United States Army
Aunt Lizzie Atherton
A Vermont Girl who became a Civil War Nurse
By Linda M. F. Welch
[This essay will be used in an upcoming edition of the FAMILIES of CAVENDISH (Windsor Co) Vt. series which covers the families in the Black River Valley region of southern Windsor County, Vermont., and is used with permission.]
Eliza N. Atherton was born March 24, 1817, daughter of Stedman & Deborah (Ward) Atherton. Although her parents lived in Albany, New York, the little girl was born in Auburn, New York in the home of her mother's father, John Ward.
John Ward was descended from the New England family that produced General Artemus Ward of Revolutionary fame. He was a religious man, and one of Eliza's earliest recollections was of standing beside him as he sang in the Court House at Auburn where the Baptists assembled for church and Sunday School.
The last words of Mr. Ward were addressed to Eliza - - words which were a source of comfort to her many many times throughout her long and troubled life.
Eliza was twelve when she and her mother were called to Auburn because of her grandfather's illness. Three years previously, the Athertons had moved to Cavendish, Vermont, but the separation had made no difference in the child's affection for her grandfather, and she fell upon his bed weeping bitterly.
"Sing," said Mr. Ward, "sing, Lizzie of Jesus. Sing something grandpa loves."
Choking back the sobs, the child began to sing a hymn they had sung together many times:
"Jesus, the vision of Thy face Hath overpowering charms."
"What made you think of that?" asked the dying man.
"Because you love it," answered Lizzie.
"Don't you love Jesus?" was the next question
"What makes you think you do not?"
"Because I do not keep His commandments"
"Don't you want to love Him" whispered the grandfather.
"Yes, sir, but I don't know how."
Whereupon, the frail grandfather laid his hand upon the child's head and repeated again and again until his decease, "Only trust Him, only trust Him."
LIZZIE remained in Auburn for a time to comfort Mrs. Ward. In December of 1829, she was baptized and became a member of the Baptist Church in that town.
More than three years before, in March of 1826, another event has also changed the current of Lizzie's life. This was the death of her grandfather, Jonathan Atherton of Cavendish (Windsor County) Vermont. He came of an English family of Lancashire, whose general history can be traced back for over six hundred years. They were eminently a knightly race, and were allied with many noble families. Jonathan Atherton settled in Cavendish, where he owned two large grazing farms. At his death, he left the farm to Lizzie's father, Stedman Atherton, the youngest in a family of five children, with the understanding that he should make it his home and care for his widowed mother. Accordingly, in October of the same year, having wound up his business in Albany, he removed to Cavendish with his wife and two little girls, Lizzie being about nine years old.
This was a great change from either the City of Albany or the Town of Auburn. The farm lies ten miles back from the Connecticut River, among the beautiful hills of Southern Vermont. It was a little world in itself, with three immense orchards, pastures for hundreds of sheep, and broad grain fields. The house, built after the olden fashion, round a stack of chimneys as large as a good-sized room, was at that time painted red, and stood on a hill. Down the slope, shaded by glorious elms of New England, stretched a wide lawn, while near the house, roses and multitude of other flowers, made the air of the mountains sweeter yet, by their fragrance. To the east rose "Old Ascutney", its' green sides dotted with farm houses. As stores, school and churches were three miles away, the family lived much by themselves, and many of the articles used on the farm were manufactured there as well. The chief delight of little Lizzie was to linger in the wood house chamber when the spinning and weaving were in progress. Or, to go to the 'shop' where all the mysteries of making sausages, soap and a hundred other things could be seen. Sheep barns and cattle barns made grand playhouses in stormy weather.
Even though the place was delightful and the amusements so varied, the real discipline of life began here, for both Deborah Atherton and her daughter. Grandmother Atherton was a trim little English woman with white mop cap and spotless kerchief, proud of her family and her good housekeeping. She held very different ideas about the management of affairs of both the house and the farm than did her town-bred daughter-in-law. Young Mrs. Atherton did not know how to spin or weave; to make head cheese or sausages; to see that the wild plums were gathered and preserved, or the cherries made into cherry bounce. All these things were a small part of the work of the farm and were a great burden to a person in feeble health, when added to the care of her ten little children.
