The Odyssey Begins: Charlotte Bradford and the USSC Transport Ships

by Carolyn Ravenscroft

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1893)

On May 22, 1862 Charlotte Bradford found herself in Boston completing the last of a long list of tasks in preparation for her departure for Virginia to become a matron aboard the United States Sanitary Commission’s transport ships.  Similar to Louisa May Alcott’s heroine, Tribulation Periwinkle, of Hospital Sketches, Charlotte’s last days in Massachusetts were a mad rush to visit friends, run errands and solicit family to send forgotten items for her trunk.  As she awaited the arrival of the floating hospital, Daniel Webster, which would carry her south to her new life, she stayed with a friend, Mrs.Whipple, at 20 Broad Street and wrote one last letter home in which she enclosed a small, four-penny photograph of herself.  Little did she know, she would not return to Duxbury for over three years.

At the time of her departure, Charlotte was 48 years old and had never traveled out of her home state.  The idea of becoming a nurse had probably seemed the stuff of fantasy until her niece’s husband, Frederick Newman Knapp, became the Special Relief Agent for the USSC.  Along with Frederick Law Olmsted, Knapp was in charge of fitting out large steamships to be used as floating hospitals on the Virginia Peninsula, assisting McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.  As sick and wounded soldiers were brought from the battlefield to river landings, they would be loaded aboard the ships and ferried to northern hospitals.  Each ship was staffed with a surgeon-in-charge, 8 medical students, 20 male ward-masters and nurses, contraband slaves and four “lady nurse superintendents” or matrons. It is very likely that, upon hearing of the opportunity to assist in the war effort in this meaningful way, Charlotte solicited Knapp to secure a position with the transport service.

The matron’s role included making patients’ beds, stocking the kitchens, maintaining locked storage areas for wine, spirits and valuables, arranging shelves and generally making themselves available to assist when needed. Katherine Wormley, a fellow transport matron, correctly described the type of work expected of the women when she wrote, “as far as I can judge, our duty is to be very much that of a housekeeper.”  However, once onboard the vessels, the matrons found themselves taking on a far greater role. After the battle of Fair Oaks in early June 1862 nurses worked for days with little time for rest.  Charlotte wrote in her diary on June 4, “…received and fed that evening 470 wounded which kept us till 12.  Did not know it was Sunday until after I went to bed.  I got so much exhausted that I did not know as shall be able to stand it.”

By the end of the summer, the Union Army was taking over the transport vessels.  One by one, the female nurses went back to their homes or on to other relief work.  Charlotte was uncertain of her fate.  Despite the many aspects of the transport service that were almost intolerable: the horrific sights; the fatiguing work; the boredom between assignments; the scarce and almost inedible food,[1] Charlotte had experienced a sense of independence and purpose aboard the ships that she was loath to give up. During her tenure as a matron aboard the steamers, Knickerbocker, and Elm City and the clipper ship, St. Mark, she traveled to “Washington, Fortress Monroe, Albany, New York and also Baltimore.” She viewed the end of the campaign with regret, writing in her diary, “No one can tell how sorry I shall be to give up this service.”

Charlotte Bradford’s nursing odyssey may have begun as a volunteer matron aboard transport vessels, but it would eventually lead her to become a Union Army Nurse at various hospitals in Washington, DC under Dorothea Dix and culminate in her position as Matron at the United States Sanitary Commission’s Home for Soldiers.  In future posts I will write more of her trials and tribulations in each of these phases.  In the meantime, beginning on May 30th, we will begin posting her diary entries daily on her own facebook page.  I hope you enjoy learning more about this remarkable Duxbury woman.


[1] The food was particularly troublesome for Charlotte.  She was a vegetarian and, according to a diary entry, had not eaten “flesh” in 14 years.  Because of the scarcity of food she had to eat whatever was available which meant at times she had to eat meat.  In addition, as an advocate of temperance, she was fearful of being “obliged to take spirits” whenever she became ill.

3 thoughts on “The Odyssey Begins: Charlotte Bradford and the USSC Transport Ships

  1. Alison,

    Great article on Charlotte Bradford. I will incorporate the story into an exhibit on women in the Civil War I am developing for the event described below. Along with the exhibit we will have people involved in Living History. Unless you have someone from Duxbury that would like to portray Charlotte Bradford at the event, I will ask someone else to relay her story to attendees.

    If you or others interested in the Civil War would like to participate in the Nov. 3rd event, let me know.

    The American Civil War: Roots of Modern Technology
    Bristol Community College-Attleboro Campus and the Attleboro Area Civil War Commemorative Committee are collaborating to present a program that features advances in science, technology and engineering driven by the American Civil War and how they are linked to 21st Century inventions and innovations. The event will be held Saturday, November 3, 2012 at Bristol Community College from 10AM – 2PM.

    Displays and activities will illustrate past and present advances in photo journalism, medicine, prosthetics, aerial reconnaissance, weapons-artillery-rifles, underwater salvage, exploration, and warfare, manufacturing, long-distance communication, transportation, railroads, energy, harnessing water power, precision machining, and much more. Attendees will be invited to imagine future advances.


    Katherine Honey
    Attleboro Area Civil War Commemorative Committee, Member

  2. Thank you for the great article, as the Boston USSC, of which Charlotte would have been a member, of is always excited to learn of her member’s personal stories. I am still intent on coming down to meet and do more indepth research, as the previous information we learned at the Duxbury Historical Society display last year was invaluable. Still trying to figure out when/where those badges were worn. Research has turned up nothing new in the last year. I hate dead ends.

    • Hi Deb,
      Interestingly enough, Charlotte was not a member of the Boston branch of the USSC. She worked under the office of Special Relief in Washington, DC. However, a good friend of hers, Abby May (who was also aboard the USSC Transport Ships during the Peninsular Campaign), became the head of the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association, a USSC Branch located in Boston.

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