Story From: September 13, 1861
Lucy Mina Otey
The Ladies Relief Hospital
Lynchburg was a hospital town from almost the very beginning of the Civil War, hosting as many as 30 hospitals during that time. But one hospital in particular, the Ladies Relief Hospital, went from being dismissed to becoming one of the best hospitals in the city.
Listen along as we discuss the life of Lucy Mina Otey, the founder of the Ladies Relief Hospital.
Did you know that during the Civil War, Lynchburg had its own Florence Nightingale? Her name was Lucy Wilhelmina Otey and in 1861 she founded what was called the Ladies’ Relief Hospital.
Lucy Mina, as she was called, and her husband, Capt. John Otey, were prominent citizens in Lynchburg. They lived in a mansion on Federal Hill and socialized with Thomas Jefferson at his Bedford County estate, Poplar Forest.
By the time the Civil War broke out, John had died and all of the couple’s children, 7 boys and 1 girl, had either grown up or were off at college. It was just Lucy Mina and the servants living in the big house at 1020 Federal Street.
Lucy Mina was what we’d call an “empty nester” these days, but she wasn’t sitting at home. She was known for her community service, and was described as a “conscious benefactress to the poor and sick.”
She was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She co-founded the Female Missionary Society of Lynchburg. And she was a member of the Ladies Temperance Society, despite the fact that her spiked eggnog was legendary about town.
So, when the war started, she gathered her friends and founded the Ladies’ Relief Society. Together, they collected things like blankets, boots, towels, and socks for the men who were headed off to war.
The Richmond Dispatch even took note of how the ladies of the Hill City were doing their part for the war effort.
REPORTER 1 (Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Va., April 22, 1861)
The ladies of Lynchburg have volunteered to do any sewing necessary to equip the troops from that city. They have already furnished quantities of lint and bandages.
The ladies of Lynchburg also started nursing injured and sick soldiers in their own homes. This was in addition to military hospitals that were popping up all over the city.
In fact, Lynchburg was a hospital town from almost the very start of the Civil War. By war’s end, there were more than 30 hospitals in Lynchburg.
Why, you might ask? Two words: transportation and tobacco.
Lynchburg, one of the richest cities in the country at the time, was a railroad hub. It also had an abundance of tobacco warehouses and other large buildings that could be converted into hospitals.
As a bonus, the city was tucked away from most of the battlefields, providing an element of protection.
In the late summer of 1861, a writer to the Alabama Beacon described Lynchburg as the perfect place to nurse Confederate soldiers back to health.
REPORTER 2 (Alabama Beacon, Greensboro, Ala., September 13, 1861)
To those who have passed through Lynchburg, I need say nothing of its location. Its rich and varied mountain scenery, pure delightful water, its cool mountain breezes. Far away from the low land.
Consequently but little infected with epidemics and fatal diseases so common in the Eastern or lower part of Virginia, and now the more so from the immense army and crowds attendant, together with its immense population. I would at once recommend Lynchburg, Virginia, not only as the most desirable and healthful location for a hospital, but especially sick soldiers.
During the war, tens of thousands of soldiers were treated at hospitals in Lynchburg. The names of these hospitals also began appearing in newspapers all over the South.
There was Chambers Hospital, College Hospital, Ferguson Hospital, Clayton Hospital. Brooker Hospital, Pratt Hospital, and others.
But Lucy Mina wanted to open her own hospital — a hospital run by the ladies of the town.
She took her idea to Dr. William Otway Owen, chief surgeon in Lynchburg. First, she was treated rudely by a sentinel outside the hospital. Then, Dr. Owen rebuffed her, saying “No more women, no more flies.”
Being shrugged off and compared to pestilence might have made some women give up and go home to their knitting. Little did they know that Lucy Mina Otey was not the sort to give up easily.
Without support from local officials, Lucy Mina needed money to open her hospital. So she turned to the ladies of the South in what amounted to a 19th-century Go Fund Me campaign.
One of the newspapers who published her fundraising letter on September 13, 1861, was the Alabama Beacon.
LUCY MINA (from Alabama Beacon, Greensboro, Ala., September 13, 1861)
The Ladies of Lynchburg, Virginia, for several months past, had charge of a large number of the sick and suffering soldiers of the Southern Confederate Army, who they have nursed in their own families and private houses.
And having had their sympathies aroused and enlisted by appeals made from the sick and dying men, and finding it impracticable to do what the feelings of humanity dictated they should do, unless they could have access to the sufferers, have been constrained to adopt some plan to provide for their relief.
