When Hillsdale student Mary Barnum lost her husband during the Civil War, she dedicated herself to doing all she could for the Union. She became an army nurse and used her widow’s pension of $20 per month to purchase medical supplies for the United States Sanitary Commission.
Barnum was not the only Hillsdale woman who showed such devotion to the cause. Many who could not fight nonetheless did their part to support and tend to those who could.
According to “Hillsdale Honor,” a book by Hillsdale historian and former professor of history Arlan K. Gilbert, Barnum was attending Hillsdale when she married her husband Captain James Hawley on July 29, 1863. Less than two months later, Hawley died at the battle of Chickamauga.
Barnum was 22 and had recently completed the Ladies’ Course at Hillsdale, according to a 1992 Collegian article written by Gilbert.
“I know that were I near some battlefield, I could accomplish more good than here,” Barnum said after hearing of her husband’s death, according to the article. “I intend to get an education [bachelor’s degree] — but country and sick soldiers first. Wounded men we do not always have with us, but Hillsdale College we do.”
The Chicago Tribune printed an article called “Nobly Done at Hillsdale, Mich,” which lauded Barnum’s selfless actions.
“Sure the republic need never despair while such pure devotion to the Union kindles the fires of patriotism upon her altars,” the piece concluded.
Another noble student, Mary E. Blackmar, attended Hillsdale in the late 1850s. She studied medicine, and rather than complete the required year of training in a regular hospital, decided to work as a military nurse. Although the age requirement was 30, the 21-year-old was still able serve.
In 1864, Blackmar was assigned to the largest Union field hospital, City Point, in Virginia. There, she took charge of a Confederate ward near the frontlines.
In an 1892 issue of the Hillsdale Standard, a local political newspaper, Blackmar describes a visit from President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant.
“[Lincoln] went at once to a bedside,” she said. “[He] reverently leaned over almost double so low were the cots, and stroked the soldier’s head, and with tears streaming down his face he said in a sort of sweet anguish, ‘Oh, my man, why did you do it?’ The boy in gray said, or rather stammered weakly, almost in a whisper, ‘I went because my state went.’ President Lincoln went from one bedside to another and touched each forehead gently.”
According to Gilbert’s book “Historic Hillsdale College,” Blackmar would go on to graduate from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1867, which was the first of its kind in America. She practiced medicine until 1911.
Some women who stayed behind kept up the good fight from Hillsdale. Julia Moore, the principal of the Ladies’ Department, wrote countless letters to Hillsdale’s soldiers.
“During the years of the war of the rebellion, her sympathy was deeply enlisted in behalf of the soldiers, especially for the large number who had gone from the college,” wrote The Hillsdale Advance in 1885. “Her correspondence with these was somewhat exhaustive.”
It is fitting that the Alpha Kappa Phi Society, which would dedicate the Civil War memorial on campus 30 years later, made a toast in 1865 to honor the contributions of the nurses, wives, and other women of Hillsdale, according the The Hillsdale Standard.
“[To] our lady friends, whose earnest support and encouraging words materially assisted us in earlier struggles, and whose smiles of congratulation we have been proud to receive over our late triumphs,” the society said. “May they be strangers to everything but happiness.”