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Louisa Maertz.

Rev. J. G. Forman.
  • Her birth and parentage
  • -- her residence in Germany and Switzerland -- her fondness for study -- her extraordinary sympathy and benevolence -- she commences visiting the hospitals in her native city, Quincy, Illinois, in the autumn of 1861 -- she takes some of the wounded home to her father's house and ministers to them there -- she goes to St. Louis -- is commissioned as a nurse -- sent to Helena, then full of wounded from the battles in Arkansas -- her severe labors here -- almost the only woman nurse in the hospitals there -- “God bless you, dear lady” -- the Arkansas Union soldier -- the half-blind widow -- Miss Maertz at Vicksburg -- at New Orleans

During the winter of 1863, while stationed at Helena, Arkansas, the writer was greatly impressed with the heroic devotion to the welfare of the sick soldier, of a lady whom he often met in the hospitals, where she was constantly engaged in services of kindness to the suffering inmates, attending to their wants, and alleviating their distress. He soon learned that her name was Louisa Maertz, of Quincy, Illinois, who had come from her home all the way to Helena-at a time when the navigation of the river was rendered dangerous by the firing of guerrillas from the shore upon the passing steamers — that she might devote herself to the work of a hospital nurse. At a later period, when he learned that she had left a pleasant home for this arduous service, and saw how bravely she endured the discomforts of hospital life in Helena, where there was not a single well-ordered and well-provided hospital; how she went from one building to another through the filthy and muddy town, to carry the delicacies she had obtained from the Sanitary Commission, and dispense them to the sick, with her own hands, he was still more impressed with these evidences of her “good, heroic womanhood,” and her disinterested benevolence. Recently he has procured a few particulars of her history, which will serve for a brief sketch.

Miss Maertz was born in Quincy, Illinois, in 1838. Her parents were of German birth, and among the early settlers of the place. From infancy she was of a delicate constitution, and [391] suffered much from ill health; and at the age of eighteen years she was sent to Europe in the hope that she might derive benefit from the mineral springs of Germany and from travel and change of climate. Two years in Germany, Switzerland and Italy were spent in traveling and in the society of her relatives, some of whom were the personal friends of the Monods of Paris, Guizot, the Gurneys of England, Merle D'Aubigne, of Geneva, and other literary people of Europe, with several of whom she became acquainted. From this visit abroad she received much benefit, and her general health was greatly improved.

From an early period she had cherished two strong aspirations, the desire of knowledge, and the wish to devote herself to works of charity. Her heart was always ready to sympathize with the sufferings and sorrows of humanity; and the cause of the orphan, the slave, the poor and the helpless excited a deep interest in her mind, and a desire to devote herself in some way to their relief. After her return from Europe it became an absorbing aspiration and the subject of earnest prayer that God would show her some way in which she could be useful to humanity.

As she was thus becoming prepared for the work upon which she afterwards entered, the great rebellion, which involved the country in the late civil war, broke forth; the early battles in Missouri, and at Fort Donelson and Belmont led to the establishment of hospitals in St. Louis, at Mound City, and at Quincy, Illinois; and the opportunity came to Miss Maertz, which she had so long desired, to undertake some work of charity and benevolence. During the months of October and November, 1861, she commenced the daily visitation of the hospitals in Quincy, carried with her delicacies for the sick and distributed them, procured the redress of any grievances they suffered, read the Scriptures and conversed with them, wrote letters for them to their friends, dressed their wounds, and furnished them books, papers, and sources of amusement. Although her physical strength at this period was very moderate, she seemed, on entering [392] the hospital, and witnessing the sufferings of brave men, who had dared everything for their country, to be infused with a new and strange vigor that sustained her through every exertion.

In particular cases of tedious convalescence, retarded by inferior hospital accommodations, she — with her parents' consent-obtained permission to take them home, and nurse them till they were restored to health. Thus she labored on through the fall and winter of 1861-2 till the battles of Shiloh and Pea Ridge filled the hospitals with wounded men, at St. Louis and Mound City, and at Louisville and Evansville and Paducah, and she began to feel that she must go where her services were more needed, and give herself wholly to this work of caring for and nursing the wounded patriots of the war.

After waiting some time for an opportunity to go she wrote to Mr. James E. Yeatman, at St. Louis, the agent of Miss Dorothea L. Dix for the appointment of women nurses in the hospitals of the Western Department, and was accepted. On reporting herself at St. Louis she was commissioned as a nurse, and in the fall of 1862 proceeded to Helena, where the army of the Southwest had encamped the previous July, under Major-General Curtis, and where every church and several private buildings had to be converted into hospitals to accommodate the sick of his army.

It was here, during the winter of 1863, that the writer of this sketch first met with Miss Maertz, engaged in the work of a hospital nurse, enduring with rare heroism sacrifices and discomforts, labors and watchings in the service of the sick soldiers that won the reverence and admiration of all who saw this gentle woman thus nobly employed. It was of her the following paragraph was written in the History of the Western Sanitary Commission.

“Another one we also know whose name is likewise in this simple record, who, at Helena, Arkansas, in the fall and winter of 1862-3, was almost the only female nurse in the hospitals there, going from one building to another, in which the sick were quartered, [393] when the streets were almost impassable with mud, administering sanitary stores and making delicate preparations of food, spending her own money in procuring milk and other articles that were scarce and difficult to obtain, and doing an amount of work which few persons could sustain, living without the pleasant society to which she had been accustomed at home, never murmuring, always cheerful and kind, preserving in the midst of a military camp such gentleness, strength and purity of character that all rudeness of speech ceased in her presence, and as she went from room to room she was received with silent benedictions, or an audible ‘God bless you, dear lady,’ from some poor sufferer's heart.”

The last time I saw Miss Maertz, while engaged in her hospital work, was at the grave of a soldier, who was buried at Helena in the spring of 1863. He was one of the persecuted Union men of Arkansas, who had enlisted in the Union army on the march of General Curtis through Arkansas, and had fallen sick at Helena. For several weeks Miss Maertz had nursed and cared for him with all a woman's tenderness and delicacy, and perceiving that he must die had succeeded in sending a message to his wife, who lived sixty miles in the interior of Arkansas, within the enemy's lines. On the afternoon of his death and but a few hours before it she arrived, having walked the whole distance on foot with great difficulty, because she was partially blind; but had the satisfaction of receiving the parting words of her husband and attending his burial. Miss Maertz sent word to me, asking me to perform the burial service, and the next day I met her leading the half-blind widow, in her poverty and sorrow, to the grave. Some months later this poor soldier's widow came to the Refugee Home, at St. Louis, and was cared for, and being recognized and the scene of the lonely burial referred to, she related with tears of gratitude the kindness she received from the good lady, who nursed her husband in his last illness at Helena.

At a later period in the service, Miss Maertz was transferred [394] to the hospitals at Vicksburg, where she continued her work of benevolence till she was obliged to return home to restore her own exhausted energies. At this time her parents urged her to go with them to Europe, wishing to take her away from scenes of suffering, and prostrating disease, but she declined to go, and, on regaining a measure of health, entered the service again and continued in it at New Orleans to the end of the war.

In real devotion to the welfare of the soldiers of the Union; in high religious and patriotic motives; in the self-sacrificing spirit with which she performed her labors; in the heroism with which she endured hardship for the sake of doing good; in the readiness with which she gave up her own interests and the offer of personal advantages and pleasure to serve the cause of patriotism and humanity, she had few equals.

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