They propose to establish a Ladies’ Hospital, chiefly for Southern soldiers. Believing that it is their sacred duty to visit the sick and dying, and minister to the wants of their souls and bodies under all circumstances, when proper and practicable.
And more especially the sick soldiers of the Confederate States Army, who have come to defend us, they desire to establish a Ladies’ Southern Hospital as a refuge for the sick soldiers, where the kind hands of mothers and sisters may supply to fathers, brothers and sons the comforts of their own far distant homes.
Sisters of the South, we are ready! Will you cooperate with us? Our city has not been behind any other in her care of Southern soldiers. Thousands have been uniformed here, and hundreds have been nursed in our families, and still we faint not.
We cordially invite the cooperation of our Southern sisters in raising funds for the establishment and support of a Ladies Southern Hospital in this city.
Communications addressed as below will receive prompt attention. Mrs. Lucy W. Otey, President of the Ladies Hospital, Lynchburg, Virginia.
Otey family lore says Lucy Mina also took her case straight up the chain of Confederate command. As the story goes, Lucy Mina got on a packet boat, floated down the James River to Richmond, and met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Davis, who was said to be a personal friend of the Otey family, reportedly gave his blessing and Lucy Mina got her hospital.
Regardless of its veracity, it’s a nice story. And a letter that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer on September 27, 1861, seems to support this story.
It’s from the surgeon general’s office in Richmond and addressed to Mrs. Cornelia J.M. Jordan, secretary of the Ladies’ Hospital in Lynchburg.
SURGEON GENERAL (Richmond Enquirer, Richmond, Va.,September 27, 1861, p. 3)
Madam, enclosed will be found the endorsement of this office, approved by the Secretary of War, on the communication of Mrs. Lucy W. Otey, concerning the ladies’ hospital at Lynchburg, to the President.
If a certified account is transmitted to this office for the rations of each soldier taken care of in the hospital, at 22 cents per diem, it will be referred to the Commissary General for payment.
In future, you have authority from the Secretary of War to draw rations from the Assistant Commissary in Lynchburg, and requisitions for medicines, in accordance with the supply table forwarded to me, will be approved, and the supplies transmitted to Lynchburg.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S.P. Moore, Acting Surgeon General.
The Ladies’ Relief Hospital opened that fall in the old Union Hotel, which stood at Sixth and Main streets. Soon, the women who had once been compared to flies had the best hospital in Lynchburg.
It was common knowledge that the worst cases got sent to the Ladies’ Relief Hospital, which was said to have the best survival rate of all the hospitals in Lynchburg.
About 500 women, and some men, worked at Lucy Mina’s hospital. Some of the people who worked there were slaves, among them Martha Spence Edley. Martha worked for the Spence family, who a few blocks away from the hospital. A member of the family later wrote about Martha’s work at the hospital.
Mrs. Spence sent her personal maid, Martha, every other morning to help the lady nurses at the hospital at Main and Sixth streets.
There were no disinfectants to be had and all medicines were contraband of war. The stench from ghastly wounds was sickening at all times, but especially so after the poorer ventilation at night. Martha helped wash and dress wounds.
Intelligent, quick, skillful, witty and well mannered was Martha. No doubt, she was one of many slaves who helped in this heart-rending work.
Another person who worked there was Lucy Mina’s daughter-in-law, Mollie. Mollie lost her first husband, Lucy Mina’s son Gaston, early in the war. She worked tirelessly at the Ladies’ Relief Hospital to relieve the suffering of other husbands, fathers and brothers.
It was our duty, but most of all, our privilege, to try our very best to comfort our boys while they were with us. We ladies might bring dainties from home to tempt a soldier’s appetite, or we might read aloud some comforting Bible verses to one unable to sleep…
Do you know, odd as it seems, amidst the suffering and pain, more than one romance bloomed in the hospital. I myself nursed a handsome young Swedish Colonel who had been shot in the hand in the Battle of Winchester.
The doctors feared the worst for it. I heard them whisper “amputation” and determined I wouldn’t let that happen. I cleaned and bandaged that hand every single day for three weeks.
After the war, he came back to Lynchburg looking for “his little nurse.” He thought that after I had saved his hand, he ought to have mine.
Most stories didn’t end as happily as Mollie’s. The ladies also wrote letters to families across the South with the sad news that their loved ones had died.
One of these letters was written by Lucy Mina on August 18, 1864, to the wife of Confederate soldier Abraham Hanna.
Dear Mrs. Elizabeth A. Hanna. It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death, a bereavement which you are probably prepared for. Your husband left the shores of time for a blissful eternity on Saturday the 13th instant.
