Clara Jones: A Forgotten Civil War Nurse
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“If I know I can be of service in tending the wounded…I’m bound to be on hand,” wrote Clarissa Fellows Jones in September 1861. Though written early in the American Civil War, the statement proved to be an accurate forecast of her wartime experiences.
Jones hated inaction. She frequently remarked in her diary and letters of her desire to help in any way possible whenever possible. Much to her dismay, her ability to give aid to soldiers during the Civil War was circumscribed by her job at Rittenhouse Grammar School in Germantown, Pennsylvania. “If I was in the midst of the distress, consequent upon a battle, lending a helping hand to the poor fellows, I would feel really happy in comparison — but here I am, tied to School,” lamented Jones to a friend. As a 28 year old single woman living in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia she was only able to attend to the men at the front during school holidays.
If she could not go to the soldiers as often as she wanted, she resolved to help in any way she could. Initially, her efforts toward soldier relief started small and mirrored those of many other women on the home front. “I’m going to knit some more socks & mitts,” she wrote to a soldier friend, “if there is any one near you who seems destitute of friends and to whom such articles would be acceptable, let me know and I will forward a pair of each as soon as I get them done.”
As the war progressed, wounded and sick soldiers gradually made their way to Northern hospitals to recover from wounds and diseases contracted at the front. Not long after newly created military hospitals had admitted patients in Philadelphia in the fall of 1861, Jones arrived on the scene. After hearing of “the miserable manner” in which local hospitals were being managed, she marched off to the Christian Street hospital to offer her services. Jones was told she should go home to wait for another doctor’s approval and summons. Never one to wait for anything, Jones chose to sit outside the aforementioned doctor’s office only to be told that she was not needed. Unsatisfied with her reception, Jones then spoke with the doctor’s uncle, whom she knew, which forced a capitulation.
The plight of the wounded soldiers distressed Jones, leading to her relentless pursuit to provide assistance. “To think of those we love dying without a friendly hand to minister to their necessities, tossing about in pain and none to hold the cup of cold water to the parched lips” was almost unbearable to her since “I could easier weep for the woes of others than my own.”
While she volunteered at the Christian Street hospital, Jones was flabbergasted to find that most of the volunteer nurses were wealthy “first ladies in the city” who occasionally gave an hour of their time. “What good can they do walking around in their silks,” Jones asked indignantly “What sympathy can they feel for suffering humanity who have never suffered themselves?”
While eager to help ease the suffering of those in Philadelphia, she jumped at the chance to go to the front during the winter school break of 1861-62. She traveled to several army encampments in and around Washington and Alexandria. There Jones and her coworker “Miss Marie” visited, cared, and cooked for the sick in various regimental hospitals. “I always thought and I’m now entirely convinced that one woman can do more good in a reg. Hospital than an army of cardinals.”
The trip to Washington and its neighboring army camps invigorated Jones. “I cannot forbear mentioning in this place, how very happy I felt at the reception given us by both doctor + patients, the latter looked as pleased to see us as tho’ we were sister or mother to them – I do not think that on any former occasion I paid a visit that repaid me for inconveniences, in such a degree, truly I was repaid a hundred fold.” After returning home to Pennsylvania, she frequently wrote to Lane asking how she could assist the regiment while on the home front.
“What can I get for the Dr…does he stand in need of anything? There is nothing in the world I would send more willingly than my unworthy self. I’m tired to death of this life of quietness, or rather inactivity—I never wished for summer so earnestly as I do now.”
Jones’ time in Philadelphia and Washington was just her introduction to war nursing. When school ended for the summer of 1862, Jones would venture closer to the front, encountering the gruesome reality and ever-present dangers facing Civil War nurses.
Learn more on this subject in this video with John Lustrea, the post’s author
This is the first in a series of four posts on Clara Jones, a Civil War Nurse. Click below to be directed to the others.
 Clara Jones to Lane Schofield, September 9, 1861.
 Jones to Schofield, October 23, 1861.
 Jones to Schofield, October 26, 1861.
 Jones to Schofield, November 3, 1861; March 2, 1862.
 Jones to Schofield, November 3, 1861.
 Clara Jones Diary, December 27, 1861.
 Clara Jones Diary, December 27, 1861.
 Jones to Schofield, February 25, 1862.
About the Author
John Lustrea is a member of the Education Department at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He earned his Master’s degree in Public History from the University of South Carolina. Lustrea has previously worked at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park the past four summers.Tags: Clara Jones, Clarissa Jones, John Lustrea, Nurse Posted in: Uncategorized