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Civil War Nurse


October of 1862 brought the 12th Michigan Infantry to the battle fields of the South. Joseph Tooley had left behind his young wife, Sarah, and three-week-old son to fight for the Stars and Stripes. Later, Sarah received a letter stating that Joseph was being hospitalized at the Arkansas/Texas border. Sarah knew that she must find her husband and, facing certain danger, she made her way through war-torn territory from Michigan to the Texas border. The countryside was fraught with bands of guerilla soldiers, a constant threat to her safety. However, for Sarah, the most constant concern was getting to Joseph in time.

Joseph was suffering from sunstroke and yellow jaundice when Sarah found him in a state of helpless delirium. Upon arriving, Sarah's first duty was to fetch water to give to the soldiers. "The water was warm and brackish, it nauseated even before it reached swollen, cracked lips," said Sarah. Rations were boiled salt pork and hardtack softened in the liquid. It was not easy to give comfort, but Sarah worked for two years at the hospital, until the war ended.

The hospital was a converted warehouse where soldiers were lined up on cotton-bales used as improvised beds, lying on blankets worn black with filth. In the crowded rows, they waited in agony; suffering stench, flies, and thirst; praying for relief. "Penned up to die" said one surgeon, performing his duties without hypodermics or anesthetics.

"I feel more like a soldier than a nurse," said Sarah. But her fight took place on the second battle field of the civil war, fighting to save the lives of the sick and the wounded in the many makeshift hospitals behind the lines. Slowly Joseph did recover, and on September 21, 1865 he was discharged.

The family came to Valley City in 1882, when it was still little more than a village of tents. They obtained a homestead nearby and Sarah and Joseph would live the rest of their lives here, raising their three sons. Sarah's war experience would be of great value in the fledgling city where she cared for her husband and others. She also acted as undertaker when none was available. Joseph had a beloved garden in town, where he worked every day from sun up to sun down until his death in April of 1921. Sarah would live to be 102, once again joining Joseph in April of 1942.

By Maria Witham and Jim Davis

Record Twelfth Michigan Infantry, Civil War 1861-1865

Fargo Forum, March 15, 1936

WPA Historical Biography File- Barnes County-Sarah Tooley