Angel of Light: Helen L. Gilson, Army Nurse

Article excerpt

In 1861 the Union army's medical service was particularly lacking in structure and organization. In a burst of patriotic enthusiasm, the citizens of the North, particularly women, soon established a volunteer network that helped the government to reform the military medical service and to assist sick and wounded soldiers. Women were thus offered some opportunities for management and administration of war work, most of it confined to the homefront. A few, however, not satisfied with traditional women's roles and, using tact, adaptation, and perhaps a little deviousness to overcome prejudice against them, took on important responsibilities providing medical and other services to armies on the battlefield. One of those who went beyond where her age and limited experience and education should have allowed her was Helen L. Gilson, a twenty-five-year-old citizen of Chelsea, Massachusetts. Contempory observers and fellow relief workers wrote often of her compassion and saintly nature, but few of them saw how well she assumed and accomplished responsible duties without serious conflicts with army and charitable organizational structures. The war let her step beyond where her background might have led, and she showed organizational ability, bravery under enemy fire, and an unwavering dedication to the tasks she undertook.

Gilson, born in Boston and a graduate of the city's public schools, began work at age seventeen as head assistant at the Phillips Grammar School for boys. When the war began, she was working as the governess to the family of Frank Ball Fay, the forty-year-old mayor of Chelsea, a position she took in 1858 when throat trouble made it impossible to continue teaching. Fay, a long-time prominent local politician, son of Chelsea's first mayor, was a produce commission merchant. He had been an overseer of the city's poor since 1857, an activity that brought Gilson into contact with the volunteers who assisted in the work. This experience would serve Fay and Gilson well in the first part of the war when it was translated into help for the city's soldiers. Fay's interest in serving the soldiers in the field was first expressed at the start of the fighting. Hearing of the Union defeat at Bull Run in the summer of 1861, he left for Virginia to aid the wounded and recover the dead. This was the start of an activity that would occupy him until the end of hostilities. but he did not immediately devote his full time to it. By February 1892, he secured from the governor an appointment as an allotment commissioner, and he went back to the Army of the Potomac the following month. The job was to help soldiers remit some of their pay to support their families back home, and it enabled him to travel freely within the army's camps.(1)

Meanwhile, back in Chelsea, Gilson helped organize the local Soldiers' Aid Society, preparing, collecting, and shipping supplies of necessities and comforts to the troops in the new regiments. Her activity was more involved than just participation in war relief work. She was superintendent of the city's system for manufacturing and distributing clothing for the troops. Obtaining a contract to produce flannel shirts for the army, Gilson used in the work unpaid volunteers, students of the Young Ladies Sewing School, and wives and daughters of the poorly and infrequently paid soldiers. Such contracts paid fourteen cents per shirt, eleven cents of which was paid to the maker, who could produce four a day sewing by hand. The three cents left went for thread, transportation to New York, and office and workroom expense; the government furnished cloth and buttons. Miss Gilson, however, did better for her needy workers than the usual eleven cents; she raised money locally, enabling her to pay, one contemporary writer noted, "a far more liberal sum than the contractors' [usual] prices, for this labor."(2)

Despite her good work and success organizing relief supply gathering and shirt production in Chelsea, Gilson longed to do as Frank Fay had done after Bull Run--help the soldiers in the field directly. …