I was with him very often, as it is my daily custom to visit the sick and dying and see that they suffer for nothing. From the time he was wounded at the Battle of Lynchburg three miles from here, he was a patient sufferer.
The surgeon and nurse did all that could be done to save his foot. It was amputated and he bore it well. And the limb did well at first, but when the sloughing began, he gradually wasted away, till death relieved him of his sufferings and his spirit returned to Him who gave it.
But great is your consolation in the fact that he was ready and willing to depart and be with Christ.
We offered to write for you, but he said … you could not accomplish the trip alone. He asked me to write to you. I offered to write that moment. He said, “not until I’m gone.”
He had a minister with him of his church and was visited by the elders of his church when he was departing. They prayed with him and, my daughter, daily sang hymns for him.
He said all of his trust was in Jesus. He was not afraid to die but willing to go. He was a pattern of patience to the last breath. Our nurses, male and female, all loved him for his patient endurance of his suffering. No one who saw him doubted his readiness to go.
I can sympathize with you, for I, too, am a widow. I lost my husband just before the war and have lost two sons since. Both of them were in the service from the beginning of the war.
I mention it to show you that we all have to suffer afflictions and sorrow here below. But oh! Let us look to that happy home in heaven where we shall all meet our loved ones and never part again. Think of that blessed reunion, and there too we shall see the face of our savior, who has given himself for us.
Your dear husband’s faith was unshaken in Jesus. He never wavered nor doubted but talked about dying day after day like he was going on a journey. But none but those who feel it can tell anything about it.
A widow knows what a widow suffers. I trust that you have made the same blessed savior your almighty friend and therefore I would say to you look to Him as your comforter and chief support, and may He sustain and uphold you and comfort you.
In the prayers of a distant and sympathizing friend, Mrs. Lucy W. Otey.
I send a lock of his hair, enveloped. He was interred at the soldiers burying ground and the undertaker can always show you his grave.
Just like it was for many women of her day, the war was personal for Lucy Mina. She had seven sons in the service of the Confederacy: Kirkwood, Dexter, Van, Peter, Hayes, John and Gaston, and a son-in-law, John Stewart Walker.
Dexter, Van, and Gaston and John Walker never made it home.
As for Lucy Mina, the war took its toll on her, too. She died in 1866 at age 65. She was buried beside her husband in Lynchburg’s Spring Hill Cemetery. In a strange irony of history, her grave remained unmarked until 1995.
I’m joined by Greg Starbuck. He’s the executive director of the Historic Sandusky, which is now owned and operated by the University of Lynchburg. This historic home is a special spot in the city, having served as the union headquarters during the Battle of Lynchburg in 1864. Greg, welcome!
Thank you, thank you for having me.
Thank you for being here. So Greg, describe Lynchburg during the Civil War. What was it like to live here close to the front, close to frontlines, and yet far enough away not to really be deeply affected?
Sure, well let’s start a little bit before The Civil War. So, Lynchburg was a commerce center, it was a business center. In the 1850s, you have the Kanawha Canal, and you have three railroads that are built that come into Lynchburg. So, Lynchburg is a connecting point for commerce prior to the Civil War throughout the state of Virginia, even connecting North Carolina to Maryland to Tennessee. So when the war began, that functionality as a transportation, as a hub, served Lynchburg, served the confederacy very well, because now, Lynchburg became a supply communications center during the war and then ultimately became a hospital center. So as a commerce, as a business center, a transportation hub, and now part of the military complex, soldiers came through Lynchburg, they were mustered here, they organized here, they were sent back to Lynchburg for recuperation if they were wounded or sick. So, Lynchburg became even busier, it was a busy, probably a noisy place during the war, a lot of activity and of course, many of the people, many the young men in Lynchburg, went away to fight in the war, and that’s when the women assumed new roles in the city.
So Greg, what was the Ladies Relief Hospital?
Well, the Ladies Relief Hospital was a hospital started by women, by the, basically the women of Lynchburg, and they were led by a couple of women, most notably Lucy Otey. And you have to remember that the hospitals then were military hospitals, and they did not, the military authorities did not like women interfering and even stepping foot into their hospitals. And of course, the women wanted to contribute, wanted to alleviate suffering, wanted to help men and boys recuperate and get healthy. So, Lucy Otey apparently went to Richmond, lobbied with President Jefferson Davis to be allowed to set up her own hospital, and apparently, she was granted permission. She came back, set up a hospital in what used to be the Union Hotel, and that’s what became the Ladies Relief Hospital.
