Rebecca R. Pomroy was a widowed army nurse who served at the White House in February and March 1862 when Tad and Willie were sick and Mrs. Lincoln was overcome by grief at Willie’s death.
Pomroy was first recruited when chief army nurse Dorothea Dix went to the White House to see how she might help the grieving family. Biographer Anna Boyden wrote: “The President asked Miss Dix if she could recommend to him a good nurse. She told him there was one out of her corps of nurses that she thought would give him perfect satisfaction. On inquiry, she told him it was Mrs. Pomroy. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said, ‘I have heard of her; will you get her for me?’” Although both physician in charge of Pomroy’s hospital and Pomroy herself objected, Dix insisted and ordered her to the White House. Both Pomroy and her soldier patients were upset. “Oh, if I could only have staid with my boys!” she said to Dix, who replied: “Dear child, you don’t know what the Lord has in store for you. Others can look after your boys, but I have chosen you out of two hundred and fifty nurses to make yourself useful to the head of the nation. What a privilege is yours!” Boyden described Pomroy’s first day:
On their arrival they visited the Green Room, where Willie’s remains lay in state, and then passed on to the President’s chamber, where Mrs. Lincoln was lying sick, the President sitting beside her. He gave her a warm grasp of the hand, and said, ‘I am heartily glad to see you, and feel that you can comfort us and the poor sick boy.’ She was soon taken to the sick room of little Tad, introduced to the two physicians who sat in the hall just outside his door, who before leaving gave directions regarding medicine and treatment for every half-hour in the night.
At half past six the President came in and invited her down to dine with him; but she kept her station by the bedside of the little sufferer, who lay tossing with typhoid, and at intervals weeping for his dear brother Willie, ‘who would never speak to him any more.” The President came in about ten o’clock, sat down on the opposite side of the bed, and commenced inquiries. ‘Are you Miss or Mrs.? What of your family”
She says, “I told him I had a husband and two children in the other world, and a son on the battle-field.” “What is your age? What prompted you to come so far to look after these poor boys?” She told him of her nineteen years’ education in the school of affliction, and that after her loved ones had been laid away, and the battle-cry had been sounded, nothing remained but for her to go, so strong was her desire. ‘Did you always feel that you could say, ‘Thy will be done?’”
And here the father’s heart seemed agonized for a reply.
She said, ‘No; not at the first blow, nor at the second. It was months after my affliction that God met me when at a camp-meeting.”
Here he showed great interest, and, she says, ‘While I was telling him my history, and, above all, of God’s love and care for me through it all, he covered his face with his hands while the tears streamed through his fingers. Then he told me of his dear Willie’s sickness and death. In walking the room, he would say: ‘This is the hardest trial of my life. Why is it? Oh, why is it’ I tried to comfort him by telling him there were thousands of prayers going up for im daily. He said, ‘I am glad of that.’ Then he gave way to another outburst of grief.
The next night he seated himself in the same position, and begged me to go over the same recital, leaving nothing out. He would question me upon special points to learn how I obtained my faith in God, and the secret of placing myself in the Divine hands. Again, on the third night, he made a similar request, showing the same degree of interest as at first.”1
“I am heartily glad to see you, and feel that you can comfort us and the poor sick boy,” the President told Mrs. Pomroy on her arrival.” He later confessed to her his difficulty in accepting God’s will in Willie’s death. “This is the hardest trial of my life,” he told her. “Oh, why is it?” Nurse Pomroy told President Lincoln about the loss of her own husband and two children and the peace she had achieved despite these losses. When Mr. Lincoln asked her how she achieve this peace, she replied: “Simply by trusting in God and feeling that He does all things well.” Mrs. Pomroy explained that her consolation and submission came slowly. “Your experience will help me to bear my afflictions,” Mr. Lincoln responded.