Lizzie's trials were of a different nature, but equally severe. Her grandmother looked upon her namesake as a spoiled child. A petted one, she certainly was. She therefore undertook to train her in the way she should go, and many a severe look and scolding fell to the share of this sensitive child. Lizzie could hardly eat, if her grandmother's eyes were upon her, and cried herself nearly ill about it. Thus, mother and child were drawn closer together than ever before, and shared their troubles. In endeavoring to help the parent, who was so dear to her, Lizzie learned many things which proved of inestimable value afterwards.
Still, in spite of her trials with her grandmother's old fashioned discipline, Lizzie, after she grew a little used to it, lived a very happy life in Cavendish. Three miles away on the other farm, lived her uncle Jonathan and his wife, Aunt Roxy, for whom one of Lizzie's little sisters was named. With the children of this family, she enjoyed a most delightful intercourse. She also made frequent visits to a little village called Greenbush, which nestles under the very shadow of Ascutney, and which is illuminated by the happiest memories. Here, with her three cousins, the daughters of Mrs. Olive Atherton, many of the golden hours of Lizzie's youth were passed. The pastor of the Cavendish Church, Rev. Joseph Freeman, was exceedingly fond of music and invited Lizzie to enter the choir. He often called upon her in prayer meeting, by name, to sing some appropriate hymn, and thus overcame her timidity. Her love for the church led her to join the young ladies prayer meeting, where Mrs. Freeman treated her with tender affection, and thus the good pastor and his wife joined in training the young girl for her future work.
She began her work as a missionary among the men and women who labored on her father's farm. Her merry ways and kind actions opened the way to Their hearts, and her gentle words of warning and invitation fell upon willing ears. Many remembered years after, the scriptures read to them by her and the Hymns she delighted to sing.
When her daughter was about sixteen years old, Deborah Atherton's health failed entirely. During the next four years, with the exception of three months, the responsibility of caring for the large family came upon Lizzie. She devoted herself to her mother, shielding her from all unnecessary anxiety. At one time, when Mrs. Atherton seemed in a little better health, Lizzie was sent to Cavendish to attend the New England Academy. She boarded In the village, at a house built for an Inn, and occupied an immense room with seven other girls, who, like herself, came to attend school. Once a week, when a messenger rode over from the farm for the mail, Mrs. Atherton sent Lizzie a basket of good things. However, her mother could only spare Lizzie for one term.
At the age of twenty, Lizzie married Mr. Cyrus Aiken, who was nine years older than she. After a bridal trip to Boston, the couple returned to Cavendish to say farewells before starting for what was then, the 'far west'. Their means of travel was by the old fashioned stage, the Erie Canal and the slow going sailing vessels of the Great Lakes to Chicago. There they remained for a short time before their departure for their future home, Grand De Tour, on Rock River, Illinois.
Lizzie Aiken encountered many hardships and privations in her pioneer life. Among her first disappointments as a bride, was the loss of all her housekeeping articles, which included her china, silverware and furniture, prized because it was her inheritance from her grandmother. These were Lost with the sailing vessel which went to the bottom of Lake Erie. Afterwards, she was sorely grieved in the loss of all her children, four in number and all promising boys.
In 1852, her brother, "Ward "and sister Roxana came West to comfort her in her sorrow to the Town she had moved to, Brimfield, Illinois. Only eleven days after their arrival, sister Roxy sickened and died with the cholera, which was then epidemic in the West. Again, it was that he dying words of the sainted grandfather came to her, "Only trust Him....Only trust Him."
Although she had lost her beautiful children, then her young sister who came to comfort her, and also her home in Brimfield, which was struck by lightning and burned, necessitating their removal to Peoria, little did Mrs. Lizzie Aiken imagine that she would be called upon to bear an even greater affliction. Her faith and trust in God was still unfailing, though humble in submission, she bowed to His will.
She loved her home. To her, its' duties had been her delight. She loved the sweet companionship which is the portion of husband and wife. She once said, "I can still be happy with Cyrus." But, in 1856, Mr. Aiken was taken seriously sick and never recovered his mental faculties. Notwithstanding, his misfortunes, he had been successful, as success was counted in pioneer times. Through the succeeding days of his illness, Lizzie saw all their property dwindle away. Her home gone, with nothing left in this world but one who had loved and supported her, and who was now dependent upon her for subsistence . In fact, there was an indebtedness to meet.
