A Family Shattered By War, Union Nurse Margaret Breckinridge- Yes, That Breckinridge

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
da january.jpg

From one of the books in archives, the D.A. January, for some reason less famous than Red Rover and a few others. Most nurses spent a some portion of their war on these converted steamers. It was one of the most arduous duties, wounded fresh from battlefields and field hospitals in desperate need. Margaret Breckinridge, Union nurse and yes, whose family was indeed one split in two by the war, wore her life away on these ships.


One of the old prints passed down in our family, the usual flower, had broken glass- thought I'd replace it. Frame was wonderful, one of those fat, oval mid-19th affairs. Prying rusted old nails from the back a second image fell from beneath the first. It was John C. Breckinridge, an etching from his tenure as Buchanan's VP. I did laugh- part of the family consigning John C. to a place behind those posies had ties to Buchanan, his half of the duo was un-posied- John C.'s later defection must have pushed their Yankee tolerance a bit far. Later sent him back ' home ', i.e. somewhere, and to someone who'd appreciate having him back there.

It was, however, a fair indication of how far we'd split. The Breckinridge family had theirs too- I'm still not sure we appreciate how awful it was, how sever the split and what it did to families.

breckingridge margaret.png

This must be taken from a photo ( which I can't find ), captures the ' something ' you sometimes see in a veteran's face. From " Women's Work in the Civil War ", Hathitrust.

A GREAT ' for instance ' is the bio of one of our most beloved Union nurses- she lost her life, like Gilson and Barlow and so many others, performing superhuman feats of compassion. Because it simply had to be done. Nowhere in her bio or any era descriptions of Margaret Elizabeth Breckinridge are we told she is John C. Breckinridge's cousin. Nowhere. Both bios include their grandfather, the John Breckinridge who was Attorney General 1805-1806 and served Jefferson. Their connection? Nope.

Be good to glue our entire family back together. The American one.

Here's Margaret Elizabeth Breckinridge, grandaughter of Attorney General Breckinridge, daughter of Rev. John Breckinridge, DD, Princeton. She's wearing her life away in service to wounded on board a series of hospital steamers.

"There was one poor boy about whom from the first I had been very anxious. He drooped and faded from day to day. Nothing but constant stimulants seemed to keep him alive, and, at last I summoned courage to tell him-oh, how hard it was!-that he could not live many hours.'Are you willing to die?' I asked him. He closed his eyes, and was silent a moment; then came that passionate exclamation which I have heard so often,'My mother, oh! my mother!' and, to the last, though I believe God gave him strength to trust in Christ, and willingness to die, he longed for his mother. I had to leave him, and, not long after, he sent for me to come, that he was dying, and wanted me to sing to him. He prayed for himself in the most touching words; he confessed that he had been a wicked boy, and then with one last message for that dear mother, turned his face to the pillow and died; and so, one by one, we saw them pass away, and all the little keepsakes and treasures they had loved and kept about them, laid away to be sent home to those they should never see again. Oh, it was heart-breaking to see that!"

Margaret E. Breckenridge

For some reason these narratives get little attention when in fact they are the war. Margaret's is like so many others and in fact this portion is like the chapter before that and the chapter before that. Then she died. Forgotten- and it's infuriating. I'm still back with knowing, at least roughly how many horses and mules were killed during the war. Nurses lost? No one has any idea whatsoever. Anyway- chose this one.

"It was on Sunday morning, 25th of January, that Mrs. C. and I went on board the hospital boat which had received its sad freight the day before, and was to leave at once for St. Louis, and it would be impossible to describe the scene which presented itself to me as I stood in the door of the cabin. Lying on the floor, with nothing under them but a tarpaulin and their blankets, were crowded fifty men, many of them with death written on their faces; and looking through the half-open doors of the staterooms, we saw that they contained as many more.

Young, boyish faces, old and thin from suffering, great restless eyes that were fixed on nothing, incoherent ravings of those who were wild with fever, and hollow coughs on every side-this, and much more that I do not want to recall, was our welcome to our new work; but, as we passed between the two long rows, back to our own cabin, pleasant smiles came to the lips of some, others looked after us wonderingly, and one poor boy whispered,'Oh, but it is good to see the ladies come in!' I took one long look into Mrs. C.'s eyes to see how much strength and courage was hidden in them. We asked each other, not in words, but in those fine electric thrills by which one soul questions another,'Can we bring strength, and hope, and comfort to these poor suffering men?' and the answer was,'Yes, by God's help we will!' The first thing was to give them something like a comfortable bed, and, Sunday though it was, we went to work to run up our sheets into bed-sacks. Every man that had strength enough to stagger was pressed into the service, and by night most of them had something softer than a tarpaulin to sleep on.'Oh, I am so comfortable now!' some of them said;'I think I can sleep to-night,' exclaimed one little fellow, half-laughing with pleasure. The next thing was to provide something that sick people could eat, for coffee and bread was poor food for most of them.

hospital-ship-red-rover-ward.jpg

Red Rover's ward ( Harper's ), probably doesn't quite capture the story but maybe indicates some idea how vast was the job of a nurse. Note the lone figure.