So, talk to us about the concept of a hospital? I think in the 21st Century we all have a clear idea of what a hospital is, but things were very different in the 19th Century. What would people have considered to be a hospital, what was a hospital in the 19th Century?
Well, that’s a great question. Ya know, prior to the Civil War, the idea of a hospital was fairly new or nonexistent, at least in a place like the City of Lynchburg. If you were sick in the 19th Century, before the Civil War, you would receive your medical care at home. Your family would nurse you and care for you, a doctor would make the rounds and come and check up on you. And you really did most of your convalescing at home. There wasn’t really wasn’t a hospital prior to the Civil War. Now all of a sudden, you have tens of thousands of wounded coming into Lynchburg, coming into Richmond, coming into different cities, and you literally have to find space to put these soldiers. And so, they began with Lynchburg College, the Warwick Hotel, and the Union Hotel and set them up as hospitals in the first year of the war. That was not enough and by the second year of the war, they added tobacco factories, and then, the numbers varied, but at least a couple of dozen warehouse buildings that were converted, commandeered, rented and used as hospitals throughout the City of Lynchburg. So, the idea of a hospital was fairly novel and it really speaks to the innovations the Civil War, or any war, brings to society, in this case, the medical profession. There were many advances, especially in the administration and management of medical care.
So, it sounds like what you are describing is that Lynchburg was a real hospital town. I mean, if you got several dozen buildings in what’s a relatively small place acting as hospitals, I would imagine if you are walking the streets of Lynchburg, it’s pretty clear to you this is a place for convalescing soldiers, a place for wounded soldiers to be healed. Is that your impression on what it was like in Lynchburg in the 1860s?
Well certainly. If you read some of the accounts, there were times that the number of wounded in the hospitals exceeded the population of Lynchburg. It was that much of a hospital town, and also keep in mind that a lot of the soldiers were convalescing and they would get permission to leave the hospital and walk around town to get some fresh air. So, if you were to go down to the Main Street, or anywhere in Downtown Lynchburg, you would probably see dozens and dozens of sick and wounded soldiers that were well enough to get out and get some fresh air, walking around town and interacting with the local population. So yes, this would have been very recognizable as a military center, and particularly, a hospital center.
And I know Peter Hawk’s research has shown that in fact, Lynchburg was the second largest, permanent hospital center in the Confederacy.
Right, behind Richmond. So yes, it was very large and that owes so much to two things. One is Lynchburg’s geographical position. In the state, you know, it’s in the mountains, it’s in a fairly secluded and protected area. Lynchburg never fell, it’s the only city, major city, in the state of Virginia that did not fall to Union forces during the war. It’s a very protected place. Also, those three railroads going in from the west, going east and going north out of Lynchburg was very useful to bring in wounded into the city. And then the second thing that made it very conducive was these warehouses. You know, Lynchburg was a built-up place, downtown was, in the 19th Century, and you read some of the accounts that people remark, well Lynchburg’s kinda dirty and there’s houses and buildings built on the edge of hills and that sort of thing, but they always remarked the industriousness of Lynchburg. So you have, you know, a nice compact area with a lot of indoor space, being these tobacco factories, which are essentially warehouses and they’re huge and they can house thousands of soldiers.
Greg, what is your impression of Mrs. Otey? What do you make of her? What is her significance in this story?
Well, Lucy Otey is a fascinating figure. You know, anytime there’s war, there’s tragedy, there’s pathos, there’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of inspiring stories, and she might contain all of those elements. Lucy Otey was the wife of John Otey. He died in 1860, right at the beginning of the war, or right before the war began. And so, she was a widow, but she was a mother. She had numerous of children. Five died in childbirth. She had eight more children survive into adulthood; seven boys, one daughter. All seven of the boys served in the Confederate army. So try to imagine if you sent, you know, your son away to war. It’s bad enough to send one son away, try to imagine sending seven sons away? So, I’m sure the stress on her was pretty immense. And so, maybe this maternal instinct, or this instinct to try to affect change or make an improvement or to get involved is what really drove her to lead this effort to start the Ladies Relief Hospital. She seems like she was a very caring and sympathetic person. There were a couple of cases documented where she literally held a soldier in her arms as he died, some soldier from some far-away place like Alabama or Louisiana.
Almost as a surrogate mother.
