Individual Stories

Margaret Elizabeth Breckinridge (1832-1864)

Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and nurse for the Union army, Margaret Breckinridge was born in Philadelphia on March 24, 1832 to an influential Presbyterian family. Her father was Presbyterian minister Rev. John Breckinridge, and her mother, Sunday school teacher Margaret M. Breckinridge, was the daughter of Princeton Theological Seminary professor, Rev. Samuel Miller.

Before beginning work as a volunteer hospital nurse, Margaret worked at home packing supplies for soldiers and writing letters and articles, such as "A Word about the War" for the Princeton Standard, in an effort to bring to light the pressing needs of soldiers and call upon what she saw as the duty of women in war time.

"…Talk as you may of the horrors of this civil conflict that is about to burst upon us, yet when you think of the holy cause for which we fight, when you remember how a nation of loyal hearts, roused from their trusting security, greeted that cause with a whirlwind of loving recognition that shook the land, when you consider who those are that go forth to fight for it, is there not a fitness, a grandeur in it, such as war has never yet known?…"

--Memorial of Margaret E. Breckinridge, p. 39.

Against the wishes of family and friends, she entered hospital service in 1862. Soon after beginning work in Baltimore, Margaret travelled to Lexington, arriving just before the invasion of General Kirby Smith's army. A few weeks after the Confederate army lost possession of the town, Margaret ventured on to St. Louis, where she worked in the hospitals of Jefferson Barracks. After spending two days in the Barracks, she wrote:

"…I shall never be satisfied till I get right into a hospital, to live till the war is over. If you are constantly with the men, you have hundreds of opportunities and moments of influence in which you can gain their attention and their hearts, and do more good than in any missionary field…"

--Memorial of Margaret E. Breckinridge, p. 50.

From St. Louis she completed two trips on hospital barges, transporting sick and wounded soldiers up and down the Mississippi River, before falling ill. Struggling for a year through sickness and exhaustion,Margaret always intended to return to her post on the hospital boats. However, upon hearing that her brother-in-law, Colonel Peter A. Porter, had been killed in battle, she rushed to comfort her family, embarking on a trip which proved too strenuous. She died shortly after arriving in Niagara Falls on July 27, 1864.