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Katherine Prescott Wormeley.

  • Birth and parentage
  • -- commencement of her labors for the soldiers -- the woman's Union Aid Society of Newport -- she takes a contract for army clothing to furnish employment for soldiers' families -- forwarding Sanitary goods -- the hundred and fifty bed sacks -- Miss Wormeley's connection with the Hospital Transport service -- her extraordinary labors -- illness -- is appointed lady Superintendent of the Lovell General Hospital at Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island-tier duties -- Resigns in October, 1863 -- her volume -- “the United States Sanitary Commission” -- other labors for the soldiers

Among the many of our countrywomen who have been active and ardent in the soldier's cause, some may have devoted themselves to the service for a longer period, but few with more earnestness and greater ability than the lady whose name stands at the head of this sketch, and few have entered into a greater variety of details in the prosecution of the work.

Katherine Prescott Wormeley was born in England. Her father though holding the rank of a Rear-Admiral in the British Navy, was a native of Virginia. Her mother is a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Miss Wormeley may therefore be said to be alien to her birth-place, and to be an American in fact as in feelings. She now resides with her mother at Newport, Rhode Island.

Miss Wormeley was among the earliest to engage in the work of procuring supplies and aid for the volunteer soldiery. The work began in Newport early in July, 1861. The first meeting of women was held informally at the house of Miss Wormeley's mother. An organization was obtained, rooms secured (being lent for the purpose), and about two thousand dollars subscribed. The Society, which assumed the name of the “Woman's Union Aid Society” immediately commenced the work with vigor, and shortly forwarded to the Sanitary Commission at Washington their first cases of clothing and supplies. Miss Wormeley remained at the head of this society until April, 1862. It was [319] kept in funds by private gifts, and by the united efforts of all the churches of Newport, and the United States Naval Academy which was removed thither from Annapolis, Maryland, in the spring of 1861.

During the summer of 1861 several ladies (summer residents of Newport), were in the habit of sending to Miss Wormeley many poor women, with the request that she would furnish them with steady employment upon hospital clothing, the ladies paying for the work. After they left, the poor women whom they had thus benefited, felt the loss severely, and the thought occurred to Miss Wormeley that the outfitting of a great army must furnish much suitable work for them could it be reached.

After revolving the subject in her own mind, she wrote to Quartermaster-General Meigs at Washington, making inquiries, and was by him referred to the Department Quartermaster-General, Colonel D. H. Vinton, United States Army, office of army clothing and equipage, New York. Colonel Vinton replied in the kindest manner, stating the difficulties of the matter, but expressing his willingness to give Miss Wormeley a contract if she thought she could surmount them.

Miss Wormeley found her courage equal to the attempt, and succeeded far more easily than she had expected in carrying out her plans. She engaged rooms at a low rent, and found plenty of volunteer assistance on all sides. Ladies labored unweariedly in cutting and distributing the work to the applicants. Gentlemen packed the cases, and attended to the shipments. During the winter of 1861-2 about fifty thousand army shirts were thus made, not one of which was returned as imperfect, and she was thus enabled to circulate in about one hundred families, a sum equal to six thousand dollars, which helped them well through the winter.

Colonel Vinton, as was the case with other officers very generally throughout the war, showed great kindness and appreciation of these efforts of women. And though this contract must have [320] given him far more trouble than contracts with regular clothing establishments, his goodness, which was purely benevolent, never flagged.

During all this time the work of the Women's Union Aid Society was also carried on at Miss Wormeley's rooms, and a large number of cases were packed and forwarded thence, either to New York or directly to Washington. Miss Wormeley, herself, still superintended this matter, and though — an Associate Manager of the New England Women's Branch of the Sanitary Commission, preferred this direct transmission as a saving both of time and expense.

The Society was earnest and indefatigable in its exertions, acting always with great promptness and energy while under the direction of Miss Wormeley. On one occasion, as an instance, a telegraphic message from Washington brought at night an urgent call for a supply of bed-sacks. Early in the morning all the material in Newport was bought up, as many sewing-machines as possible obtained, and seventy-five bed-sacks finished and sent off that day, and as many more the following day.

Miss Wormeley was just closing up her contract when, in April, 1862, the “Hospital Transport service” was organized, principally by the efforts of Mr. Frederick Law Olmstead, the General Secretary of the Sanitary Commission. The sudden transfer of the scene of active war from the high grounds bordering the Potomac to a low and swampy region intersected by a network of creeks and rivers, made necessary appliances for the care of the sick and wounded, which the Government was not at that time prepared to furnish. Hence arose the arrangement by which certain large steamers, chartered, but then unemployed by the Government, were transferred to the Sanitary Commission to be fitted up as Hospital Transports for the reception and conveyance of the sick and wounded. To the superintendence of this work, care of the sick, and other duties of this special service, a number [321] of agents of the Commission, with volunteers of both sexes, were appointed, and after protracted and vexatious delays in procuring the first transports assembled at Alexandria, Virginia, on the 25th .of April, and embarked on the Daniel Webster for York River, which they reached on the 30th of April.