She also told Mr. Lincoln that he was the subject of prayers of Christians around the world. “I am glad to hear that. I want them to pray me for me. I need their prayers. I will try to go to God with my sorrows,” replied Mr. Lincoln. “I wish I had that childlike faith you speak of, and I trust He will give it to me. I had a good Christian mother, and her prayers have followed me thus far through life.”2
Tad quickly warmed to Nurse Pomroy – as did his parents. When he recovered in early March, she tried to return to her hospital. “Tad finally became convalescent and when I left them to go to my poor sick boys, Mrs. Lincoln kissed me and urged Miss Dix to let me come often and see them.” The President accompanied her back to her post, telling her: “When you get to be an old lady, Mrs. Pomroy, tell your grandchildren how indebted the nation was to you in holding up my hands in time of trouble.”3
In a letter in early March,1862, Pomroy reported on a visit back to the White House: “Mrs. Lincoln secludes herself from all society, and I was alone with her most of the day in her room. When I told her of my trials and afflictions, and, above all, of God’s dealings with me, she could not understand how I could be so happy under it all, and bursting into tears, said she wished she could feel so too. She told the gardener to cut me a bouquet of the richest flowers in the conservatory. At four o’clock the President ordered his horses and open carriage, invited me to ride, and then took me home, to the surprise of all in the hospital. He was not ashamed to be seen riding with the Chelsea nurse, neither was she elated by riding with the President.”4
Late in March, Pomroy paid another visit, this time writing: “Mrs. Lincoln gave me pictures for my ward, photographs of Willie and Tad, also several dollars’ worth of pot plants for my bay window, fruit, and other luxuries for the boys. The President ordered carriage and horses to accompany me to the College [hospital].” According to Anna Boyd, “There had been a severe shower the night before, and on going up Fourteenth street the horses became unmanageable, while the carriage got fast in the mud. Mr. Lincoln told the driver to hold one horse, while the footman held the other, till he could get out. He succeeded in finding three large stones, and, with his pantaloons stripped to his knees, and boots covered with mud, he laid the stones down and bore his weight upon them. On coming to the carriage he said, ‘Now, Mrs. Pomroy, if you will please put your feet just as I tell you, you can reach the sidewalk in safety.” Taking hold of her hand, he helped her to the sidewalk, then, looking up, he said,’All through life, be sure and put your feet in the right place, and then stand firm.” Anna Boyden wrote:
Mr. Lincoln, who was sent for from the White House, immediately went for Mrs. Pomroy. She accompanied him at once, and for three weeks was a close attendant, night and day, in the sick room. At the end of that time Mrs. Lincoln so far recovered as to be able to journey, and her nurse, refusing an urgent invitation to accompany her, returned to the hospital, suffering severely in health from her long and close confinement.
During this sojourn in Mr. Lincoln’s family, her sympathies were deeply enlisted. Mr. Lincoln went to her in his troubles as to a family friend. An attack upon his person was expected at any time. To Mrs. Pomroy’s question, “What will you do about showing yourself in public?” he said, ‘I can do nothing different from what I am doing; I shall leave it all with my Heavenly Father.’
The battle of Vicksburg was raging, and then came the fearful loss of life at Gettysburg, then the battle of Port Hudson. “The Lord have mercy on those poor fellows!” he said, as he walked the floor in an agony of distress. ‘This is a righteous war, and God will protect the right. Many lives will be sacrificed on both sides, but I have done the best I could, trusting in God. If they gain this important point we are lost, but if we could only gain it, we shall have carried a great point, and I think we shall have a great deal to thank God for; for we have Vicksburg and Gettysburg already.”
She said: “Mr. Lincoln, prayer will do what nothing else will; can you not pray?”
“Yes, I will;” while the tears were dropping down his haggard and worn face. ‘Pray for me;” and he went alone to his room. Could the nation have heard his earnest petition, as the nurse did, they would have fallen on their knees in reverential sympathy.
At twelve o’clock at night, while the soldiers were guarding the house, a sentinel, riding quickly, halted in front of the house, with a telegram, that was carried up to the President. A few moments after, the door opened into the sick room where sat the weary nurse, and the President, standing under the chandelier, with one of his most radiant expressions, said, “Good news! Good news! Port Hudson is ours! The victory is ours, and God is good!”
She said, “nothing like prayer in times of trouble.”
