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The Florence Nightingale of the Southern Army; Experiences of Mrs. Ella K. Newsom by J. Fraise Richard

A Confederate Nurse.

Mrs. Newsom, the Southern Florence Nightingale:
A Thrilling narrative of her adventures.

The civil war did not begin with the firing upon Fort Sumpter, nor cease with the surrender of the last hostile army. Its history was not written when Greeley published his Great American Conflict or Pollard his Lost Cause. These were but the beginning of things—a few of the more prominent incidents that marked the times from 1861 to 1865. 

Further, it must not be supposed that when the government shall have published the archives of the two war departments for the period referred to the annals of that most exciting epoch will have been fully presented to the world. Only the views of engagements as soon by commanding officers will have been presented while the great landscape of experiences and sacrifices, of ministrations and sufferings, of devotion and romance, of consecration and self-denial—the real web and woof of the times—lies wholly unrecognized, fully exemplifying the trite but no less true asservation that

Many a gem of the purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its fragrance on the desert air.

These gems can be secured only after the lapse of time, by actual contact with the bona fide participants in such episodes. The authentic history of the war is yet to be written by the facile pen of the unprejudiced historian.

The subject of our sketch, Mrs. Ella K. Trader, better known as Mrs. Newsom from heroic and unselfish devotion to the cause of the sick and suffering soldiers of the Confederate army during the late war, richly deserves to be called "The Florence Nightingale" of the South. She is a native of Brandon, Miss., and the daughter of Rev. T. S. N. King, a Baptist minister of prominence and ability. At an early date in her existence her father removed with his family to the wilds of Arkansas where, amid the roughness and adversities of pioneer life, she was skillfully trained in the most daring and accomplished feats of horsemanship, and became thoroughly qualified for the trying experiences which subsequently characterized her arduous and unselfish life in the hospital service of the Confederacy.

"With this object in view she sacrificed position, wealth, ease, health, and almost life itself in the cause of her beloved Southland. Utterly oblivious of personal comfort, she devoted herself to the hospital service and labored with fearless consecration in the midst of soul-harrowing scenes of carnage and bloodshed or in the " pestilence that walketh in darkness."

Mrs. Newsom's experiences were identified mainly with the Army of Tennessee, in the hospitals of Bowling Green, Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Corinth, Marietta, Atlanta and other points. At the time the war broke out she was residing at Winchester, Tenn., where she was superintending the education of her younger sisters. The sisters returning to the parental roof in Arkansas, she collected suitable hospital supplies and taking a number of her own servants went to Memphis where her career in the army began. In various capacities she labored until December 1861, when taking her own servants and a car load of supplies, at her own expense, she repaired to Bowling Green, Ky., to alleviate the almost inexpressible sufferings of the Confederate sick. The scenes of destitution at that place beggar description. Want of organization, lack of suitable buildings, scarcity of supplies and the exceedingly cold weather produced untold suffering. With tireless energy she consecrated her energies to this distressing condition, often laboring from 4 o'clock in the morning until 12 o'clock at night.

On the arrival of General Lloyd's troops, his surgeon-in-chief fully appreciated the services of this Christian woman and gave her entire charge of the hospitals in the town. This position she held until the surrender of Forts Donaldson and Henry. She then went to Nashville and organized the Howard High School into a hospital for the sick and wounded of those forts.

Her stay at Nashville, however, was brief. The surrender of Forts Henry and Donaldson compelled the withdrawal of the Confederates from Nashville. In the removal of the wounded she performed some feats that show clearly not only her tireless energy and consummate tact but her most remarkable executive ability. With the aid of Col. Dunn she had the sick and wounded placed upon cars and taken to Winchester, Tenn. After several days' wearisome movements, the train reached Deckerd. The engineer, for some reason, detached his engine leaving the long train with its helpless passengers standing unsignaled and unprotected on the track at 10 o'clock at night. Wandering about the engine yard Mrs. Newsom secured another engine and by 2 o'clock had her train safely lodged at Winchester, distant several miles. All the churches and schools of the place were converted into hospitals, and every arrangement made for the comfort of the unfortunate men, who were so pleased with their treatment that they called the place the " Soldiers' Paradise."

