and dying at Benton Barracks military hospital in St. Louis.

Her framed portrait hangs on a wall of the library at the Lucas County Historical Society, donated during 1991 by members of Mary A. Douglass Tent No. 2, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. That group, organized during 1915 --- six years after Mary's death --- was Iowa's second chapter of a nationwide organization and was named in her honor.

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Mary was a native of Pennsylvania, born Aug. 16, 1840, in Westmoreland County to John and Margaret (Hunter) Alexander. She came west with her family to Indiana as a child and reportedly taught school there during her late teen years --- before meeting and marrying a young sawyer and carpenter named Luther Douglass. They were united on March 22, 1860, in Indiana, and set out immediately for Lucas County, where members her family already had settled.

When the 1860 federal census of the neighborhood northeast of Chariton, near Oxford Cemetery, was taken, Mary and Luther were living with her middle-aged aunts and uncles, James, Katherine, Elizabeth and Elias Hunter, siblings who had chosen not to marry.

Her parents must have traveled west to join them soon thereafter. Fragments of her mother's tombstone --- she died Jan. 17, 1865 --- still may be found in Oxford Cemetery. John Alexander died five years later and most likely was buried beside Margaret, but his grave is not marked.

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Luther, some seven years older than Mary, had been a roamer and a rambler before making the decision to marry and settle down. He was a son of Joel and Mahala Douglass and had been born in Chautauqua County, New York, but accompanied his family west to Indiana when he was about 6 years old.

Luther first saw Iowa when he accompanied his elder brother, Nathan, west to scout for land during 1854. They found what they were looking for in Wayne County --- in the vicinity of what now is Promise City. Nathan was at loose ends at the time --- his first wife had died in Indiana during March of that year and their infant daughter, Charlotte, had been taken in by his parents.

After entering land, the boys returned to Indiana, but Nathan returned to improve his claim during December of that year and brought his parents and daughter as well as other siblings west during the fall of 1855. 

It's not clear exactly where Luther was during the next five years --- he had entered land in Appanoose County, but doesn't resurface in records  until his marriage and move to Lucas County during 1860.

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Following the outbreak of Civil War, 10 companies of the 34th Iowa Volunteer Infantry were raised in south central Iowa during the summer of 1862 and Luther Douglass was among those who enlisted, in Company E, in Chariton.

Many years later, during a 1903 reunion of the 34th in Chariton, Luther reminisced a little about why he had enlisted.

By 1862, Luther's parents, Joel and Mahala, and other family members had moved west to Kansas. There, he told his fellow veterans during 1903, "his father (Joel Douglass), a Mexican war soldier, for expressing himself too strongly in a land office at Topeka, Kansas, was struck over the head by a southern sympathizer and in two days died from the results."

Luther and his fellow recruits were mustered in Burlington on Oct. 15, 1862, and he marched off to war, "leaving his baby boy very sick" and Mary, "at death's door." 

The baby boy, whose name has been lost, died --- but Mary recovered and during the fall of that year became determined to do her bit for the war effort, too. The details of her service were recorded in The Chariton Leader of Dec. 13, 1932, in a story about her namesake Daughters of Union Veterans chapter:

"On January 11, 1863, she (Mary) went to St. Louis and applied to James E. Yeatman, president of the sanitary commission, as a nurse. She was told there were no vacancies at Benton Barracks hospital, but he accepted her reports and she was put to work in the kitchen to assist in preparing the food until further orders.

"Her name was on the pay roll and she drew her pay along with other nurses. Later, she was appointed to the Convalescent Ward No. 1. There she served about five months.

"It was here that she nursed Peter Van Arsdale, who was wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg, and Jake Peacock (now deceased) back to health and her kindness was never forgotten by these two men. They always valued her friendship and often spoke to their families of the tenderness and compassion that were manifest in her countenance and smile."

The Benton Barracks Hospital, located along with an encampment housing up to 30,000 soldiers on the current site of St. Louis Fairground Park, was the largest hospital in the West at the time Mary worked there. It could accommodate 2-3,000 soldiers.


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We don't know when Mary returned to Chariton, but Luther was discharged on Aug. 15, 1865, in Houston, Texas, and the couple picked up the threads of their life in Lucas County thereafter.

During the next several years, Mary gave birth to seven more children, five of whom survived childhood. Luther continued to work as a carpenter and builder and constructed the family home in northwest Chariton, about two blocks west of the C.B.&Q. depot. They were early and active members of First Presbyterian Church. Luther was an honored member of Iseminger Post, Grand Army of the Republic, and Mary, of the Women's Relief Corps.

During 1907 and 1908, however, Mary began to suffer increasingly from tuberculosis and it was decided a dryer climate might be better for her.

So during the fall of 1908, the couple sold out in Chariton and boarded a train for Mexico, where they spent Christmas with a son and daughter who were living and working there.

Early in 1909, they traveled on to Chico, California, where they purchased a home. Mary died there of tuberculosis complicated by pneumonia Sept. 27, 1909, at the age of 69. Luther continued to live in Chico until his death during 1915. Both are buried in the Chico Cemetery 

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