We had two little stoves, one in the cabin and one in the chambermaid's room, and here, the whole time we were on board, we had to do the cooking for a hundred men. Twenty times that day I fully made up my mind to cry with vexation, and twenty times that day I laughed instead; and surely, a kettle of tea was never made under so many difficulties as the one I made that morning. The kettle lid was not to be found, the water simmered and sang at its leisure, and when I asked for the poker I could get nothing but an old bayonet, and, all the time, through the half-open door behind me, I heard the poor hungry fellows asking the nurses,'Where is that tea the lady promised me?' or 'When will my toast come?' But there must be an end to all things, and when I carried them their tea and toast, and heard hem pronounce it'plaguey good,' and'awful nice,' it was more than a recompense for all the worry.

"One great trouble was the intense cold. We could not keep ]ife in some of the poor emaciated frames.'Oh dear! I shall freeze to death!' one poor little fellow groaned, as I passed him. Blankets seemed to have no effect upon them, and at last we had to keep canteens filled with boiling water at their feet.

After the "sad freight" had reached its destination, and the care and responsibility are over, true woman that she is, she breaks down and cries over it all, but brightens up, and looking back upon it declares: "I certainly never had so much comfort and satisfaction in anything in all my life, and the tearful thanksof those who thought in their gratitude that they owed a great deal more to us than they did, the blessings breathed from dying lips, and the comfort it has been to friends at home to hear all about the last sad hours of those they love, and know their dying messages of love to them; all this is a rich, and full, and overflowing reward for any labor and for any sacrifice." Again she says: "There is a soldier's song of which they are very fond, one verse of which often comes back to me:

'So I've had a sight of drilling, And I've roughed it many days;

Yes, and death has nearly had me,Yet, I think, the service pays.'

Indeed it does,-richly, abundantly, blessedly, and I thank God I was able to serve.


Died at Niagra Falls, July 27th​, 1864. Bless her.



 

Paul Yancey

Corporal
Joined
Jan 13, 2019
Location
Kentucky
Very good post. As a Civil War buff I sometimes get too caught up in things such as troop movements, which regiments fought in a particular battle, etc. We too often neglect the human element of the war. The day to day suffering of the soldiers, the courageousness and sacrifice of the doctors and nurses, and the heartache of the families left behind.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Annie,, great thread.

She has Memorial on Find a Grave

findagrave.com/memorial/63596098/

The Breckinridge family has many interesting members. She is just one.

A book I recommend is "The Breckinridges of Kentucky,1760-1981" By James Klotter.

Thanks Donna! It's been so stupid of me not to have looked into her further. I've had her on the list of nurses we lost forever and ever. It didn't occur to me to check to see if she was related to the long line of Johns in this country, duh.

AND I should have figured you'd know of her, anyway! Interesting family indeed! What's upsetting all-around is reading era descriptions and bios, of John C. and Margaret. They all bring up her father, the minister/professor and their shared grandfather, once in awhile another shared family member ( a LOT of ' Johns ' ). You simply never see each other's names. They were cousins. Bet they grew up at least visiting once in awhile despite distance. What an awful thing was war.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
It had to take a special person to see such suffering and maintain their composure. Young and older dying of horrific wounds and only being able to share a compassionate few minutes knowing it could well be their last ones. Pray they all rest in peace.

Yes, I'm not sure that sinks in you know? What, exactly, these nurses saw and did and witnessed over and over and over again. One account from Gettysburg for instance, I forget which group ( maybe the Sisters? Maybe the Lancaster ladies? ) speaks of their horses hooves splashing through puddles of blood and goes from there. I think it was Sophronia who walked the battlefield and found a man's macabre image blasted into a rock, he'd been blown into it so hard. Another account, father brought home a hand, just a hand, found on the battlefield. Family sat at their table, guessing at who it may have belonged to. They'd had their house filled with wounded too- this stuff just did something to you.
 
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