Did Dorothea Dix help save two Lincolns?
The evidence suggests that she did, at least indirectly.
Dix hailed from Hampden, where she was born to the destitute Joseph and Mary Dix on April 4, 1802. By the 1840s Dix championed the rights of the mentally ill and prisoners throughout the eastern United States.
She traveled extensively through the South, where she developed extensive social and political contacts among regional power brokers. Dix pressed her cause in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Pro-slavery Southerners instinctively trusted the Yankee woman who never advocated abolition; after Abraham Lincoln’s March 4, 1861, inauguration, she wrote, “I’m not a fan of his antislavery stance, but he seems like an intelligent, reasonable man.”
By then, Dorothea Dix had helped save Lincoln from attempted murder.
While traveling across the South in late 1860, Dix heard secessionists rage at Lincoln. His election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, catapulted several states from the Union. Ardent secessionists plotted to capture or kill Lincoln en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration.
One Saturday afternoon in January 1861, “Miss Dix, the Philanthropist, came into my office,” recalled Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad President Samuel Felton in 1868. “She had an important communication to make to me personally.”
Felton listened raptly as Dix spoke “for more than an hour.” Dix revealed “there was an extensive and organized conspiracy through the South to seize upon Washington … and then declare the Southern Confederacy de facto the Government of the United States.”
The conspirators intended to cut the railroads — including Felton’s — linking Washington with nearby Northern cities. This would bar Union troops from reaching Washington and could, if done as Lincoln traveled there in late February, prevent his inauguration and cause “his life … to fall [as] a sacrifice,” Felton wrote.
Additional details provided by Dix confirmed for Felton “what before I had heard in numerous and detached parcels.” He shared Dix’s intelligence with known Union loyalists in high places, then sent Allan Pinkerton and other detectives to determine the conspiracy’s strength. Pinkerton uncovered at least one Baltimore-based assassination plot.
Catching up with Lincoln in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 1860, Pinkerton detailed the plot; Union men quickly hustled Lincoln to safety. The would-be assassins missed their opportunity to murder him; his inauguration and widespread secessionist arrests in Maryland subsequently shattered their ranks.
After Fort Sumter fell in April, Dix volunteered to oversee women nurses then seeking Army employment. Lincoln named her superintendent of women nurses on June 10.
While not a nurse, the 59-year-old Dix worked diligently at recruiting women nurses to work in Army hospitals. Accepting no pay, she battled or charmed recalcitrant male doctors as circumstances dictated and adapted an “I’m in charge” attitude that would gain her many political enemies.
Dix occasionally interacted with Lincoln as battles and diseases filled Washington hospitals with wounded or sick soldiers by late 1861. “Many of our patients are dying of typhoid,” Army nurse Rebecca Pomeroy wrote from Columbia College Hospital on Oct. 12, 1861. “Their tongues are black and their breath is extremely offensive.”
Then, in February 1862, 11-year-old William “Willie” Lincoln and 8-year-old Thomas “Tad” Lincoln fell ill with typhoid fever. The White House drew its untreated domestic water from a Potomac River canal polluted by animal and human wastes; the boys likely sickened after drinking contaminated water.
Adored by his parents, Willie visibly failed. Dix wrote the Lincolns on Wednesday, Feb. 19, and asked if she could send a nurse to care for the boys.
Abraham Lincoln demurred. Writing from the “Executive Mansion” later the same day, he extended “the President’s & Mrs. L’s thanks to Miss Dix for her kind inquiry by note of this morning — They do not, just now, need the nurse, will preserve Miss Dix note, and call on her if occasion hereafter shall require.”
Although Lincoln’s decline denied Willie an experienced nurse’s care, the boy likely would have died anyway, as he did at 5 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20. Disconsolate, the Lincolns mourned Willie and hovered around Tad, then immersed in a high fever and buffeted by severe pain.
On Saturday, Feb, 22, Dix wrote that “I’ve just learned that” Willie Lincoln “had died of a fever. My heart bleeds for both the child and his father — will he be able to truly grieve, I wonder, with this war demanding his complete emotional commitment?”
When Dix paid her respects at the White House later that day, Abraham Lincoln asked her to send a nurse to care for Tad. She recommended Pomeroy; “will you get her for me?” the grieving Lincoln asked.
Traveling to the hospital, Dix ordered Pomeroy to report to Tad Lincoln’s bedside. Dix crushed a protest lodged by Pomeroy’s boss, an Army doctor. When Pomeroy pleaded to stay “with my boys,” Dix quietly replied, “Dear child, you don’t know what the Lord has in store for you. Others can look after your boys, but I have chosen you out of two hundred and fifty nurses to make yourself useful to the head of the nation. What a privilege is yours!”
Obeying orders, Pomeroy went with Dix to the White House. “I am heartily glad to see you,” Lincoln told Pomeroy.
During the following weeks she remained at Tad’s bedside. Feverish, the boy cried aloud for his dead brother. His father often talked with Pomeroy, herself a widow who had buried two of her three children. As Tad’s health improved by early March, Pomeroy helped care for the despondent Mary Lincoln.
With Tad recovering, Pomeroy returned to her Army duties later in March.
Dorothea Dix would fight the Army’s medical hierarchy until October 1863, when the War Department issued Order No. 351 to effectively sideline her. While still the Army nurse superintendent, she lost her supervisory duties to the Army doctors who felt threatened by a smart, hardworking woman.
And work she would. Dix helped care for many patients, often sitting at bedside and chatting with them; after holding a dying soldier’s hand, she wrote that “this war in my country is breaking my heart.”
The war wore her out; 63 years old when Ulysses S. Grant swept up Robert E. Lee’s haggard veterans at Appomattox Courthouse, Dix supervised Washington-area nurses until tending her resignation in August 1865. She resumed lobbying for society’s psychiatric misfits until her death on July 17, 1887. She lies buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Auburn, Mass.
Hampden remembers Dix with a wooded park and a stone arch alongside Main Road South. Her name also lives on in Bangor’s Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.