October 21: Susan Roosevelt Osterhout Ver Planck (1902)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the nursing profession was in its infancy and dominated by men. Increasing numbers of casualties and the overburdening of aide facilities soon broke down gender-related strictures on nursing and spurred the nation’s women into taking action. In April 1861, Dorothea Dix staged a march on Washington, demanding that the government recognize their desire to aid the Union’s wounded. Secretary of War Simon Cameron quickly named her to superintend the women nurses assigned to the U.S. Army. Despite such responsibilities, however, neither she nor her nurses were granted military appointments. By nature compassionate and giving, Dix was also a no-nonsense and often quirky leader. At first she required nursing applicants to be at least 30 years old and ‘plain looking,’ wearing brown or black clothing with no ornaments, bows, curls, jewelry or hoops. Despite these stringent requirements, some 2,000 women laid aside their cherished jewels and laces to pass Dix’s austere muster. As casualties mounted, Dix was forced to relax her standards, and after the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 she accepted anyone willing to work. Her nurses were paid 40 cents a day plus rations, housing and transportation.

One of these volunteer nurses was Susan Roosevelt Osterhout Ver Planck. She was from New York City and about 35 years old at the outbreak of the war. With several other women, she came to Washington to serve as a nurse. Records indicate she was present when the first exchange of prisoners took place in July 1862. She was attached to the various hospitals in Washington and aboard the transports between Washington and New York. Following her death on October 21, 1902, her funeral took place at Epiphany Church prior to her burial at Arlington. A newspaper obituary stated, “Into her tender hands fell many hundreds of unfortunates from Libby and other Southern prisons. In her hospital service she experienced hardship and privation in every conceivable form, and, while caring for the wounded and dying on the battlefields, she was under fire three times. At her funeral, following the committal of the Episcopal Church, a bugler blew ‘lights out’ above the open grave.”

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