Miss Wormeley was one of the first to become connected with this branch of the service, and proceeded at once to her field of duty. She remained in this employment until August of the same year, and passed through all the horrors of the Peninsula campaign. By this, of course, is not understood the battles of the campaign, nor the army movements, but the reception, washing, feeding, and ministering to the sick and the wounded-scenes which are too full of horror for tongue to tell, or pen to describe, but which must always remain indelibly impressed upon the minds and hearts of those who were actors in them.

The ladies, it may be observed, who were attached to the Hospital Transport Corps at the headquarters of the Commission, were all from the higher walks of society, women of the greatest culture and refinement, and unaccustomed to toil or exhausting care. Yet not one of them shrank from hardship, or revolted at any labor or exertion which could serve to bring comfort to the sufferers under their charge.

Active and endowed with extraordinary executive ability, Miss Wormeley was distinguished for her great usefulness during this time of fierce trial, when the malaria of the Chickahominy swamps was prostrating its thousands of brave men, and the battles of Williamsburg, White House, and Fair Oaks, and the disastrous retreat to Harrison's Landing were marked by an almost unexampled carnage.

While the necessity of exertion continued, Miss Wormeley and her associates bore up bravely, but no sooner was this ended than nearly all succumbed to fever, or the exhaustion of excessive and protracted fatigue. Nevertheless, within a few days after Miss Wormeley's return home, the Surgeon-General, passing [322] through Newport, came to call upon her and personally solicit her to take charge of the Woman's Department of the Lowell General Hospital, then being organized at Portsmouth Grove, R. I. After a brief hesitation, on account of her health, Miss Wormeley assented to the proposal, and on the 1st of September, 1862, went to the hospital. She was called, officially, the “Lady Superintendent,” and her duties were general; they consisted less of actual nursing, than the organization and superintendence of her department. Under her charge were the Female Nurses, the Diet Kitchens, and Special diet, the Linen Department, and the Laundry, where she had a steam Washing Machine, which was capable of washing and mangling four thousand pieces a day.

The hospital had beds for two thousand five hundred patients. Four friends of Miss Wormeley joined her here, and were her Assistant Superintendents-Misses G. M. and J. S. Woolsey, Miss Harriet D. Whetten, of New York, and Miss Sarah C. Woolsey, of New Haven. Each of these had charge of seven Wards, and was responsible to the surgeons for the nursing and diet of the sick men. To the exceedingly valuable co-operation of these ladies, Miss Wormeley has, on all occasions, attributed in a great measure the success which attended and rewarded her services in this department of labor, as also to the kindness of the Surgeon in charge, Dr. Lewis A. Edwards, and of his Assistants.

She remained at Portsmouth Grove a little more than a year, carrying on the arrangements of her department with great ability and perfect success. On holidays, through the influence of herself and her assistants, the inmates received ample donations for the feasts appropriate to the occasions, and at all times liberal gifts of books, games, &c., for their instruction and entertainment. But in September, 1863, partly from family reasons, and partly because her health gave way, she was forced to resign and return home. [323]

From that time her labors in hospital ceased. But, in the following December, at the suggestion of Mr.Ticknor and Mrs. George Ticknor, of Boston, and of other friends, she prepared for the Boston Sanitary Fair, a charming volume entitled, “The United States Sanitary Commission; A Sketch of its Purposes and its Work.”

This. book, owing to unavoidable hindrances, was not commenced till so late that but eleven days were allowed for its completion. But, with her accustomed energy, having most of her materials at hand, Miss Wormeley commenced and finished the book within the specified time, without other assistance than that volunteered by friends in copying and arranging papers. Graceful in style, direct in detail, plain in statement and logical in argument, it shows, however, no traces of hasty writing. It met with great and deserved success, and netted some hundreds of dollars to the fair.

Miss Wormeley attributes much of the success of her work, in all departments, to the liberality of her friends. During the war she received from the community of Newport, alone, over seventeen thousand dollars, beside, large donations of brandy, wine, flannel, etc., for the Commission and hospital use. The Newport Aid Society, which she assisted in organizing, worked well and faithfully to the end, and rendered valuable services to the Sanitary Commission. Since the completion of her book, her health has not permitted her to engage in active service.

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