Mr. Atherton came from Vermont to comfort his daughter. When he learned the seriousness of her husbands condition, he offered to take him to Cavendish to care and provide for him. The men arrived in Vermont the 1st of March. On March 16th, Lizzie's father was dead.
For a few weeks, Lizzie Aiken rested in the home of a close friend, Mrs. Irons, realizing that her widowed mother could not afford to care for her as well as her husband, she cast about for some means of earning a living. She became a domestic nurse. For the next four years, she went from house to house caring for her patients with affectionate interest and sympathy. In this way she paid all her husbands debts.
Then came the Civil War. The conflict did not begin as soon in the West as in the East, though training camps were established in the vicinity of many towns. Near Peoria, Illinois were stationed the troops enlisted in that City. Mrs. Aiken immediately joined the company of ladies who visited relatives and friends in camps. As opportunity offered, she gave herself to missionary labors among the soldiers.
In October, the want of nurses began to be felt in the Illinois camps. Just outside of Springfield was Camp Butler, filled with recruits, many of whom were sick with measles. The head surgeon of the 6th Illinois Cavalry, Gov. Yates Legion, Major Niglas of Peoria, returned home anxious to find competent nurses to assist him. Lizzie consented to accompany Major Niglas, provided some lady could be found to join her. An advertisement for such a person was put in the local papers, and the next morning Mrs. Mary Sturgis, a widow, presented herself and was gladly accepted. The two nurses were about the same age, and at once took the greatest liking to each other.
The two ladies and Mrs. Sturgis's daughter, Mary, accompanied Major Nigles when he returned to Camp Butler. A new tent had been provided for them, just opposite the long row of hospital tents. Their beds consisted of loads of straw and some blankets, no cots having yet been provided. When the surgeon took Mrs. Aiken and Mrs. Sturgis into the hospital tents, the soldiers were overcome with gratitude. They wished to know their names of these kind friends who were to fill the places of their mothers. The surgeon turning to Mrs. Sturgis said, "You may call this lady 'Mother' and the lady on my left, you may call 'Aunt Lizzie' ".
In November, the regiment was ordered to Shawneetown on the Ohio River, to go into Winter quarters. They found a large stone building already partially fitted up as a hospital. One little room was assigned to the ladies. The carpenter had built berths against the wall. These filled with straw, without pillows, were their beds. Though crude, they were comfortable, as one comic little incident shows: Once, when at midnight Aunt Lizzie crept into her berth, she was startled by a mouse that ran under her hand. Though a very brave woman, she could not sleep in peace with a mouse in her bed. In dismay, she jumped out upon the floor, the little creature following her. She now thought that the coast was clear and that she might return to her couch, but lying down she found the mouse had made a nest in the corner and five Little fellows began to squirm and squeak. Much sleep that night was out of the question.
All Winter the nurses worked day and night, six hours of service alternating with six hours of rest. Every afternoon Aunt Lizzie accompanied the doctor, carrying the ink stand and telling name and symptoms of each patient in the four wards, and giving full information concerning all new cases. She also superintended the changing of the bed linen, the administration of medicine, the laying out of the dead, besides calling the roll at six o'clock in the morning and nine o'clock at night. The number of sick varied from twenty to eighty all winter.
In January, 1862, Aunt Lizzie wrote: "Quite a little incident took place yesterday. We, as nurses were sworn into the United States Service. Dr. Niglas tells me I have saved the lives of over four-hundred men. I am afraid I hardly deserve that compliment. General Grant, General Sturgis and General Sherman paid us a visit. All join in saying we excel all other hospitals in being attentive to our sick and in cleanliness. They suggested my going to Cairo. Dr. Niglas spurned the proposition, and I did too. I Cannot tell you how well this work suits this restless heart of mine; my great desire to do something to benefit my fellow creatures is gratified in my present occupation."
At another time, Aunt Lizzie wrote: " Twenty-four nights in succession I have sat up till three o'clock in the morning, dealing out medicine. I cannot think of leaving these poor fellows if there is any chance of their living. I have, for the last month, written ten letters a week. I correspond with four Ladies Aid Societies."
From Shawneetown, the regiment was ordered to Paducah, Kentucky and Mother Sturgis with Aunt Lizzie followed. They were stationed in St. Mark's Hospital, the roof of which, during a tornado, was rolled up like a sheet of paper and carried off.
