Too Old for the Trenches: The Post-War Years of Clara Jones Dye
This is the fourth and final post in a series about Clara Jones, a Civil War Nurse.
By the end of 1863, Clara Jones had established an impressive nursing resume. In the previous two years she had volunteered as a nurse on a hospital ship, at a hospital in Alexandria, and in a field hospital shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg. She also visited the Union army in their encampments to bring food and medical supplies on numerous occasions. But she was not done yet.
As a single woman, Jones could not afford to abandon the income her job as a schoolteacher provided. So, as before, she continued her mission of mercy during the winter recess at the end of 1863. Jones traveled to the camps of the Army of the Potomac near Brandy Station, Virginia to pass out food and medicine to the soldiers. Leaving her home near Philadelphia on December 23, 1863, Jones reached Brandy Station with “barrels and boxes containing Christmas cheer and clothing for the Germantown boys and a miscellaneous collection of goods for the sick.”
“The news that ‘Miss Jones had come’ spread rapidly and the boys flocked out of their huts to welcome me,” Jones wrote. The train containing her supplies was delayed preventing her from passing them out personally, but she went home “confident that [the soldiers] did fully appreciate that kind thought of friends at home.” Another volunteer nurse working at Brandy Station at this time was Cornelia Hancock. As fellow residents of the greater Philadelphia area who had served as volunteer nurses, Hancock and Jones would eventually foster a warm friendship.
Not long after her trip to Brandy Station Jones described how nursing had changed her disposition for the better, saying, “A light has dawned on me this past year.” Regrettably for her, the nursing excursions that gave her so much life were about to come to an end.
Caring for her sick sister Elizabeth was about to become her full time responsibility, which she alluded to in her last wartime letter in the museum’s collection. “E[lizabeth] is very much worse. She has been very sick…so I remained at home feeling that it would be worse than heathenish to leave her alone.” The same compassion that drove her to care for ailing soldiers would not let her leave her dangerously sick sister’s side. Elizabeth passed away from her illness in 1864, leaving three children. Jones entered a new life as a surrogate mother.
After Elizabeth’s death, our understanding of Clara Jones shifts from being described in her own words to those of others. The museum’s collection of her letters ends in 1864 with few exceptions, but her subsequent actions in the early 1900’s appear in several newspapers.
One intervening event we do know about is her marriage to John H. Dye in 1872, a widower who served as a lieutenant in the 33rd Pennsylvania. He brought four children of his own to the marriage, so despite never giving birth herself, Clara Jones became a mother for seven children.
Newspapers trace Jones’ storied history as a humanitarian into the early twentieth century. She acted as a member of the Woman’s Permanent Emergency Association of Germantown. In response to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a group of women sent “fifty-five cases of bedding and clothing to the stricken city.” They all agreed that the disaster relief agency should continue to exist.
During the Spanish-American War, Jones, acting in tandem with the American Red Cross, sent supplies to American soldiers in Cuba. She even corresponded briefly with another notable humanitarian and nurse of the Civil War, Clara Barton, as they worked together to ensure that Red Cross supplies made it to Cuba.
Jones was also an active post-war advocate for softening the minimum requirements of the Army Nurses Pension Act of 1892 (ANPA). The ANPA allowed nurses who served at least six months to draw a monthly pension of $12. Almost 2,500 women of the roughly 22,000 that officially served applied for a nursing pension. Jones joined the National Association of Army Nurses of the Civil War and served as its president from 1906 to 1909. During that period, she used the organization’s political clout to lead an unsuccessful charge to amend the ANPA to benefit volunteer nurses who failed to win pensions due to the strict requirements mandated by the Pension Office.
Jones waited until 1907 to apply for her own pension. Unfortunately, she met a common challenge faced by volunteer nurses: proving her service claims. Because she operated as a volunteer, no payroll records existed to prove her claims. In lieu of official hospital records, Jones obtained corroborating evidence from surgeons, patients, or other individuals she worked with, a substantial challenge given the brief stints and varied places she served.
The connections she utilized included such luminaries as Alexander Henry, mayor of Philadelphia during the Civil War, and George H. Stuart, chairman of the United States Christian Commission, among others. These prominent endorsements failed to win the Pension Office to her side – she never received a government pension. The Pension Bureau claimed she only had three months of service rather than the six required by law. In a letter to the Pension Bureau she wrote that she did “not agree with the several reasons given for the verdict against me.”
In 1916, Jones wrote the Pension Bureau (on Association of Army Nurses of the Civil War letterhead) that “I have no income and sorely need what I believe to be due to my service for the government.” There is no record that Jones ever received her pension.
In spite of all her frustration with the Pension Bureau, Jones still longed to do what she could to benefit others when suffering came. In 1917 a headline ran “Too Old to Go to Trenches.” At age 85, Clara Jones could not muster the strength to nurse soldiers in World War I, but she understood the desire of women to go help like few could. As with the Civil War, it was hard for Jones to think about conditions soldiers endured on the front lines and the struggles they would face when returning from war. By the end of the interview “the tears were streaming down her cheeks.”
Clarissa Fellows Jones Dye succumbed to kidney failure four years later on May 3, 1921 at the age of 89.
Perhaps no written word encapsulates the indomitable spirit displayed by Clara Jones through her Civil War career as a song she learned near the end of 1861.
“You know I’m one of the strong minded females, none but weak minds are overcome by sorrows & misfortunes. Did you ever hear the song “I paddle my own canoe?” I’m learning it. It just suits me. You know I never leaned entirely on anybody [and I] always felt a secret satisfaction in taking care of myself.” It does not take much imagination to see Clara Jones embodied in lyrics from the song’s first verse.
I’ve travelled about a bit in my time
And of troubles I’ve seen a few
I found it better in every clime
To paddle my own canoe
My wants are small, I care not at all
If my debts are paid when due
I drive away life in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.
One can easily imagine Clara Jones in her quieter moments at the Lyceum hospital, at Gettysburg, or on one of her long train rides humming “I Paddle My Own Canoe” to herself while on the journey to her next adventure.
Learn more on this subject in this video with John Lustrea, the post’s author
This is the fourth and final post in a series about Clara Jones, a Civil War Nurse. Click below to be directed to the others.
 Clara Jones, “Brandy Station, 1863.”
 Clara Jones, “Brandy Station, 1863.”
 Clara Jones, “Brandy Station, 1863.”
 Clara Jones to Lane Schofield, January 24, 1863.
 Clara Jones to Lane Schofield, April 1, 1864.
 Evening Public Ledger, June 3, 1918.
 The Philadelphia Enquirer, September 7, 1898.
 Jane E. Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 187-188.
 Schultz, Women at the Front, 191-194.
 Undated letter from Clara Jones.
 Clarissa F. Dye to G. M. Saltzgaber, November 19, 1917.
 The Burlington Free Press, August 21, 1917.
Clara Jones to Lane Schofield, December 1, 1861.
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: brandy station, Civil War, Civil War Hospitals, Civil War Medicine, Clara Barton, Clara Jones, Cornelia Hancock, National Association of Army Nurses of the Civil War, Women, Women's History Posted in: Uncategorized