Profiles In Nursing

Ann Bradford Stokes (1830–1903), From Civil War “Contraband” to U.S. Navy Pensioner

After escaping the plantation where she was enslaved, Stokes boarded a Union hospital ship and volunteered to become a Navy nurse.

Illustration of a woman helping a patient in bed on the left and then two people talking in a bedroom on the right

After escaping the plantation where she was enslaved, Ann Bradford Stokes boarded a Union hospital ship and volunteered to become a Navy nurse. Later, she became the first woman in U.S. Navy history to be granted a military pension for her own service.

Free to Make History

Stokes was born in 1830 in Rutherford County, Tenn. Little is known about her early history, except that until late in her life, she could neither read nor write (skills most slaves were forbidden to learn).

In early 1863, she escaped from the plantation where she had been enslaved and found refuge aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover, a former Confederate steamship that the Union had recently captured and recommissioned as a hospital ship.

Under the 1861 Confiscation Act, slaves who escaped from Confederate states to Union territory were officially considered confiscated enemy property, known as “contrabands.”

Although contrabands would not be sent back to their former masters, their legal status remained ambiguous until President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Many contrabands spent the war in grim Union refugee camps.

Aboard the Red Rover, Stokes found another option. The hospital ship’s complement included several sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame, who had recently come aboard the ship to act as nurses. The sisters needed all the help they could get, so they began enlisting female contrabands to join them as nurses’ aides.

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Stokes volunteered, becoming the first Black woman to serve aboard a U.S. military vessel. She received the rating of “boy first class,” a designation normally held by enlisted seamen younger than 17.

Along the Mississippi

The Red Rover was part of the Navy’s Mississippi Squadron, providing medical support and transporting medical supplies along the Mississippi River.

Although the ship was praised in its day for its efficient and sanitary operations, conditions aboard were often unpleasant — especially during the summer, when Midwestern heat and humidity turned the ship into a foul-smelling sauna, full of flies and mosquitoes.

Duty aboard the Red Rover could also be dangerous. Around the time Stokes arrived, the ship’s hospital section was hit by two enemy shells, although fortunately there were no casualties.

Nursing during the Civil War was far from the specialized, resource-filled practice it is today. Instead, the suffering soldiers and wounded sailors relied on Stokes and the other nurses to utilize the only tools they had: compassion and intuition, skills that aren’t learned from a book.

Stokes and the four other female contrabands who worked with her on the Red Rover sometimes took advantage of folk remedies passed down through their years on the plantations, but more often, their role was to provide a caring touch when it was needed most.

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Over a period of 18 months, Stokes and her comrades cared for more than 2,000 patients. The work was hard — in addition to providing nursing services to wounded and ill soldiers, Stokes and the other women assisted with cleaning, cooking and other shipboard responsibilities.

Wages were often sporadic, but for the first time in her life, she was free, and being paid for her labor.

Making History — Again

By the summer of 1864, Stokes was exhausted from months of hard shipboard duty. She resigned in October for reasons of health and married Gilbert Stokes, another contraband who had served aboard the Red Rover. Sadly, he died just two years later. Stokes remarried in 1867, to a man named George Bowman.

In the 1880s, Stokes, now in poor health, applied for a military pension as Gilbert Stokes’ widow, but her application was denied. Still as remarkably determined as ever, Stokes wouldn’t accept no for an answer.

Aware that her first pension application had been hampered by her limited literacy, Stokes worked to greatly improve her reading and writing skills and applied again in 1890. This time, she requested a pension based not on her former husband’s service, but on her own 18 months as a boy first class.

No American woman had ever applied for or received a pension for her own military service before, and Stokes’ application underwent careful review by the Navy Department. This time, her application was accepted, and she was granted a stipend of $12 per month for her service.

Stokes passed away in 1903. Her life and nursing service are still honored with reenactments and historical portrayals. She remains a nursing pioneer and a remarkable icon for women, Black Americans, U.S. Navy nurses and nurses everywhere.

JESSICA KIRCHNER, RN, MSN, NPD-BC, is the director of nursing practice for the Ohio Nurses Association and a freelance writer specializing in the healthcare industry.

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