It was in Paducah that the head surgeon noticed that the garments of Aunt Lizzie and Mother Sturgis were nearly worn out. When he appealed to the Ladies Aid Society of Springfield for new clothing, they sent an entire summer outfit. A note said, "As we cannot labor ourselves in the hospitals, we are very glad to help those who give their whole time to that noble service."
When the 6th Illinois Cavalry was ordered South, Surgeon Niglas did not consider it advisable that the nurses should follow their march into the enemy's country. He therefore left them in Memphis, having secured places for them at the Ovington Hospital. Aunt Lizzie and Mother Sturgis thus ceased to be nurses of a regiment, and entered upon a broader work in the general hospitals of Memphis.
The Ovington Hospital had formerly been the finest hotel in Memphis, and was under the care of six Sisters of the Holy Cross, and six Protestant nurses. Aunt Lizzie had charge of Ward "A", in which lay over a hundred sick and wounded men.
One day, a note was handed Aunt Lizzie, saying that six hundred sick had just arrived at the Jefferson Hospital, and that her brother, Bertrand, was among the number. She went down quickly and found the street in front of the hospital full of stretchers, standing in the snow. With an aching heart Aunt Lizzie passed about among them, failing to discover in any of the pinched and altered faces, the blooming, youthful features of her youngest brother, the pet of the household. At last, one of them looked at her wistfully and said faintly, "Oh Lizzie, how much you look like mother."
Bertrand Atherton was transferred to the hospital in which his sister worked, then to her own room. Exposure and starvation (he had been a prisoner) had taken their toll. Hoping a change of climate would help, Lizzie sent him, in care of friends, to St. Louis, where his brother, Ward Atherton, met him And took him to his home in Hoyleston, Illinois.
In February, 1864, fifteen thousand cavalry left Memphis on a raid through Mississippi. The 6th Illinois, Aunt Lizzie's own regiment , took the lead. The soldiers flocked to the hospital by hundreds to bid her good bye, leaving their photographs with her for fear they might never return, while begging her to stay in Memphis at least four months longer that they might have the satisfaction of feeling that if wounded they could be sent back to her for care. Aunt Lizzie, standing like a mother in the midst of the crowd, assured them that if God sustained her, she would surely remain until their return. The staff officers of the regiment, anxious to give her a substantial token of affectionate regard, presented her with a gold chain and watch, before they left, and an album containing all their photographs. The general gave her a handsome black dress, which was certainly the most welcome gift that she could receive. In spite of the kindness of the ladies at home, Aunt Lizzie found it very difficult to procure all necessary articles of clothing, to pay for washing, out of a salary of twelve dollars a month, and even that, irregularly paid.
Later, because of declining health, Aunt Lizzie was transferred to the Washington Hospital. There the soldiers, noticing that she was almost barefooted, surprised her with an elegant pair of new boots.
Before her home was broken up, Aunt Lizzie returned To Cavendish twice. In 1845, and in the Spring of 1851 and 1852. Her next visit, as far as can be determined from the "Story of Aunt Lizzie Aiken", by Mrs. Galusha Anderson, was in the Fall of 1864. In September of that year, the officers of her regiment procured her a veteran's furlough of sixty days, and a railroad pass to Peoria. In Peoria, though supposed to be absolutely quiet, she raised about seven hundred dollars for hospital supplies. Then the ladies of the Peoria Loyal League provided her with funds to go to Vermont to visit her mother.
Three weeks of wonderful rest were spent in Cavendish. When she spoke there, in behalf of her soldiers, it seemed to her that even the leaves of the trees, whispering in the breeze, spoke messages of loyalty and cheer.
At the close of her visit to Vermont, the loyal ladies of New Hampshire sent for her to give them reports of the hospital work in the Southwest. She went with alacrity, since the call gave her not only the opportunity of making collections for her patients, but also of seeing her husband. He was at that time, in the care of some relatives in New Hampshire, and Aunt Lizzie hoped that she might find him improved in health. But, she was doomed to the most bitter disappointment. When she arrived at the house where he stayed, he did not recognize her.
The later part of October, Aunt Lizzie returned to Memphis.
