The mortally wounded soldier had a single request in his last moments of life. Make sure they bury me in a coffin, he pleaded with an Army nurse. Lying in a bare grave with no coffin brought more fear to the man than death itself. The nurse, wearing a dress made of bed ticking and a straw hat, had a single dollar in her pocket. With it, she bought a few scraps of lumber and saw to it the soldier was buried in a box. The nurse was Sarah Palmer. Known as "Aunt Becky" to the soldiers in her care, she is believed to have been the first woman to serve as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. A New York native, she went to war along with her two brothers because she felt it was her duty. She served three years, and in 1867, at the urging of friends, told her story in a book called "The Story of Aunt Becky's Army-life." I wrote about her in Sunday's column, because she married a man named David Young and moved to Iowa, where she lived nearly 40 years until her death in 1906. She is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines and, thanks to the Iowa Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, she will be honored at a 3 p.m. ceremony on Veterans Day. A marble stone provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs - recognizing her service in the military - will be dedicated at that time. But there's so much more to say about this woman. I've been writing this column 11 years, and have rarely, if ever, applied the word "hero" to anybody. It's misused and overused to the point it seems to have lost its meaning. Today, I make an exception. Sarah Palmer Young was, indeed, an American hero. Her heroism comes not from gallantry on the field of battle but for her dedication to thousands of sick, wounded and dying soldiers she cared for. Equally important, this woman who held the rank of private and earned $12 a month, faced down colonels, captains and sergeants, speaking up for the common soldier. She stole food from stingy mess sergeants and chewed out commanding officers who showed indifference to the wounded or withheld needed supplies. She gave care to the dying when doctors said she was wasting her time. If it made their final hours easier, she said, explaining her defiance, she was there for them. "I am a common woman and I come to nurse the common soldier," wrote Palmer, who died in Des Moines at the age of 76. She wrote, sometimes graphically, of the suffering, and with disdain of proper women "caring for curls and colors, when so many need a brave hand which will not shrink from a dirty, bloody wound, waiting to be dressed." Much of the book is a narrative, told by Palmer to author Sylvia Lawson Covey. It was published last October by Applewood Books and is available on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Some might consider it a graphic anti-war treatise. Others might see it as the story of one of America's first true feminists, who often was the only woman serving among thousands of male soldiers. It is certainly a historical treasure. It would be wonderful if every middle school student in Iowa read the book - particularly girls. Palmer wrote with disdain of those who, in her early days with the Army, told her she was demented and without common sense for joining the war effort. She said she repeatedly was told, "War is no place for a woman." "I found it was a place for women," wrote Palmer, who left two infant daughters in the care of her mother when she headed to war. Maybe it took a woman to adequately describe the death of a young soldier. "We knew he could not live, but he was full of hope," she said. "And when the numbness of death crept over him, soothing his anguished senses, he said, 'Now I can go to sleep, and shall awaken much better.' He dropped into a slumber and did waken better. He wakened in a land where there is no more pain or sighing, no battle grounds strewed with shattered wrecks of mortality, and we closed his eyes, thinking how dreadful the tidings would come to that peaceful village in the North, to mother, sister and beloved, when they knew he for whom they prayed 'died of his wounds after the battle was over.' " She even contemplated her own death and foretold what, for a time anyway, actually happened. "I think, as I dress myself and tidy up my tent, how quickly the years will go away, and no one (will) remember that I ever lived," she wrote in her diary. "I shall die, be buried, and forgotten. My children while they live, will cherish my memory, but it is only one generation, and no one will exist who ever looked upon my face." She was repeatedly remembered and honored by veterans' groups until America entered World War II. Since then, she has been forgotten. The Iowa Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War are making sure her life and sacrifices will again be cherished.
In this "unpretending story" published in 1867, Sarah Palmer, known to the Union soldiers she nursed during the Civil War as "Aunt Becky," tells simply and directly one woman's tale of war. Palmer, believed to have been the first woman to serve as a Union Army nurse, cared for countless sick, wounded, and dying soldiers during her three years of service. Said one soldier, "I never knew a woman so much thought of as she was by the boys - she never showed any partiality - we all got the same attention - officers no more than privates."