December 6, 2012

On the bank of the Monongahela, near its confluence with the Allegheny

As she later wrote in her autobiography: "I was born on the 6th of December, 1815, in Pittsburg, on the bank of the Monongahela, near its confluence with the Allegheny." Jane Grey Cannon was born in the then-frontier city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 6, 1815. Raised in a religious family, she was only 8 when she took up lace-making to help bring in an income for her mother when her father died in 1823. As a young girl, her coughing worried her mother, who feared she had caught tuberculosis (the same disease which killed the girl's father). Young Jane was pulled from school and, in defiance of the usual treatment for tuberculosis, was forced by her mother into a strong exercise regimen and a strict diet. The illness proved to be less severe than assumed and Jane became a schoolteacher at age 14.

She married James Swisshelm at age 20, though the marriage was troublesome from the start. The couple, nevertheless, moved to Kentucky, where Jane Grey Swisshelm (as she became known) witnessed the horrors of slavery for the first time. She returned to Pennsylvania to care for her dying mother; her husband sued for land she inherited, believing he should own it as her husband. They divorced in 1857.

Swisshelm, unsurprisingly, became a strong advocate not only of abolitionism but also the legal rights of women, as well as becoming a critic of capital punishment. Most often, she wrote for anti-slavery newspapers and various publications near Pittsburgh. She soon moved to Minnesota, where she founded newspapers of her own and continued her work. During the Civil War, she volunteered as a nurse, particularly after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. She described her experience in that battle, which took place 150 years ago this month, in her autobiography, Half a Century, in 1881:

I made a tuck in a queen's-cloth dress, donned it, selected a light satchel, put into one side a bottle of whiskey and one of sherry, half a pound of green tea, two rolls of bandage and as much old table-linen as packed them close; put some clothing for myself in the other side, and a cake of black castile soap, for cleansing wounds; took a pair of good scissors, with one sharp point, and a small rubber syringe, as surgical instruments; put these in my pocket, with strings attaching them to my belt; got on my Shaker bonnet, and with a large blanket shawl and tin cup, was on board... an hour before the boat left.

With Swisshelm was a young, beautiful woman named Georgie. On the journey to Fredericksburg, they meet the famous Dorothea Dix, who offers no kind greeting before rudely suggesting Fredericksburg needed no help and, further, accusing Georgie of being out of place there (implying, in the text, that Dix thought her too beautiful to be going to nurse wounded soldiers). As Swisshelm writes:

I told Miss Dix that I differed with her about the kind of women who should go into such places. We wanted young, vigorous women—women whose self-respect and social position would command the respect of those to whom they ministered. She grew angry again, and said:

"She shall not go to Fredericksburg; I will have her arrested!"

...When she reached this climax, I raised my head, looked into her face, and said: "I shall not be sorry Miss Dix, if you do; for then I shall apply to my friends, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Secretary Stanton, and have your authority tested."

I went on with my work; she growled something and left the boat, but did not disturb us further.

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