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Story of Aunt Becky's Army-life (Civil War) Paperback – October 31, 2008

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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 and 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.

From the Back Cover

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.""
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Product Details

  • Series: Civil War
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Applewood Books (October 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1429016108
  • ISBN-13: 978-1429016100
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,346,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Kakky Lane on September 25, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At first I couldn't imagine Aunt Becky leaving her two young daughters to travel with the army for years. I gradually came to understand a few things.
1. She was recently widowed. She had family that I assume cared for her daughters.
2. She had two brothers that went to war and she basically went with them and stayed with their company, though she rarely was able to meet up with them.
3. She felt called to do her part and also to help her brothers if they needed her.
She sacrificed tremendously, wearing the same dress for years, (maybe there were two and she alternated, but she spoke of only her "bed ticking dress," often going hungry, sleeping in a soaking wet tent, on a soaking wet cot. She spoke occasionally of Mrs. Dix, (Dorothea Dix?) and she was paid at the end of the war, but not without fighting for it and immediately gave some of it away to her "boys" that she had traveled with and cared for.
It is actual recorded history, not what we think happened or probably happened, but what did happen, from this woman's perspective.
I love journals and diaries for this reason.
It also helped me understand the feelings of why the war was fought and what it meant and did to the country.
Also in those days nursing was not considered fit work for women and was done by men. At first she wiped brows and held hands, but it wasn't long before she was dressing wounds and helping in surgery.
I highly recommend this valuable piece of history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By roset on November 8, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
With the sesquicentennial (2011-2015) of the Civil War (1861-1865) soon to be here, I purchased this book because of Sarah Palmer (aka Aunt Becky) was from my county. It is also a good one to read for anyone interested in what Civil War female nurses went through during this time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By D. Horton on February 21, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was a great unknown story regarding the Civil War which I did not know about...was a fast wonderful read. I also gave this as gifts to all my girls...DH
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Story of Aunt Becky's Army-life (Civil War)
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