Basically, as a surrogate mother. So, you know, people look to the past for stories of inspiration and education and she, I think, is one of those stories. You try to look for what good came maybe out of the war, some good did, but there was a lot of tragedy and a lot of loss. She’s probably one of those stories of helping change the face of the hospital sphere, at least here in Lynchburg, but also helping care for so many soldiers. And it got to a point where her hospital and her ladies gave such good care that the surgeons were very open to the idea of sending the worst cases to her hospital because they knew they would get really good care and had a higher survivability rate.
So Greg, are there any misconceptions do you feel like that are out there about Lynchburg and the Civil War? Anything that you feel like we’re learning is not quite as accurate as we thought or something people don’t know about Lynchburg in the Civil War.
Well some of the things I find fascinating about Lynchburg, about the time of the Civil War, especially just prior, was finding out that John Wilkes Booth, you know he was a stage actor, and actually performed here in Lynchburg several times in 1850 and 1858 and 1859 in a thing that was then called Dudley Hall, which was located right where our City Hall is located. And also in Dudley Hall, just prior to the war, Edward Everett came and gave a speech, and of course was a northern politician, educator, clergyman. He was the man who gave the address before the Gettysburg Address, right up there in the cemetery, The Gettysburg Address being Lincoln’s most famous speech, probably. And he gave a speech in Dudley Hall just prior to the war, advocating for union, to keep the Union together, to keep the country of George Washington as one, and he was actually met with an enthusiastic reaction. So I find it fascinating that some of the notable people who have, that have come through Lynchburg and have left a small mark on it.
And it says a lot to me that in the 1860 presidential election, Lynchburg voted for the Unionist candidate John Bell, who I think his party was the Constitutional Union Party. You tend to think, well we fought for the Confederacy, we’re a southern state, we’re a southern town, so we must of been all in, like Charleston, South Carolina. But in fact, Lynchburg was a different place. We had different attitudes about it.
Well, exactly. What tempers Virginia’s attitude and secession is the fact that we’re right next to the north. It’s easy for South Carolina to bluster and rattle sabers, but Virginia’s got a little more of a moderate opinion because it is right next to what might be the enemy, and also it’s just not a deep, deep south state. It doesn’t have really the cotton plantations and the rice plantations the deep south has and so, Virginia was very moderate. And what seems to have been the tipping point was when Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 soldiers to enlist, to put down insurrection if you will, that was taking place in the south. And that was a saber-rattling that most southern politicians and states were ‘that’s it, we’re done and we’re out’ and that was basically what happened to Geroge C. Hutter who owns Sandusky. He was a Union officer in Charleston, called up volunteers to put down the south, and just three or four days later he resigned and came back to Virginia, and that was true of so many people back then.
Yea, things are not really cut and dry sometimes in history and it’s not always black or white. There’s a whole spectrum of shades of gray there.
There is, I mean when you first learn history, the simple version you do kinda have to put things in boxes and say, well you know, it was for the north or for the south, or you know, this or that was it black or was it white, but you do find that history is full of mitigating factors, full of gray areas, full of ‘what-ifs’ and that’s, I think, what makes history so fascinating. And you know, we don’t know everything we want to know. There’s more things to be discovered. There’s still more research to be done, there’s still more. I’m still surprised that some family papers will come out of the woodwork that will give us more and new information. And sometimes we need to go back and correct the old information, and you know, one of the greatest mysteries that I’m going to have some of our students look at really hard was this notion that Lucy Otey had a commission, an actual commission in the Confederate Army as a captain. And of course, that was true of Sally Tompkins of Richmond, and there’s many folklores also that Lucy Otey had a commission. And unfortunately all of her papers burned when her house caught on fire, and so all the papers and records of the Ladies Relief Hospital, anything dealing with Lucy went up in flames. But, there are a few places where we can maybe go look and maybe find more evidence hopefully, maybe not ever conclusively. And the whole idea of being a captain was basically to allow, for Sally Tompkins it allowed her more latitude in the hospitals, allowed her for instance to requisition medical supplies, and medicine without having to chase down a surgeon on horseback all through Richmond to get a signature. She could instead requisition those supplies herself. And I don’t see that being improbable with Lucy, you know, but we don’t know, and so we may never know, but that’s one of those great mysteries, but a lot of people still hang on to the idea that she was a captain. Once a good story gets started, sometimes it’s hard to stop it.
Well even if it turns out she never really was commissioned, she functioned as a commissioned captain to be able to run this hospital.
Well, I think one of her nicknames was ‘captain.’ They just called her captain, which you know has a military connotation, but also just as an authority figure like captain of a ship or just, you know, captain of a project or endeavor. Yea, she was an incredible person, I think.
Thank you for being here. I really appreciate your time and sharing your expertise.
It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me.
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