By Chris Foard, MSN, RN
In the annals of American history, perhaps no individual looms larger and longer than the towering figure of President Abraham Lincoln.
We never tire of hearing more about Lincoln, intrigued by the complexity of the man, his humanity, and the legacy he left the nation. When gaps in his story are filled with newly discovered material, we are grateful for the authenticity it adds to the Lincoln saga.
At the same time, though, it can seem perplexing that, considering the stunning amount of material available, short shrift has been given to Rebecca Pomroy, the nurse who lived in the White House during the critical years of Lincoln’s troubled times.
Other than an 1884 book, Echoes from Hospital and White House: A record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in War Times, only sketchy references allude to the significance of the woman who became Mary Lincoln’s companion and confidante, and someone greatly admired by the man she often referred to as “My dear friend Abraham.”
Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, recognized Pomroy’s overlooked contributions in 1874, when he praised her “for the good work you performed in Washington.” He added, “Some of the many trials of the President were better known to you than to his countrymen.”
With no formal education, Pomroy possessed a gift for writing, faithfully recording her experiences almost daily in her journal and letters. She vividly described her relationship with the Lincolns, and her duties in charge of a hospital ward caring for her “brave young men.”
The Winthrop Public Library in Massachusetts holds some of Pomroy’s surviving correspondence and other memorabilia, and where her granddaughter and only surviving relative became its librarian. Letters written by Pomroy in 1862—the year she befriended the Lincolns and became an important friend to the first family—are preserved in the author’s private collection along with photographs and other personal items.
Born Rebecca Rossignol Holiday on July 16, 1817, she grew up in Boston, Mass. Her father, a sea captain, died when she was 10 years old, and left Rebecca, her four siblings, and their mother in financial straits. At 19, she married Daniel Pomroy, a young tradesman who suffered bouts of asthma that gradually developed into chronic disease and ended his life at age 43. A few years earlier, illness also claimed the lives of two of their three children, Clara and William. The surviving son, George King Pomroy, became a seaman. Within a 5-year period, Pomroy’s husband, daughter, mother and a son had died in her home. Pomroy served as the primary care provider, thus starting her experience in nursing.
Lonely, struggling with family losses and in financial need, Pomroy opened a confectionary shop in Chelsea, Mass. Though the business helped her cope, she could not overcome her emotional depression. Desperate to ease her pain, she attended a Methodist Church retreat in Hamilton, Mass., at the suggestion of a friend. It proved therapeutic, thanks to an inspiring program and the opportunity to meet other struggling people—a support group, in contemporary terms.
During the retreat, Pomroy experienced a calling from God to embark on a life mission: To serve mankind by helping others to heal with God’s guidance. In theory, she could transcend her own hardships and achieve the contentment that had eluded her. Profoundly affected by this realization, Pomroy returned to Chelsea with her depression lifted, and a renewed faith in God. “I wonder if the Lord had not something more for me to do.”
Her nursing journey begins
The advent of the Civil War in the spring of 1861 fueled growing changes in the status of women, especially among those with a national consciousness. Motivated by patriotism, compassion for the soldiers from their states, and the realization that they were needed, many women launched fundraising efforts to support the troops. Aid societies sprung up across the North, including the Women’s Central Association of Relief in New York City. This organization, later a branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, funded reformer Dorothea Dix’s early efforts to help soldiers. In June 1861, Dix accepted a position as Superintendent of Women Nurses in the Union Army. A strong advocate at a time when many medical men did not favor having women caregivers in hospitals, Dix established rigid criteria for their service—age, health, character, dress and discipline.
Meanwhile in Chelsea, Pomroy happened upon an ad for nurses in her local newspaper one day in September 1861. A friend advised her to contact the mayor, Frank Fay, who had recently returned from Washington, D.C., to escort the bodies of Chelsea soldiers killed during a recent skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford in Virginia.
Fay suggested Pomroy write directly to Dix. She did, and within a week Dix requested her services in Washington. Pomroy arrived and reported to Georgetown Hospital to care for 50 typhoid fever patients. Two weeks later, she received orders to go to Columbian College Hospital, located atop Meridian Hill on the outskirts of the capital, and situated on beautifully landscaped grounds with driveways, trees and a fine park in the rear. Pomroy joined nine other nurses in the 84-bed hospital on the fourth floor of the five-story building.
