Eliza George earned the nickname “Mother George” in the 1800s for her pioneering spirit and selfless devotion to the troops fighting during the Civil War. She’s been gone for over 150 years, but her legacy hasn’t been forgotten. A group of veterans and historians in Fort Wayne, Indiana recently came together to honor her work during the country’s bloodiest war.
George was born in Vermont and moved to Fort Wayne shortly before the Civil War broke out. She is believed to be the mother-in-law of Colonel Sion Bass, who served with the 30th Indiana Infantry. After Bass died from the injuries he suffered in the Battle of Shiloh, George decided to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps at the age of 54. The Army initially turned her away because of her age, but she was determined to help out in any way she could.
“Nurses were in dire need,” said Robert Thomas, curator at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum in Allen County, IN. “The Civil War left a lot of wounded everywhere.”
Mother George quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the Corps’ best nurses. She ended up following General Ulysses S. Grant on multiple military campaigns all over the front lines. She split her time between working at local hospitals and working on the battlefield. When she was at war, Thomas said she lived like one of the cadets. She slept in a tent, walked for miles to treat patients, and was even fired on by confederate soldiers.
“She was in a tent and artillery landed like seven feet away from her tent, so she was definitely in battle. And they didn’t give her anything special, she just did like the troops did,” said Tom Schmitt, a board member of the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum who’s been studying George’s life. “The only thing that was important to her was the boys. That was all she cared about. The soldiers come first.”
But going to war was rare for nurses of the day. George earned her reputation for running towards the action. “Medical personnel are considered the bravest because they’ll go without a weapon into the middle of the combat zone,” said Thomas.
Letters from the era reveal how much compassion and sympathy George showed the nurses for whom she cared. She would often sit with the sick and wounded for hours at a time as if they were her own son.
“Being 54 years-old, she looked like a mother. So, when these young guys were dying and delirious, a lot of them thought that she was their mother, hence the name “Mother George,” said Schmitt. “Some would grab a hold of her and wouldn’t let go, they would just keep holding her, and she just took it. Can you imagine every day just dealing with death?”
But lots of the wounded soldiers never made it home. Even after they died, George would send their families letters, money, and gifts to remind them of the men they’d lost.
She eventually died from injuries she sustained during the war. She was caring for fallen soldiers at a hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina when she caught Typhoid Fever. The disease took her life about a month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered.
Her body was later buried at the Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne.
“She is the only female of the Civil War era who was buried with full military honors, which was very rare at that time for a non-military person to be buried with full honors,” said Schmitt. “It was mostly because of her love for the troops. The guys knew what she did and how she took care of them, even after they died she was still taking care of them and she became so loved by the troops that they pretty much forced the military to…’you are going to take care of this person.’”
A group recently visited her grave to honor her contributions during the war.
“Very few people know of her and what she did and that’s just terribly wrong,” said Schmitt. “What this woman did was unbelievable, and she deserves more attention than what she gets.”