Eliza Potter: “[A] Noble, Patriotic Heart”
Originally published in the 2017 Special Edition of the Surgeon’s Call
Eliza Potter was born in Ireland to Scottish parents and had a strong early education.[i] She moved to America as an orphan when she was 13 years old, and was married and living in Charleston, SC, by the time she was fifteen. Eliza had four children with her husband before being widowed as a young woman. She later married Lorenzo Potter, an influential merchant in Charleston. He adopted the four children from her previous marriage, and together they added three more to their brood.[ii] The family was well-known and well-liked in antebellum Charleston. They had a comfortable lifestyle, and were regarded as religious, civic, and business leaders in the community; Lorenzo Potter even helped to lay the foundation of Fort Sumter.[iii] The Potters also had a reputation for being very caring and generous, offering hospitality to those in need. Eliza in particular was known for her empathy toward the ill and her work ministering to those affected in the multiple Yellow Fever outbreaks in Charleston prior to the war.[iv] When talk of secession began picking up in Charleston, the Potter family’s world was turned completely upside down.
At first, the Potters remained relatively quiet about their Unionist sentiments, but eventually Lorenzo was forced to declare his position. While many families were divided by the conflict, the Potter family remained close, and they made efforts to aid the Union cause despite being in a city that was central to the Confederacy. When the first Union prisoners were brought into the city, some of them wounded, Mrs. Potter used her previous experience nursing the sick and her ability to gain access to necessary items to minister to them.[v] The way in which she secured permission to enter the hospital site used for prisoners of war was not unlike how Clara Barton gained permission to go to the front and provide supplies to the soldiers. Potter learned that the surgeon in charge of the hospital was the son of an acquaintance. She visited the surgeon’s mother with some gifts and, talking of the surgeon, learned that he was very ambitious and hoping to get a promotion. She used this information to her advantage, and befriended him in order to get his permission to visit the hospital. There she found the soldiers languishing in deplorable conditions in a former slave pen.[vi] After this visit, she knew she would need to go back, and through her own determination, she convinced the surgeon at the facility to allow her to become a regular nurse.
Throughout her time as a nurse to the prisoners of war, Potter spared no expense in caring for the men; she used her family’s own money, up to $100,000, to provide clothing and comforts to her charges, including paying for the laundering of their soiled clothing.[vii] Potter took such good care of the Union prisoners that she was twice summoned to General Beauregard’s headquarters to answer the charge of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” The Confederate leadership considered sending her outside their territory, but refrained because she was too skilled a nurse to release, plus she might know too much.[viii] Like others who worked with prisoners of war, Mrs. Potter recorded the names of those who died in her care in order to memorialize them. After the war, she raised money to construct two monuments to the fallen Union prisoners of war located in Beaufort National Cemetery.[ix] There is no question that Potter made great contributions to the Union during the American Civil War while situated deep in Confederate territory. She worked tirelessly throughout the war to bring comfort to those fighting for what they, and she, believed in. After the war, she continued to fight for those men—memorializing the 175 Union men who died in the Charleston prison camps.
This was no easy task. Potter lost many of her due to her Unionist attitude and sympathies. The walls and fences of her home were vandalized constantly. Those she had socialized with before the war would turn up their noses and draw away their skirts as they passed her in the streets.[x] All this paled in comparison to the loss of her son, Frederick, who was beaten to death by classmates for his family’s pro-Union stance.[xi] Despite all this, Potter persisted, a true testament to her dedication to the cause.
It is clear from their shared determination to help and care for the Union soldiers that Barton and Potter had a great deal in common. What has proven to be less clear, however, is how close they were to one another. There is at least one surviving letter from Barton to Potter’s children in which Barton refers to Eliza Potter as “your precious mother, whose noble, patriotic heart and life have taught us many lessons.”[xii] There is evidence that Potter visited Barton in Washington after Barton had moved away from Seventh Street.[xiii] It is most likely that they met during Barton’s time in the Charleston area in 1863, and carried on communication throughout the war.
Potter’s efforts to memorialize the men who died in her care also likely aided in Barton’s mission after the war to discover the fates of the thousands of Union soldiers who went missing or died without their families’ knowledge. What is clear is that Barton thought highly of Eliza Potter and that Mrs. Potter was a woman both great and good, willing to face the scrutiny of those around her in order to do work for the nation that she had chosen as her home.
[i] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Remembering the Civil War Fallen at Beaufort, SC: Eliza Potter’s Story. (Washington, D.C.: National Cemetery Administration), 11.
[ii] David Lauderdale, “Memorials at Beaufort National Cemetery tell the lost story of America’s first Memorial Day,” The Beaufort Gazette (Beaufort, SC: The Beaufort Gazette). Web. http://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/community/beaufort-news/bg-military/article33649872.html. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
[iii] Lauderdale, “America’s first Memorial Day.”
[iv] VA, Eliza Potter’s Story, 12.
[v] “Mrs. Eliza Potter,” The Grand Army of the Republic Almanac for 1879. 64-72. Web. http://archive.org/stream/grandarmyofrepub01worc#page/64/mode/1up. Retrieved January 31, 2017.
[vi] “Mrs. Eliza Potter,” 65-67.
[vii] “Mrs. Eliza Potter,” 67.
[viii] VA, Eliza Potter’s Story, 12.
[ix] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Remembering the Civil War Fallen at Beaufort National Cemetery,” Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzA_MXFxK1U&list=PLY7mRNUcQyMQXxWOM3RgVlW4ZTTAsbKCm&index=3. Accessed January 31, 2017; The National Park Service, “Beaufort National Cemetery: Beaufort, South Carolina.” https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/South_Carolina/Beaufort_National_Cemetery.html. Accessed January 31, 2017.
[x] “Mrs. Eliza Potter,” 68.
[xi] VA, Eliza Potter’s Story, 15.
[xii] Lauderdale, “America’s first Memorial Day.”
[xiii] Williams, Blanche Colton, Clara Barton: Daughter of Destiny, 144.
About the Author
Sienna Bronson is a member of the NMCWM and was formerly part of the Guest Services Staff. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Hood College and has focused her historical research mostly on Civil War women, including Clara Barton, women soldiers, and now Eliza Potter. In the future, she’d like to continue her research on influential women in history to inspire the influential women of tomorrow.