In June of 1865, the war being finally over, the hospitals were broken up, and Aunt Lizzie went to Peoria. It was only by the greatest care on the part of Mother Sturgis, who accompanied her, that she was able to reach Peoria at all. In this emergency, the soldiers, of whom a thousand were sent North on the same boat, had some small opportunity to return her many favors. They carried her from the boat to the cars and exhibited the solicitude of sons for the welfare of a beloved mother. Her old friend, Mrs. Irong, received her gladly at Peoria, and with the tenderest of love, ministered her wants as she lay ill for weeks. As Aunt Lizzie grew a little stronger, the question of her future recurred. While on the journey from Memphis she had been drawn into conversation by a stranger, who questioned her as to what she intended to do on her arrival. "I have no plans for the future," she replied. "My Dear Madam," said he, "what hinders you from entering the missionary work?"
After Aunt Lizzie had spent six weeks in rest and recreation with a friend in Chicago, she felt that the time had come for her to care for herself. She tried in every way to procure employment of some kind, but failed in all her efforts. At last, one day, weary and discouraged, she returned to her room, and throwing herself upon her knees, she laid the case before her Heavenly Father. She resolved to trust God for the future. With renewed strength she started out again on her search, when distinctly, as if it had been suggested by some voice outside herself, came the thought that she had better apply to the editor of the standard.
The editor of that paper received her kindly, but told her she was qualified for a better position than that of folding papers ( the position for which she had applied). He gave Aunt Lizzie a letter of introduction to the wife of the pastor of the First Baptist Church. The interview which followed, led to employment in the Erring Women's Refuge. After two years of service there, Aunt Lizzie became a missionary of the Second Baptist Church. As a missionary, she made thousands of visits. To the sick alone, she made twelve thousand visits in twelve years. And the sick were but one of her many charges.
Aunt Lizzie held the position of missionary of the Second Baptist Church in Chicago until her death on January 17, 1906. Her funeral was held in the auditorium of that church. The procession which passed for over an hour before her coffin, testified eloquently, though silently, to the love and reverence in which she was held, by the church and the entire community. The Vermont Tribune obituary: ".... she went West with her husband in 1837 and settled at Rock River. She was one of the most famous nurses in the Federal army and her patriotic, high-souled devotion to her arduous duties is almost without parallel among her sex. She served through all the terrible years of strife in the hospitals of Paducah and Memphis, with hardly a break in the continuity of her work, never failing, never flagging, never discouraged. Beginning in the early days of '61, without special training, she became so proficient that she saved more lives than the surgeons, and was able to take up even the duties of the physician when the emergency arose. At the close of the war, when her services were no longer required as nurse, her philanthropic work continued, however, and was in charge of the Refuge conducted by the Young Men's Christian Association. In 1867 she joined the Second Baptist church, working as a missionary, almost to the day of her death."
There were many other tributes from the press, this one from the Christian Herald:
"There died recently, in the City of Chicago, a woman whose career was so remarkable for its' heroic self sacrifice and dauntless courage, that she could be ranked as high as the bravest soldier who does battle for his country. Her name was, Mrs. Eliza N. Aiken, but perhaps this would have an unfamiliar sound to the grizzled veterans; but say, 'Aunt Lizzie' the angel of the hospitals of Memphis and Paducah, and they would raise their hands to the salute, out of respect and love to America' s Florence Nightingale."
No life story of Aunt Lizzie would be complete without the inclusion of a series of rules she drew up for herself, at the beginning of her work:"I am resolve that, I will never, either in the morning or evening, proceed to any work, until I have first retired, at least for a few moments, to a private place and implored God for His assistance and blessings."
"I will neither do, nor undertake anything which I would abstain from doing if Jesus Christ were standing visibly at my side; nor anything of which I think it is possible that I shall repent in the uncertain hour of my certain death."
"I will, with God's help, accustom myself to do everything without exception, in the name of Jesus, and as his Disciple, to sigh unto God continually, keeping myself in a constant disposition for prayer."
"Wherever I go, I will first pray to God that I may commit no sin there, but may cause some good."
"I will every evening, examine my conduct by these rules."
"Oh God, thou seest what I have written. May I be able to read these, my resolutions, every morning with sincerity and every evening with joy."
GOD BLESS the SOUL of AUNT LIZZIE ATHERTON and all the women like her who gave their heart, their skills, their love - - to the wounded and beloved soldiers of our Union.
For information on other Vermont nurses, check out the article on women in the Virtual Museum
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