The sojourn at Winchester was also brief. The Confederate army retreated, and, under the skillful leadership of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson, concentrated at Corinth for the desperate battle of Shiloh, April 6th and 7th, 1S62. Mrs. Newsom accompanied the column. Her next field of labor was Corinth. The sick and wounded from Shiloh required the energies of all the nurses that could be summoned from the Southwestern states. It is not possible nor necessary to go into details. One little incident at this time, may prove interesting. It occurred at the Tishomingo hotel. A boy of 19 years old, James Murray, from Pattersonville, La., was lying with a handkerchief over his eyes. Coming to him, Mrs. Newsom said: "My young friend, why are you so quiet?" He replied: "I have been so for twenty-four hours."

On examination it was found that both his eyes had been destroyed by a bullet. Despite all this, the
youth was cheerful, and jokngly said to her: "I shall be the blind poet of America." In a day or two after this Mrs. Newsom started for her home to secure a little rest, proper help having arrived from Mobile and other places. On her way from Louisiana she met a gentleman who had a coffin and was looking for his son who, he heard, was killed at Shiloh. Imagine his surprise and gratification too, when told by Mrs. Newsom that his boy was at the Tishomingo Hospital, not killed but a cheerful, though sightless patient.

In chronological order and experience this invasion of Kentucky by Bragg and the retreat into Tennessee next occurred. The autumn of 1862 arrived. Lieutenant General W. J. Hardee, author of a work on Military Tactics, was commander of one of the corps in Bragg's army. He fully appreciated the great services rendered by Mrs. Newsom and so expressed himself in a number of letters which have been seen by the writer of this sketch. From one of those letters, dated Estella Springs, Tenn., November 15, 1862, a few extracts are made.

It seems that General Hardee had just been given the command of his corps. He says: "I left Chattanooga without knowing precisely where my command was located. I have established my headquarters here. I have a small house, known in Georgia and Florida as two pens and a passage, which furnishes me a room for an office and a room for a chamber. Dr. Yandell and Major Roy sleep in the same room with me. The other members of my staff are encamped in the immediate vicinity.

"I am going this afternoon with Bragg and Buckner to Murfreesboro to look after affairs in that quarter. The enemy is concentrating his forces about Nashville. I don't think he will attack us in front, but may attempt to turn our position by marching on Knoxville or on Chattanooga by Sparta." Gen. Rosecrans, it seems, did not follow the program mapped out for him by Hardee.

In another letter dated Shelbyville, December 4, 1862, General Hardee alludes to Mrs. Newsom's influence at Winchester. The seminary at which Mrs. Newsom was educating her sisters was under the control of Rev. Z. C. Graves, a Baptist minister. Says General Hardee: "You are acquainted with Mrs. Collyer at Winchester, and with Mr. Graves. The latter was in great apprehension that his seminary would be taken for a hospital. The yellow flag had been hoisted on it by General Cheatham's medical director. In his distress he went to Mrs. Collyer, who told him to apply to me, and to represent that you had been educated there and he would save the building. He came. I went with him to General Bragg, who exempted the school. Dining afterward with Mrs. Collyer, she assured me that half the people of Winchester believed you had been instrumental in saving the building. You see what mischief you are doing."

In a postscript to this letter, dated December 5th, occurs this statement, which has some historical significance:

"After twelve o'clock I received an important order from General Bragg ordering my corps to take position at Eagleville, on the Shelbyville and Nashville pike, We are in the midst of a snow storm, and the order, with the exception of one brigade, is postponed till weather clears up." Mrs. Newsom it appears was the receptacle of important military information which now, for the first time meets the public eye. 

During this time Mrs. Newsom was in charge of the hospital at Chattanooga. It is the period preceding the battle of Stone River, which occurred Dec. 31, 1862, and January 1 and 2, 1863. This conflict, terribly severe on both sides, increased hospital labors. One incident only can be cited.

The intense and long continued suffering of the sick and wounded enlisted the sympathies and secured the sacrifices of women in the South unaccustomed to toil and sacrifice. Southern ladies were intensely loyal to the cause of the Confederacy and did valiant service in stimulating soldiers to deeds of heroic daring. No better expression can be given to the sentiment than will be afforded by extracts from several letters by that gifted writer, Miss Augusta J. Evans (since 1869 Mrs. L. M. Wilson):

Mobile, August 25, 1863.
My dear Mrs. Newsom:—I have just returned from a brief visit to Chattanooga, where I went to see my brother Howard who has been in very poor health for more than a year. He belongs to Tucker's 41st Mississippi Regiment, Anderson's Brigade and Wither's division.

