Profiles in Nursing

Sarah A. Palmer, aka “Aunt Becky” (1830–1908), Civil War Nurse and Memoirist

Storied Civil War Nurse

Sarah Graham Palmer Young, popularly known as “Aunt Becky,” was one of the best-known Union Army nurses of the Civil War, adored by many as a fierce champion of sick and wounded soldiers. Her vivid wartime memoir is still in print today.

Gone to War

Born in Ithaca, N.Y., Sarah A. Graham Palmer married at age 18 and became a widow by her early 30s. When her beloved brothers enlisted in the Union Army following the outbreak of the Civil War, Palmer promised them she would “go with them down to the scene of conflict, and be near when sickness or the chances of battle threw them helpless from the ranks.”

In September 1862, she kept that promise, leaving her two daughters with relatives and joining the 109th Regiment, New York Volunteers, as a matron, kitchen supervisor and nurse.

The Ideal Nurse

When the Civil War began, there were no nursing schools or nursing credentials. Battlefield medics and Army surgeons were all male. However, the shortage of caregivers had prompted the Army to consider female nurses, tasking newly appointed nursing superintendent Dorothea Dix with recruitment.

Dix considered the ideal candidate to be a woman between the ages of 35 and 50, in good health; of high moral standards; not too attractive; with good conduct, superior education and serious disposition. Her standards were so rigid that many women could not meet them, although some decided to volunteer anyway.

Palmer, only 32 when she joined the 109th, was somewhat younger and prettier than Dix’s ideal. When she first arrived at the crude Army hospital in Beltville, Md., she was greeted with such skepticism that it was five days before the other nurses arranged formal quarters for her.

Nevertheless, she soon won the respect and appreciation of her colleagues and patients for her dedication and compassion.  Early on, she accepted the nickname “Aunt Becky” (suggested, at least according to some accounts, by a soldier in her care). Because so many of the soldiers were very young men — some as young as 16 — Palmer’s charges would sometimes call her “Mother.” Nevertheless, she would be popularly known as “Aunt Becky” for the remainder of her service and until her death 46 years later.

The Horror, the Horror

Wartime nursing was difficult and strenuous, including cooking, laundry and other housekeeping chores as well as the grim work of caring for sick or wounded soldiers. Disease was as much a risk as enemy action. Palmer’s youngest brother nearly died of pneumonia in 1863, although she was able to nurse him back to health. She herself became seriously ill several times during the war.

However, even pneumonia and typhoid fever couldn’t match the horror of wounds suffered on a Civil War battlefield. “Oh, if the cruel shots could only kill at once,” she later wrote, recalling a middle-aged German soldier’s protracted death from an agonizing chest wound. Sometimes, she would see a young soldier undergoing surgery and “almost hope he would never wake,” so horribly had he been mutilated.

Comforting the dying was as much a part of Palmer’s work as healing the living. “Many a dying message was given to me for far-away friends — many a last farewell was whispered in my ear for the dear wife and children,” she wrote.

“She Outranks Me!”

Palmer worked in numerous hospitals for the next three years, often stationed as close to the front as hospitals were allowed to be. Some postings were fairly comfortable, others grim and under-supplied, forcing her and her men to subsist on hardtack and coffee.  She was often the only woman among hundreds of men, but she later remarked, “Never in my life have I been treated with more respect and consideration, than while a nurse in the Volunteer Army. If a woman respects herself, men will respect her.”

Hiring Now

Palmer expressed great respect for the soldiers in her regiment and for many of their officers and surgeons, but she had harsh words for those who failed to respect her work, such as a camp cook who “seemed to take particular pleasure in foiling in attempts to get additions to a sick man’s rations.”

She was also willing to defy the doctors if she felt it necessary. At one point, she arranged to send a badly wounded soldier to Washington, D.C., without authorization. The doctor, furiously angry at this, threatened to immediately discharge Palmer. She refused to back down and the doctor finally conceded that there was nothing to be done, since the patient was already long gone.

By the time Aunt Becky recounted this story for a Richmond, Va., newspaper in 1900, the single patient had become 14 and she claimed that the angry doctor had taken his complaints to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who, she alleged, “laughed and said, ‘I’ve got nothing to say. Aunt Becky outranks me!’”

Getting Paid

When the war ended in 1865, Palmer went to Washington to see Dorothea Dix and “obtain my pay, as it was due”: the princely sum of $12 a month. After being sent on wild goose chases to different government offices, Palmer confronted the Army paymaster, who refused to pay her until Palmer planted herself in a chair in his office and declared, “I shall not go away until I am paid by somebody.”

Although veterans of the war often found themselves in a similar position, the men of the 109th later showed their appreciation by sending “Aunt Becky” a check for $165 from their own pockets. (She wouldn’t receive an Army pension until 1896.)

In 1867, Palmer married a building contractor named David C. Young and moved to Iowa. She also published a memoir about her wartime service, followed by many newspaper interviews and speaking engagements.  Some of her anecdotes seemed to grow in the telling, but when she died in 1908, she was still a well-known war hero, much beloved by the men she had cared for.

Photos above: Sarah A. Palmer’s memoir The Story of Aunt Becky’s Army Life is still in print today. The illustration of an Army nurse in her tent quarters is an etching from that book.


Jon Garrison, RN, MSN, works in pediatric kidney transplant and writes in his spare time about life, health, technology and connection. 


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