Pomroy described the roles and responsibilities of a nurse in a letter to her friend and future daughter-in-law, Almira S. Belcher.
“The bell rings in the morning at six for all hands to get up that can be dressed and before breakfast I have to go to my rounds with my quart bottle of medicine for my fevered patients. Then I go down 5 flight of stairs to eat my breakfast, then I have to look after 20 beds which are to be made, the patients all washed, then their breakfast comes up, which consists of tea, coffee, bread and butter. Then the sweeping process commences at half past eight o’clock and the bell rings again for the physician’s call. I then take my slate, go around with the surgeon, tell them what medicines they have taken the day before also their food. I commence my business of giving them their medicine also applying blisters (placing hot plaster on the skin to cause blisters which were then drained), syringing their ears, dressing toes, bandaging legs or holding them which takes up all the time till the bell rings for dinner at 12. After dinner the boys say ‘Nurse, please read my letter’ or ‘Nurse please direct 3 letters for me.’ Another boy is bleeding at the nose, another is in chills, or another is vomiting and another wants help to turn in bed. I wish you could see how happy I am with all my boys around me.”
Pomroy established a bond with the surgeons. They complimented her on the neatness of her ward, and expressed general satisfaction with her efforts. Though often referred to as the “quiet nurse,” Pomroy spoke out in the defense of her principles. She also emerged as an effective patient advocate, sending requests to friends at home for food and delicacies for her grateful patients, who fondly called her “Auntie Pomroy.”
The chosen one
Early in February 1862, not far from the hospital, President Lincoln was about to embark on his toughest battle, not as commander-in-chief of the Union army, but as father of sick children. His two sons, Willie and Tad, had fallen ill with typhoid fever. Willie, the President’s favorite, gradually worsened and died on February 20 at age 11.
An inconsolable Mary Lincoln remained in her bedroom, unable to care for herself or Tad, who also took a turn for the worse. His condition and Willie’s death brought to mind another tragedy that occurred a dozen years earlier when another son, Edward, had died at age three.
Lincoln feared for his wife’s sanity, and agreed with the suggestion of physicians to bring in help to care for Tad. He summoned Dix to the White House for a recommendation. She responded by telling Lincoln of the one nurse in her corps that could do the job—Pomroy.
Dix left immediately for the carriage ride to Columbian College Hospital. She soon met with Pomroy and explained that she had to report to the Executive Mansion under orders of the president. Despite the objections of the surgeon in charge and Pomroy’s own reluctance, she packed her bags and climbed into Dix’s carriage.
Dear child, you don’t know what the Lord has in store for you. I have chosen you out of two hundred and fifty nurses to make yourself useful to the head of the nation.”
Along the way, Pomroy shared her concerns with Dix, who replied: “Dear child, you don’t know what the Lord has in store for you. I have chosen you out of two hundred and fifty nurses to make yourself useful to the head of the nation.” Pomroy confided to Almira Belcher that, “I ought to feel highly honored that my poor humble self was the chosen one.”
Pomroy and Dix entered the White House on February 22. They found Willie lying in state in the Green Room. They then climbed to the second floor where the President was sitting at his wife’s bedside. He expressed gratitude to Pomroy for coming to take care of his family, and then escorted her to the room where Tad lay dangerously ill. Two physicians gave her instructions for Tad’s care, and she started her service.
Later that evening, Lincoln stopped by to check on Tad and struck up a conversation with Pomroy. He expressed an interest in her background and her motivation to care for others. She shared her story of pain, suffering and death. Perhaps reciprocating Lincoln’s kindness, Pomroy observed that thousands of Americans prayed for him daily. He covered his face with large hands that could not hide the tears that streamed down his cheeks and through his fingers. He stood up, and uttered, “This is the hardest trial of my life, why is it? Oh, why is it?”
The moment marked the start of their friendship.
A deepening relationship with the Lincolns
Mary struggled to resume the social and political demands of the White House and spent much of March 1862 in seclusion. Pomroy confided her own past hardships to Mary, and explained how she coped and achieved contentment. After spending three weeks at the White House, Pomroy felt satisfied that she had done all she could to ease some of Mary’s depression, and help Tad in his slow but steady recovery. The time had come to say goodbye to the Lincolns and resume her mission of caring for soldiers. Mary and Tad objected, for they had become taken with the nurse. The president, who likely shared their enthusiasm but also appreciated Pomroy’s predicament, arrived at a diplomatic solution. He did not dismiss her from his home entirely, but arranged his carriage to take her back to Columbian College Hospital temporarily, in order to resume her nursing duties.
