“Aunt Becky” Young was well-known during the Civil War and her efforts to take care of soldiers led many of them to have such fond memories that when she died in in 1908 newspapers around the country, including the New York Times, carried the headline “‘Aunt Becky’ Dies” secure that their readers would know who they meant.
“Aunt Becky” was not her real name. She was born Sarah A. Graham in Ithaca, New York in 1830 and had been married to Abel O. Palmer before the war started, so she was known as Sarah Palmer during the Civil War. She served as a nurse during the war, but she resented being called Mother by the wounded men as was commonly done at the time by soldiers not knowing a nurse’s name. One of the soldiers said she looked like his Aunt Becky and she figured that was better than mother and it stuck.
Her first husband, Abel O. Palmer, died early on in the Civil War and shortly thereafter “Aunt Becky” joined the service as an army nurse in 1862. She served in hospitals in Baltimore (MD) and Bladensburg (MD) and was put in charge of the hospital at Beltville (MD). Later following the battles, she established and ran an army hospital at Falls Church(VA). She provided nursing service at Fredericksburg (VA), Spottsylvania (VA), Cold Harbor (VA), Chancellorsville (VA), and Petersburg (VA). She received personal commendations for her work from both General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln.
Aunt Becky reported this story to the Philadelphia Press and it was reprinted in the Jan. 13, 1900 Richmond Planet, now available on the Library of Congress website.
Aunt Becky reported that she had a group of wounded soldiers that she knew would die if she didn’t get them to Washington, D.C., but she couldn’t get exchanges for them that would allow them to travel. “So I went to up to the Quartermaster’s office to make a call and there were a lot of tickets of exchange lying on the desk. I shoved some off with my elbow, and when I got back I found that I had captured 14 of them. Without saying a word to anybody I pinned them on the worst cases and when the sick from other divisions were being carried down to the boats, I had one nurse carry these men down to meet them, and they were safely packed off.”
“Well, the next morning the doctor came around. ‘Where is Brother Jonathan?’ said he, asking for one of the patients.’ ‘Gone to Washington,’ the nurse told him.”
“‘By whose orders?’ he asked.”
“‘Aunt Becky’s,’ they said.”
“Then he came right down to me, and he was furious.”
“‘I’ll discharge you at once,’ he threatened. ‘I’d like to know on whose responsibility you sent those men off.'”
“‘On my own,’ I said, very quietly. ‘They’d have died if they stayed here.'”
“So he went straight to General Grant to complain of me, and he told how I had stolen the tickets for them and all.”
“General Grant laughed and said: ‘I’ve got nothing to say. Aunt Becky out ranks me!'”
“I didn’t get discharged, you may guess, laughed Aunt Becky, as she told this tale. “And listen,” she called, “those men who went to Washington all got well.”
After the War, “Aunt Becky” remarried in 1867 to Mr. D.C. Young and they moved to Des Moines, Iowa. In 1898 when the Spanish-American War broke out, “Aunt Becky” took the head of the Iowa Sanitary Commission for this new war. She served as its President, and chair of the purchasing and forwarding committees. Ten years later Aunt Becky passed away and was survived by her second husband for two more years.
She was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa. The GAR had erected a flag pole by her grave, but it had rusted and been forgotten. Just this year (2009), the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War led an effort to get a proper military stone for her grave and to replace the long rusty flagpole. They were dedicated on Veterans Day this year.
Read more about Aunt Becky and her monument here:
Buy a re-print of Aunt Becky’s book about her Civil War experiences here:
Photos from the ceremony in 2009 unveiling the restoration:
UPDATE April 9, 2015: I corrected the links that were here before and added one showing photos of the unveiling. I also added a note to clarify a reference to “this year” and decided the cities/battles should have the states with them so I added the postal abbreviations in quotes. I’ve been trying to add more women of Iowa to my blog posts so I’m glad to come back and re-visit Aunt Becky.
I’ve also added a new category to blog posts. It’s historic Iowa women. I’ve been trying to do more posts pointing out the many contributions of Iowa women and I finally decided it needed its own category. I’ll have to go back and add categories for previous posts.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+,LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.