March 1865: "...tell anybody who has anything to give to give now"

Joan Fink, Volunteer



Letter from Dorothea Dix to Mary, 29 March 1865

Letter from Dorothea Dix to Mary,  29 March 1865

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    "Tell anybody who has anything to give to give now. I don't hesitate either to ask or to beg," implores Dorothea Lynde Dix, the Superintendent of Army Nurses, in this 29 March 1865 letter to her friend, Mary. Dix both thanks Mary for food stuffs she has already sent, and entreats her to gather more food and other supplies and forward them to the front.

    Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on 4 April 1802 in Hampden, Maine, one of three children of Joseph Dix, a minister, and Mary Bigelow. Dix spent much of her childhood with her grandparents in Boston, which soon became her primary residence. In 1816, Dix began her career as a teacher and in 1821, opened a school for young women in Boston. While traveling in England in 1836, she became interested in prison reform as well as the treatment of mentally ill individuals. Upon returning to the Unites States, Dix was appalled by what she witnessed while visiting prisons for the insane throughout Massachusetts, and embarked upon a lifelong crusade to better the conditions for individuals suffering from mental illness.

    With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dix turned her considerable energy and attention to the treatment of wounded soldiers. On 10 June 1861, she was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army. Dix was known for her fair and balanced treatment of the wounded, whether Union or Confederate. She worked tirelessly both in the hospitals and on the battlefields to ensure that all wounded soldiers received the best treatment possible under often trying circumstances.

    The featured letter was written shortly after Union and Confederate leaders agreed to resume the exchange of prisoners. Salisbury Prison, a Confederate controlled prison in North Carolina designed to hold 2500 captives, released over 5000 Union men between mid-February and early March of 1865. Many of those released were held in Wilmington, North Carolina, before being officially exchanged for Confederate prisoners. The care of these "skeleton men" was part of Dix’s charge. She notes in the letter that the rice Mary had sent had been forwarded to aid the men at Wilmington (page 1) and later stresses that there is need for all sorts of fruits and vegetables, especially "canned tomatoes & peaches" (page 2), to help provide proper care to the men being released from various prisons across the front.

    After the war, Dix returned to her career as a national spokesperson for the rights of the mentally ill. She traveled tirelessly throughout the United States visiting various institutions and lobbying local legislators to enact legislation to improve the care and treatment of the mentally ill and insane. She eventually retired to New Jersey, where she died on 17 July 1887 at the age of eighty-five; she was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.

    Sources for further reading:

    This letter is part of the George E. Nitzsche Unitariana Collection at the MHS.

    A large collection of Dorothea Dix's correspondence is held by the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

    The MHS holds several collections that contain manuscripts created by Civil War nurses, including the Curtis-Stevenson Family Papers; Wormeley-Latimer Papers; and George F. Phinney Diary.

    The MHS also holds the papers of two men who were held at Salisbury prison: Frederic Augustus James and Albert D. Richardson.

    Brown, Thomas. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.