Pomroy shuttled between the hospital and the White House. Her frequent visits in March and April strengthened the bonds of friendship. During this time, Pomroy detailed snippets of life with the Lincolns in letters to Belcher.
“I went to the President’s house and took dinner, and towards night the President ordered his span of horses to be harnessed, and I was then invited to ride which of course, I could not refuse. I was riding in great style with the President in his open carriage, with a driver mounted on his seat with white gloves and a tall hat. When a gentleman, the Revered Joseph Driver the next day told me he thought I was highly honored in riding with the President in the streets of Washington. The President rode me up to the hospital to the great surprise of the patients and the news the President carriage is coming – shouted all to the windows, and the Chelsea nurse alighted and the steward of the hospital waited upon me at the steps. The flowers I brought home for my boys were magnificent and Mrs. Lincoln says whenever I want to come if I will let them know she will send her driver for me and return me in safety. You do not know how kind the President’s family all are to me. And they both say to me when the war is over come and stay with us. When the President left me he said he felt that he was still in my debt, but he hoped to see me someday at his house.”
Pomroy formed other loyal friendships at the White House, notably with Jane and Gideon Welles, who occasionally sent a box of delicacies to the hospital.
During one of Pomroy’s visits to the White House, the president asked what he could do for her. She explained how much it would mean to her “brave men to meet their President.” Lincoln agreed, and visited the hospital. He shook hands with soldiers and staff and asked their names. Lincoln also greeted the servants, heartily grasping their hands. When some of the officers at the hospital criticized the gesture, Pomroy informed Lincoln, who confirmed the rightness of his conduct. “It did my soul good, I am glad to do them honor.”
“I am to spend the day and night with the Lincoln family. But I have seen the whole mansion and all that pertains to it. But let me be found sitting at the bed of the poor soldier, wetting his parched lips, closing the dying eyes and wiping the cold sweat from his brow, rather than be in Mrs. Lincoln’s place with all her honors. But my mission is not yet quite finished. There are more battles to be fought and my life may be spared yet longer to comfort and soothe those of the wounded.”
Pomroy’s heart and soul remained with the soldiers. But the relentless pace of caring for them took a toll on her health. Fatigued from overwork, Lincoln arranged for her to spend a short furlough with his family at the White House in May 1862. By this time, Tad had largely regained his health, but Mary continued to suffer depression. An exhausted Pomroy mustered the strength to encourage Mary to become more active, and suggested shopping and picking flowers on the White House grounds.
Pomroy offered insights about her furlough to Belcher. “My Health is fast improving, as I ride out every day with the President and wife, and they do all that they can for me to enjoy myself. I am one of the fortunate women as not a nurse which Ms. Dix has is allowed a furlough. The President wrote to Ms. Dix to have me come to the White House, and she did not object and then he wrote to the surgeon in charge who could not refuse, so I am favored above the rest. … Nothing is the matter with Mrs. Lincoln but deep sorrow, such as others have felt, and being a fashionable woman of the world, the blow falls hard, but it was intended to soften and make her realize her position in the eyes of the world but more especially her obligations to that being who has crowned her with loving mercy. To many, her position is enviable but to me, I would rather be a friend and go from door to door doing some good in the world, and have a name that will live when I am dead.”
The president bestows a favor
Watching over Tad reminded Pomroy of concerns about her own son, George, who had joined the 13th Massachusetts Infantry. He endeavored to land a commission in the regular army, and lobbied his mother to use her influence with Lincoln.
Pomroy refrained from requesting personal favors of the president. But she made an exception this time. On July 15, 1862, Lincoln wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “This young man—George K. Pomroy—is the son of one of the best women I ever knew—a woman who has lost all her other children, and has cheerfully given this one to the war, and devotes herself exclusively to nursing our sick and wounded soldiers—I wish to do something for her, and even, to strain a point for that object I wish you would see him and give him a second Lieutenancy in the Regular Army in the first vacancy not already promised. He has already served nearly a year in the Volunteers. This shall be your voucher.”
George received a commission as a second lieutenant four days later.
This same summer, Lincoln labored over the document that defined his presidency. He turned to a number of prominent men for feedback on various drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. Far less known is that he discussed the document with Pomroy. According to Pomroy, Lincoln once told her, “I am having a hard struggle, this Proclamation is weighing upon me night and day. I shall encounter bitter opposition but I think good will come of it and God helping me, I will carry it through.”
