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The last Civil War nurse

Ten-year-old Susan Haines lifted a ladle of water to the lips of a dying soldier. Even on tiptoes she barely reached the upper bunk.

Just a few months before, she and that soldier were classmates in a one-room schoolhouse near Bethlehem, Indiana. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the teenage soldier who had enlisted for 100 days was wounded while serving with Grant along the Mississippi River.

Not yet a teenager, Susan was already a nurse at Camp Carrington military hospital in Indianapolis. Her “Uncle Ben,” a close family friend, had heard that Susan was begging her mother to let her help the wounded soldiers returning from battle, and Ben agreed to help.

He personally took her to Camp Carrington, explaining that this 10-year-old had learned nursing from her mother, and he insisted she be allowed to work as a camp nurse. Ben usually got his way. Who could refuse future Union Army General and President of the United States Benjamin Harrison?

Born the eldest of three children in 1851, even before she was 8 years old Susan’s family was on the move. Before returning to Indiana after the war broke out, they had lived in three different towns in Iowa and one in Missouri.

In Missouri, she saw slavery for the first time. In an interview, nearly 90 years later, she still remembered it through a child’s angry eyes.

“We had a neighbor who owned a young slave boy named Pete,” she said. “One day the neighbor man came for a visit, bringing his dogs, and the little slave. He left Pete outside in the cold and brought the dogs in.”

Tiny as she was, Susan fearlessly scolded the neighbor and told him either the dogs went outside, or the slave came in. “Pete came in!” Susan boasted.

After the war, the reunited family moved to Kansas, where Susan fell in love. In September 1869, at age 18, Susan married 27-year-old Tom Clayton, a veteran of the 101st Indiana Infantry. Tom farmed, and Susan opened a millinery and clothing store. “I had just about the only sewing machine in the state,” she said.

Susan would often reminisce about the things she had seen in those early years. She had been in Indianapolis to see President Lincoln’s body on its way to Illinois after his assassination. While living on the Kansas prairie, she and Tom had met and invited a chief of the Arapahoes and his wife to supper and an evening of conversation.

Susan organized the first Woman’s Relief Corps (W.R.C.) in Kansas, a national organization associated with the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic), both organizations preserving the memory of the men and women who sacrificed during the Civil War.

After a brief stay in Montana, where she also helped form another W.R.C. group, the Claytons moved to Portland in 1905.

Their final move to the family ranch in Talent came in 1921. Five years later Tom died, and Susan carried on with help from her son and daughter.

Susan joined the local W.R.C. and continued to dedicate her life to the health and protection of veterans, making frequent visits to the Soldier’s Home in Roseburg.

She died March 7, 1948, at age 96, at the Parkview Convalescent Home in Ashland, where she had spent the last two years of her life. Although celebrated in headlines as the “Last Civil War Nurse,” two other nurses outlived her. However, she was Oregon’s last Civil War nurse, and only two Oregon Civil War veterans outlived her, both men.

Susan’s granddaughter remembered her as a slender, graceful and beautifully dressed, brown-haired woman. “She was always happy and dearly loved picnics,” she said, “but most of all, she really loved helping people.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.