A Feisty Civil War Nurse at the Lyceum

John Lustrea, from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, told me about Clarissa Jones (1832-1921). His series of blog posts on the museum website tells more of the story than what I will share here. Of most interest for this purpose, she visited Alexandria in 1861 and volunteered as a nurse at the Lyceum a year later.

I had already seen a photo of Jones as a much older woman, a bit stodgy although definitely formidable looking. But a photo of her circa 1860 shows a 28-year-old looking straight at us with spirit, someone who would follow her heart to places unknown. (Photos courtesy of National Museum of Civil War Medicine.)

When the war broke out, she was unmarried, age 28, and a teacher in Germantown, Penn. She wanted to make a difference. At first, she undertook traditional female homefront activities: "knit socks and mitts." She then started volunteering at the Christian Street Hospital in Philadelphia. 

Her friend Lane Schofield joined a Pennsylvania regiment and was encamped in Alexandria and Washington. She wrote to him and then traveled south. (John could only conjecture on whether theirs was ever a romantic relationship. The letters do not indicate and they both married other people after the war; however, Lane did name his only daughter after Clarissa.)

A First Trip, a Bit of a Lark

On Christmas Day, 1861, Clarissa and a female friend traveled to camps in Washington and Virginia. This trip seemed to be more of a good-will and curiosity mission; she describes visits to camps in which the getting there was half or more of the adventure. They relied on a combination of friends/acquaintances and moxie to get from place to place. She visited Camp Graham, near the Soldiers Home, on her own, describing a wide and rather isolated detour to find it, quite unusual for a middle-class woman to do this alone. On another occasion, trying to reach Camp Leslie in Virginia, the two women took what they expected was a shortcut and ended up in a rifle pit that required use of a ladder to get out of.

They took a steamboat from Washington to Alexandria, then walked about 3 miles along Leesburg Pike to Camp Franklin, on the grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary. (Editor's note: across the street from where I live!). The women stayed for a dinner of corn beef, cabbage, mashed potatoes, and pie, and they watched a review of the troops. It sounds like they saw their role primarily to spread cheer, often catching their would-be hosts by surprise.

On December 31, 1861, Clara shared her first impressions of  Alexandria:

We got to the wharf just as the boat had left, and we had a half-hour to wait for the next arrival....Our impressions of Alexandria were not the most flattering, we who have always been used to clean streets, genteel-looking houses, and well dressed and well dressed and well behaved people on the side walk, could hardly look favorably upon a place that had neither cleanliness or gentility of persons to recommend...

The next day, they took advantage of their presence in Washington to attend an open house at the President's House: They found...

...an immense crowd assembled on the grounds near the house, each individual putting forth every effort to edge his particular body towards the entrance to the mansion, perfectly independently of the comfort or conveniences of those around.

They gave as good as they got:

...We took our places in the rear of the large crowd and with the same laudable spirit that actuated the rest elbowed our way in fiercely contending every inch of ground...

The Real Thing

The Lyceum was built as a lecture hall and library in the 1830s; it was one of Alexandria's 32 Union hospitals during the Civil War.

The Lyceum was built as a lecture hall and library in the 1830s; it was one of Alexandria's 32 Union hospitals during the Civil War.

Despite her less-than-stellar first impression of Alexandria, Clara returned about 9 months later, using a family connection to secure a position. This time, she went beyond a morale-boosting mission to care for patients. By then, she had volunteered on the State of Maine hospital ship, no longer just the young woman out on an adventure with a girlfriend. She dug right in:

Alexandria Sept. 6th 1862. Arrived here at 2 o’clk and in company with Mr. Shinn set out in search of a place where a woman’s services were needed.  Directed by Providence to the Lyceum Building in which I found 60 badly wounded men without a nurse.  without comforts of any kind.  The poor fellows looked as tho they had been brought here to die.   the smell arising from the undressed wounds was perfectly dreadful.  I have been hard at work making beds and washing faces ever since my arrival this evening and I think the men will rest more comfortably.

Her room was so small that she wrote she could touch its two opposite walls at once from her bed. But she remained in place:  “declined their kind offers because [I] wished to be near the patients and because [I was] independent.”

She eventually oversaw the work of 11 attendants, five of whom were African American. She wrote disparagingly of their work--whether blind to reality because of her own racial prejudice or because of any potential shortcomings among the laborers. Unfortunately, it seems the former. 

Toward the end of her Lyceum stint in fall 1862, Clara contracted typhoid. She remained at the Lyceum for a week until she could travel home, but was able to return to teaching a few weeks later. In fact, she returned to the Lyceum a few weeks later to make a Thanksgiving meal for the patients. She volunteered after Gettysburg and back in Virginia until 1864, when she had to nurse an ill sister. (As I wrote in a previous post, of course single daughters took on caregiving duties.)

The Wheelock Connection

Jones wrote about a few patients by name. In one of those "small world" incidents that we sometimes find in first-person narratives, one of them--Orville Wheelock from Michigan--crops up in her diary. And Clara shows up in the diary of Orville's sister Julia!

