Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Contraband Small Pox Hospital of New Bern NC

Image from top of Ledger of Colored Contract Nurses, a the Smallpox Hospital in Newberne NC

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My interest in Civil War era nurses came by accident only recently when I noticed that a soldiers in the 57th US Colored Infantry filed a pension. On the index card was a reference to his wife who also served as a nurse and who was filing for a pension herself. This made me pause and I had to ask if there were more women of color who were nurses.  I quickly found the answer--a resounding yes!  There are records and though they are scattered and don't contain much narrative--there is still a story to tell.

In my previous post I shared parts of a ledger that I found with some images reflecting the names of a few dozen women and men, of color who were hired during the Civil war as "contract nurses". Their contracts did not appear to last long and only their names were reflected, however, I immediately saw the significance of this small ledger and realized that all of us need to know this story.

One of the hospitals in the ledger was the Contraband Small Pox Hospital in New Bern North Carolina. In the spring of 1864 as the numbers of contrabands grew, health issues arose within a short time. The contrabands were newly freed slaves who successfully fled bondage and found freedom on their own with no overseers nor owners to restrain their flight to freedom.  But the health problems quickly arose among this refugee population, and the people needed immediate attention to prevent a widespread epidemic.

The book by Nina Silber, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War she describe how in early 1864, that Abigail May of the New England Sanitary Commission was consulted to provide supplies for the smallpox  hospital in New Bern North Carolina for newly freed slaves. The members were not as eager as one might have expected, for the members of the society preferred to put their energies towards aiding soldiers more than civilians. (1)

By March of 1864, however, a good number of people of color were hired as contract nurses. Their names are found on the ledger of the Colored Contract Nurses, that I was fortunate to locate at the National Archives two weeks ago.

Ledger Reflecting Colored Contract Nurses at Contraband Smallpox Hospital in New Bern NC

The final names of nurses at New Berne were listed on the following page:
Contraband Smallpox Hospital, New Bern NC (continued)

Upon examination of the names it became apparent that there were both men and women who were hired to attend to the patients at the Small Pox Hospital.

The hired nurses were:
Phillip Biddle
James Brimayer
Dinah Carter
Wright Cobb
Eliza Chapman
Sarah Donnell
Lora Faber
Susan Grimes
Samuel Harris
Dolly Howard
Matthew Ircott
Zachary Johnson
Scott Jones
Jane Kinsley
Frank Lewis
Celia Lindsay
Joshua Lindsay
Juda Latham
Frank Mabry
Isaac Mabry
Henry Moore
Sarah Mellinder
Lucy Overton
Alfred Pool
Martha Pool
David Ralls
Edward Ruffind
Gracy Russell
Jospeh Simmons
Joseph Singleton
Levanter Swindle
Creasy Taylor
Mary Thomas
Thomas Turner
Simon Wilson
Ellen Washington

Names from the second page:
George Wesson
Nelly White
Clarissa Wilson
Charity Wilder
Mary Chance
Margaret Bennett
Esther Bennett
Minerva Jones

The epidemic in New Bern was described as a very serious situation and some letters sent by black soldiers to their superiors described very dire circumstances for the person afflicted. Ira Berlin presented some of the letters depicting the desperate conditions facing those freed men and women who were afflicted with small pox. One of the letters appears below and it was written by a black soldier who witnessed the sufferings of the small pox victims.

Letter written by soldier who witnessed the sufferings of the New Bern Small Pox patients. (2)

By March of the same year, however, it appears that a hospital was created to treat the freedmen and more than forty nurses were hired to assist in their treatment and care.

Thankfully in spite of a reluctance on the part of some to treat African American patients needing care the response did come from the community. The forty four nurses from the New Bern community who responded at different times from the beginning of the outbreak of the disease, till the war's end, deserve their moment of recognition, and their story too, should be told.

(1) Silber, Nina, Daughter of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005

(2) Berlin, Ira, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993  p. 182-183


  1. A series of photographs medical supplies capturing the experiences of workers and patients at a busy hospital in London, 1941.

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  3. Good Morning Ms. Walton-Raji,
    Thank you so much for researching, writing, and sharing this most interesting article! We have shared a link to it on our facebook. https://www.facebook.com/FamilyHistorySocietyOfENC/
    All The Best,
    David French