This is a season of peculiar trial and deep national gloom, but I comfort myself with the words of Schiller's Wallenstein:

"In the night only Freedland's stars can beam." 

Our night has come down, black and cheerless. Let us look up hopefully, unwaveringly, for the shimmer of our glorious day-star, grappling faith to our weary hearts; let us place our destiny in the hands of a merciful, just, and righteous God, and calmly say with Southey:

"Onward, in faith; and leave the rest to heaven;" As a people we have relied too little upon our God, and too entirely upon ourselves. We have become corrupt, selfish, grasping and avaricious. We needed chastisement and it has fallen upon us. I trust the recent day of fasting and prayer was faithfully observed throughout the Confederacy. I do not believe that our greatest trials have yet overtaken us, but the hour of sorest need is certainly at hand. Independence and constitutional republican liberty is too precious a boon to be lightly won, and we are now paying the heavy, immemorial dues which liberty demands. I mourn over the demoralization of the country, because it places our national redemption so much farther off. The women of the Confederacy have been remiss in not using their influence to correct this evil ere it becomes colossal: for they are the guardians of the nation's purity, and upon them, in great degree, must devolve its reformation.

This eloquent letter was written, it will be observed, under the gloom which followed Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, Pemberton's surrender at Vicksburg and Bragg's expulsion from Tennessee. The outlook for the Confederacy was far from encouraging at that time.

Mrs. Newsom manifested on many an occasion a will power and spirit of determination scarcely less than superhuman. Napoleon said during the prosecution of the Peninsular Campaign: "There is nothing that can resist my will." For a time it seemed to be grandly true.

This "Florence Nightingale of the South," this prodigy of benevolence and philanthropy during the trying ordeal of war, exhibited like characteristics. Only an instance or two can be cited in illustration: 

In the summer of 1863, while Bragg and Rosecrans were maneuvering for the possession of Middle Tennessee, Mrs. Newsom deemed it necessary to pay a visit to her aged parents and own home in Arkansas. The dangers and difficulties in the way of the execution of so hazardous an enterprise cannot be more fully expressed than by quoting a letter written at the time by Dr. Johnson to dissuade her from the attempt. Wartrace, Tenn. Jan. 2, 1863.

Mrs. E. K. Newsom:—I was at Headquarters today, and General Hardee informed me that you were preparing to go to Arkansas. He spoke of the matter with much warmth, and urged me to write to you and present the real difficulties to be encountered. 

In the first place, the distance. This is a great objection. The mode of traveling, by rail, is in the present condition of the roads a most serious obstacle. Then, when the road terminates, how will you get further? Public conveyances are out of the question. Can a private conveyance be had? I think not. How can you subsist? Where sleep? How will you cross rivers and creeks?

You have energy and will. They are excellent qualities and avail a great deal under difficulties but it will put these to the severest test and your power of endurance besides. Then when you get to Arkansas, can you stay there? Will they not send you to prison, or order you back within our lines? I think they will. If you get to the Yazoo country, and find you can go no further, and should be obliged to return, you will be so much exhausted that you will faint by the way. Will you listen to your friend and counsellor? In my opinion you ought not to take the trip. If the country were as it was two years ago, it would be a big undertaking now it is an impossibility.
I am, very truly your friend in haste,
Jno. M. Johnson,
Chief Surgeon.

Dr. Johnson, though chief surgeon of Hardee's Corps, was not successful in preventing this difficult and perilous journey. He may have delayed it; for not until the following January was it undertaken. Then from Marietta, Ga.. Bragg's army having after the battle of Missionary Ridge taken position around Dalton, she set out on what proved to be a much more eventful and dangerous journey than she anticipated.

From Marietta to Atlanta, thence by rail, ambulance, and foot to Mobile, Ala.: thence via Meridian, Miss., and Jackson to Memphis; and finally from Memphis via Helena to Pine Bluff, Ark., where General Steele's forces were stationed. Knowing her danger here, and learning meanwhile that her parents had removed some thirty miles or more to the southward, she determined to prosecute her trip to a successful conclusion. At her own former home she met her invalid; and a young sister. With these and several jaded animals, together with some provisions and other necessary family supplies, she proceeded across prairies and bayous, a distance of more than one hundred and forty miles. Multiplied exposures and dangers that would have deferred any ordinary traveler were met and overcome. The greatest danger was not the presence of the enemy. The swollen streams and the bayous rendered progress next to impossible.

