, Derry, New Hampshire


February 27, 2014

Column: Army nurses are true soldiers

Women were not allowed to join the American armed forces until World War l in 1917. Incidentally, it was Navy Yeoman Annie Norton of Derry who in 1918 was the first women in American history to die while on active service during wartime.

During the Civil War, there were many women on both sides who volunteered to serve as Army nurses; most served behind the lines with the Sanitation Commission or in Army hospitals. And soon they learned the true cost of war by seeing piles of amputated limbs, wards filled with mutilated bodies, and hearing the screams of the injured and dying.

Among the most famous nurses of that war were Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Harriett Dame and Walt Whitman. Derry’s D-Day hero Walter Borowski always said that the Army nurses were the bravest of the brave and they deserved more medals then he earned.

I recently discovered that a Derry woman served as a frontline nurse in the Civil War. Miss Annie J. Sawyer (c. 1840-1905) went by boat to the front in September 1861 with the 4th New Hampshire Regiment. On the way to the front, Annie suffered with the men in the steamship Baltic as it went through a storm off Cape Hatteras.

Less than a month after leaving Derry, she was nursing soldiers wounded in the attack on Port Royal. Over the next three years the 4th New Hampshire would see action on battlefields from Florida to Virginia, including Cold Harbor, the Crater at Petersburg and Sherman’s March to the Sea.

During the attack on Fort Fisher in January 1865, the brave commander Gen. Louis Bell (Pinkerton Academy, 1850) was shot through his spine. Despite being paralyzed, he refused to be carried off the battlefield to the safety of the surgeon’s tent. He demanded to remain with his men until the battle was won. As he lay dying, he requested that upon his death, Nurse Sawyer should drape the American flag across breast. And in the coffin, Annie placed the sword with which Louis Bell had held aloft as he led his men into a dozen battles. The “Fighting Fourth” was mustered out in Concord in August 1865.

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