A pall of gloom and uncertainty darkened Washington, D.C., as accounts of horrific fighting in Virginia trickled into the city in early May 1864. But as citizens across the capital city braced for the onslaught of mass casualties, one newcomer, Georgiana Willets, wrangled a pass to go south and aid the wounded.
The daughter of a Rochester, N.Y., railroad conductor and his wife, “Georgie” lived in New Jersey at the start of the war, and went to Washington to teach freedman under the auspices of the American Tract Society. Her first assignment began in November 1863 at Camp Barker refugee camp. Her arrival coincided with the opening of a school in nearby Freedman’s Village, located across the Potomac in Arlington on the grounds of Gen. Robert Lee’s estate.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched the Overland Campaign six months later, and Willets followed. She acquired two passes: one for herself and another for a New Jersey friend, nurse Cornelia Hancock. But Hancock had already scored her own pass, and so Willets gave the extra to an acquaintance, Jane Gray Swisshelm. A journalist, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate known for her poison pen, Swisshelm had only praise for the teacher-turned-nurse. “Georgie was not merely handsome. She was grand, queenly,” and added, “none was more pure, more noble, than that of this beautiful, refined, strong, gentle girl.”
Off they went to Virginia, where Willets began a 6-month stint as a nurse. She worked her way from caring for soldiers in a Fredericksburg church to matron in charge of the Second Division, Second Corps Hospital at City Point
Willets left the army in December 1864 due to poor health. Her friend, Cornelia Hancock, noted, “The character of her service was of high grade. It was not spasmodic or sensational but steady and persistent.” In other words, she was highly reliable and could always be counted upon.
Willets returned to teaching freedmen and, in 1869, married James M. Stradling, a fellow freedmen teacher who had served in the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. She lived until 1912, dying at age 71. Her husband and two daughters survived her. James died in 1916.
This portrait is part of the Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) Book Project. Established by Jim Quinlan, owner of The Excelsior Brigade, its mission is to identify approximately 15,000 Civil War veterans interred on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery, and to provide a biographical sketch and photograph of each individual. If you have an image to share, or would like more information about the ANC project, please contact Jim at 703-307-0344.