On another occasion, Pomroy shared a carriage with the president to Columbian College Hospital. Lincoln noted he had finished the document, which he carried in his hand. On Sept. 30, 1862, he issued a preliminary proclamation, requiring the freedom of slaves in any state that did not end its opposition against the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, when the Proclamation would become law.
Pomroy’s unique access provided a rare opportunity to glimpse the social responsibilities that demanded the attention of the Lincolns. In early 1863, she described recent events to Belcher.
“I have been to the White House five days and was at two grand receptions. The one in the evening was most brilliant of anything I ever saw. Every room was lighted and splendid flowers in all the rooms below. And Mrs. Lincoln’s dress was magnificent. Mrs. Lincoln is anxious that I should wear white flowers for my head, and offered to lend me anything to wear that I wanted.”
Pomroy also noted additional perks.
“I had every advantage of riding or seeing all I liked. Mrs. Lincoln ordered the carriage on Sunday morning for me to ride up to the Capital and see the marriage of my friend Miss Rumsey and she gave me a splendid bridal bouquet to give to the bride.” The flowers were received with gratitude by Elida Rumsey, a young lady who had made quite a name for herself for her philanthropic work on behalf of soldiers, and her newlywed husband, navy department clerk John Fowle. Following the ceremony, Pomroy returned to the White House in the carriage and dined with the family.
On July 2, 1863, Mary suffered a serious accident while riding in her carriage from the Soldiers’ Home, a cottage where the Lincolns visited to escape the confines of the Executive Mansion. The president summoned Pomroy, who spent three weeks watching day and night over the badly injured Mary. Lincoln thanked Pomroy profusely for saving Mary’s life.
In the early fall of 1864, Dix granted Pomroy a short furlough—her last during the war. She took full advantage of the time, relaxing in New Hampshire’s mountains, and passing time with friends in Boston.
Upon her return to the capital, the first person she visited was her good friend, the president. He greeted her with a hearty handshake. There was much activity in the nation with preparations for the coming presidential election. Death threats against Lincoln had likewise risen.
On Nov. 8, 1864, Washington rejoiced with gun firing, fireworks and public illuminations after voters elected Lincoln to a second term. Pomroy noted with satisfaction that, “My dear kind friend Abraham is re-elected,
About this time, Pomroy’s health began to deteriorate, and declined even further after she contracted typhoid fever. Confined to her room with a nurse, Pomroy worried less about her condition, and more about the president as threats on his life increased. “My soul is in the Lincoln family, and why I am so distressed for them all God only knows. My heart cries out to God in behalf of Mrs. Lincoln and our dear good President.” The fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox failed to ease her fears.
Twelve days later, the shocking news came of President Lincoln’s assassination, and the near fatal attack on Secretary of State Seward and his son. Pomroy remained in her room, for her sickness left her unable to attend the grief stricken family. On April 20, Pomroy received an honorable discharge from the army and left Washington. She never saw Mary again.
Pomroy returned to Chelsea, reunited with friends and family, and shared her experiences about life in the White House.
In 1872, Pomroy and two other women established a home for orphaned and destitute girls in nearby Newton. Pomroy served as superintendent. After her death at age 66 in 1884, the home became known as the Rebecca Pomroy Newton Home for Orphaned Girls. Pomroy’s longtime associate, Anna Boyden, took the helm of the organization, which survives today as the Rebecca Pomroy Foundation.
The same year Pomroy passed, Boyden’s biography of Pomroy, Echoes from Hospital and White House, was published.
In 2010, retired schoolteacher Ernest Sullivan took an active interest in Pomroy’s life story. He discovered that Pomroy’s burial marker, located at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Mass., did not recognize her connection to the Lincolns. Sullivan obtained funding with the assistance of townspeople and local merchants to erect a new monument which includes the inscription, “Nurse Who Helped Rekindle President Lincoln’s Hope and Faith during the War.”
References: Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln; Boyden, Echoes From Hospital and White House: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes; Holland, Our Army Nurses; Keckley, Behind the Scenes, Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in the Civil War.
Chris Foard, MSN, RN, has been collecting Civil War nursing items for more than 30 years. He owns the Foard Collection of Civil War Nursing, which exceeds 3,000 items. His interest also includes Revolutionary War nursing.
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