Finally the neighborhood in which her father's family resided was reached. The intervening stream was swollen from one of ordinary dimensions to one of quite a mile. On the opposite side was the parental roof and a place of comparative safety. With the foresight characteristic of a living parental heart, he had, apparently in anticipation of a visit from his long absent daughter, placed a guide board to indicate the proper place to cross the stream. But the great floods had not been anticipated by him.

This difficulty was to be overcome. A dugout was obtained; but it was sufficient to hold only one person in addition to the rower. One by one the brother and sisters were taken across; and one by one the jaded horse, the mule and Shetland pony were compelled to swim over. The parental roof was reached. The scanty supplies were distributed to cheer the destitute house.

A tale of woe awaited the long absent daughter. In one of the many raids made into the community by Federal soldiers, belonging to Steele's command, a band of outlaws visited the King's mansion. One of the members became involved in some controversy with her father, and deliberately shot him through the side and arm, inflicting a wound from which he never recovered. So incensed at this dastardly deed became Miss Josie King, a younger daughter, that mounting a horse she followed the retreating soldiers a distance of quite thirty miles and reported the outrage to Gen. Steele, who arrested and keenly punished the cowardly perpetrator of the deed. Her visit completed, Mrs. Newsom's return to the army was fraught with equal dangers and exposures, the recital of which can not be undertaken.

Extract from a letter from Mr. C. C. Guilford, Knoxville, Tenn. "Would that I had lived such a life as yours. Then, indeed, I could confidently step out into the higher life. Your beautiful life in old Winchester has been an inspiration through my whole life. I revered you then above all other women. You must have had an equally great influence on many other persons. These will be your 'sheaves.' I wonder where you are going for your vacation. Presume that our finances will require us to stay right here. Write me a postal when you feel like it, 
With sincere love,

I want you to read this page. I get this kind of letters from old men and old women all over the country and I have seen but few of them since the days of my youth. I was only 22, a young widow. Does it not prove that youth is the time to serve God, and shows, too, how our character for good or evil influences those around us for their entire life in this world.

Fame is only a finger mark in sand, A noble life is man's only enduring monument.

With this object in view, two years later, she went to Winchester, Tenn., and taking with her from her home in Phillips County, Arkansas, Misses Fannie, Josie and Lizzie, younger sisters, she placed them in the Mary Sharp College, under the direction of Professor Graves from Zanesville, Ohio. She had herself pursued studies there and was perfectly familiar with the place, having spent in the aggregate, some several years. 

Later, with this same object in view, at the first call of her beloved Southland, she sacrificed position, wealth, ease, health and almost life itself to the cause. Utterly oblivious of personal comfort she devoted herself to the hospital service and labored with fearless consecration in the midst of soul-harrowing scenes of carnage and bloodshed or in the "pestilence that walketh in darkness."

Rev. Mr. King's life in Arkansas was devoted largely to religious matters of a pioneer character. He preached in country places and exerted in the community the same benign influence which characterized his domestic affairs.

In addition to the anxiety resulting from the absence of Mrs. Newsom in the army for the whole period of the war and two sons in different portions of the Confederate service, he and his family were constantly annoyed at home by stragglers and desperadoes from both armies.

In March 1864, he was seen near Pine Bluff, on Bayou Bartholomew, by outlaws from General Steele's army. The ball passed through shoulder, side and foot. The men rode away but were pursued by his youngest daughter, Miss Jossie, a distance of thirty miles. She never ceased following until she reached Steele's headquarters and reported the case. The General had the vandals arrested and punished.

Mr. King, who weighed nearly 250 pounds, died two years later from the effects of the wounds received on this occasion. His suffering of course was intense. Of exemplary character, he was deeply mourned by both his relatives and friends. His death was a deep affliction.

J. Fraise Richard, The Florence Nightingale of the Southern Army; Experiences of Mrs. Ella K. Newsom (New York: Broadway Publishing Company, 1914), 16-27.


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