He answered, ‘Yes, O, yes! Praise too; for prayer and praise go together.”4
Mrs. Lincoln was very depressed in the months after Willie’s death. Her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, kept her company for several months until she finally was required by her family back in Springfield. Mrs. Pomroy wrote that “ a note was sent to Miss Dix from the President, requesting her to met me come and keep Mrs. Lincoln company, as Mrs. Edwards, her sister, was called suddenly home to Illinois. Miss Dix, of course, granted his request, and, for fear I might lose my pleasant ward in the hospital, the President wrote to the surgeon in charge, requesting him to reserve my place for me when I should return. So here I am, safe under his protection.”5 The nurse recalled that in August 1862: “We went first to the Soldiers’ Home, a placed owned by [the] government, containing three hundred acres, on which are five stone houses, and a larger one for the aged and crippled soldiers who have fought their country’s battles, and have settled down quietly till the Great Captain calls them up higher. We rode round the President’s country eat, which is one of the five houses, and from there to the graveyard; a more sorrowful sight I have never seen.”6
Once, Mrs. Pomroy got in trouble with patients and fellow hospital staffers when Mr. Lincoln came to visit. As he left, she told three black staffers to flank her. “This is Lucy, formerly a slave from Kentucky. She cooks the nurse’ food,” Mrs. Pomroy told Mr. Lincoln. As he shook her hand, President Lincoln turned to the men on her left. “This is Garner and this Brown. They are serving their country by cooking the low diet for our sickest boys.” President Lincoln shook their hands as he said: “How do you do, Garner? How do you do, Brown?” While her white colleagues were shocked, her black colleagues were thrilled by Mrs. Pomroy’s initiative.”6
Pomroy returned for a second tour of White House duty in the spring of 1862 after Elizabeth Edwards returned to Springfield. Mrs. Pomroy was treated more as a member of the family than an employee and the President remained very grateful to her. “Mrs. Lincoln is very anxious for me to stay here all summer; but if I cannot, always to come here for rest. Everything is done for my comfort, and I go to ride with them every day,” wrote Mrs. Pomroy, whose faith was admired and envied by both Lincolns. The nurse tried to comfort Mrs Lincoln: “She says he is tired of being a slave to the world, and would live on bread and water if she could feel as happy as I do. We have frequently conversation on these things, and my heart years to see her seeking comfort in something besides these unstable pleasures.”7
When Mrs. Lincoln was injured in July 1863, Mrs. Pomroy again returned to her nurse the President’s wife back to health. During this stay, the nurse befriended more than the Lincolns. Biographer Anna Boyden wrote:
While an occupant of the White House, a poor widow who had a soldier son lying dead, had tried day after day to see the President, and as often had been repulsed by the ushers on duty. At last she found out Mrs. Pomroy, and pour into her sympathetic ear the story of her troubles.
“Could she see the President, and would he listen to her?
Mrs. Pomroy promised to see him at once, and he replied to her request: “Let her come at eight o’clock, immediately after breakfast, and I will hear her the first one.”
She came, and told him her sad story, begging that she might have the dead body of her son to take home with her. In tones of sympathy, he said to her: “God will pity you, and I will give you a note; if it is possible, you may cross the lines, but I am afraid it is not.”
Mr. Lincoln felt more than ever his obligation towards Mrs. Pomroy in ‘saving Mrs. Lincoln’s life,’ (as he told his friends at the White House) and was ready to grant any request she might deem reasonable.8
When Mrs. Pomroy finally returned to army nursing at the end of July 1863, President Lincoln personally escorted her — bringing a collection of flowers from the White House conservatory for the soldiers in her hospital. “Mrs. Lincoln is very anxious for me to stay here [Soldiers Home] all summer; but if I cannot, always to come here for rest. Everything is done for my comfort, and I go to ride with them every day,” wrote Mrs. Pomroy. The nurse tried to comfort Mrs Lincoln: “She says he is tired of being a slave to the world, and would live on bread and water if she could feel as happy as I do. We have frequently conversation on these things, and my heart years to see her seeking comfort in something besides these unstable pleasures.”8
- Anna Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, pp. 54-56.
- Josiah G. Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 435-436.
- Anna Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, p. 57-58
- Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, pp. 58-59
- Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, pp. 145-146
- Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, p. 78
- Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, pp. 96-97
- Boyden, editor, War Reminiscences: A Record of Mrs. Rebecca R. Pomroy’s Experience in Wartimes, pp. 146-147.