From Clara:

Sept. 8: This P.M. the doctor informed me that Srgt. Wheelock, one of the men whose leg had been amputated upon the battlefield was surely sinking, nothing  could save him.  I felt it my duty to tell him of his condition, painful as the task was.  At his request I wrote to his wife who lives in Michigan.  Poor woman my letter will cause her much sorrow, she cannot possibly reach here in time to see him alive unless she has already started.  He told me he was looking for her having sent her money to come on.  I have set up with him late and finding him resting well. I can leave him in charge of the male attendants.


Tuesday, Sept. 9: I have just closed the eyes and performed the last sad office of kindness for the dead.  Srgt. W. died at 9 o’clk.  I sat by him holding his hand till the breath left him.  Then as tho’ he were my own relative I washed his face and neck, closed his eyes and bound up his head as tenderly as his own kin could have done it.  The hair I cut from his head I will send to his wife tomorrow. 

Several days later, on September 14:

This P.M. I witnessed one of the most distressing scenes possible – Mrs. W. arrived from Mich. to see her husband, not having rec’d either of my letters, indeed not having time to do so.  She rec’d a letter on Wed. A.M. stating that her husband was very ill, and she started at once for Alex.  She was informed when near the building that he was getting along very well.  The man who was conducting her came in and upon inquiry found he was dead.  He did not wait to prepare her at all but told her at once he was dead – I do not know how the poor woman lived to realize the truth of the intelligence.  She went on like one crazy and begged and prayed me to say that there was some mistake – but seeing the likeness of the dear man in her breast pin I could give her no hope of its being an error.  She was accompanied by her own and her husband’s sister.  I took them over to the Rev. Mr. Read’s house and there left them in his care – I felt for her so much – poor woman none but those who have lost their best loved one can feel her wretchedness.  

And so Clara Jones had another duty to perform:

Monday Sept. 15: This P.M. I went with Mrs. W. to visit her husband’s grave.  The cemetery appropriated for the Soldiers’ Rest, is situated on the outskirts of the city, and surrounded by a white [pale] fence – the graves are in rows the whole length of the lot – every grave has a neat board marked with the name, Co. + Reg. of the deceased.  It is a quiet spot – no sound save the whistle of the locomotive disturbs the sacred quietness of the last resting place of the many who have lost their lives in defence of our flag....It was hard to get away from the ground containing all that remained of one so dear to Mrs. W.  We met a funeral as we were leaving the yard O! it is a sad sight – this soldiers funeral.

Julia Wheelock

Julia Wheelock

Amazingly, we can look at this same set of circumstances from the other side. In a book called Boys in White, published in 1870 based on her diary, Julia Wheelock wrote about coming to Alexandria with Orville's wife, only to do reach their loved one after his death. After wrangling a pass in Washington to take the steamboat James Guy across to Alexandria:

As we pass up King Street we pause a moment to look at the building where the brave Ellsworth fell, drop a tear to his memory, and hurry on.

They enter a church-turned-hospital on Washington Street where Orville's wife shares her premonition that he is dead, alas, true. They try "Lyceum Hall" (where we know he died, based on Clara's account above), then to Baptist Church Hospital. 

As grief-stricken as they were, Julia said--

But God had sent an angel of mercy in human form--that noble girl, Miss Clara F. Jones of Philadelphia--to watch over and administer to his wants. She watched him day by day as he grew weaker...and, when life had fled, prepared him as far as she could for burial. Such are her daily duties.

They learned more about his final days from Jones and, as Clara also recounted...

visited brother's grave. Oh! How could we realize as we stood by that little, narrow, turfless mound that dear Orville lay there...

On September 16, the small group of mourners visited the Lyceum. Here's how Julia Wheelock described it, with another shout-out to Clara:

To-day we visited the Lyceum Hospital, where so recently Orville took his leave of earth....The hospital is full of the wounded from the late battles, suffering, oh so much, and yet so patiently!...The hospital was in a most wretched condition until the advent of Miss Jones, under whose wise management and untiring efforts it has greatly improved. Everything that woman can do will be done be her for her "boys," as she calls them. She is indeed an angel of mercy to those poor sufferers.

She also praised the work of a Mrs. May from Michigan, wife of Chaplain May.  At the Lyceum, Julia Wheelock realized, "Oh, how O long to stay and go to work for them"--and she did, finding a job with the Michigan Relief Association. She and Julia Wilbur (and Mrs. May) became friends--Wilbur wrote about visiting Centreville and Bull Run with the two women, including a trip to the battlefield in spring of 1863 to witness where Orville was wounded.

More Connections, More Information

John had researched Jones' life but had not visited the Lyceum in person. Last week, as part of a Society for Women and the Civil War tour of Washington and Alexandria, he had the chance to see this place where Clarissa Jones contributed her time and energy to her country.

John Lustrea came across one of Clara Jones'  transcribed letters and period medical artifacts at the Lyceu.m.

John Lustrea came across one of Clara Jones'  transcribed letters and period medical artifacts at the Lyceu.m.

Read more about his research into the life of Clarissa Jones in this four-part blog series written in 2017.