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Honoring Iowa's Nurses, Veterans + Women During National Nurses Week

National Nurses Week 2022

April 13, 2022

Whenever one studies history, and in particular military history, it seems that volunteers appear in large numbers at the start of conflicts. That was also the case for young men at the start of the Civil War. While there were some groups though that were not initially allowed to volunteer, or at the least were strongly discouraged, these groups persisted and went on to make huge contributions and, in some cases, are still vastly underrepresented in the telling of history.

One of those groups were the women who served as Civil War nurses. Nearly as soon as volunteer soldiers marched off in record numbers, news of their casualties from both combat and disease would reach their families back home. This led many of the sisters, friends, mothers and wives at the time to embark on a mission to reduce human suffering however and wherever they could. Many of these brave souls made the nearly unheard-of choice to go to the site of the suffering and serve as nurses, during a time when nursing lacked a certain level of respect, status and professionalism. Many of these noblewomen were not only discouraged but attempts were made to bar them from their mission.

Iowa Civil War Nurses

Across Iowa, you can find the burial sites for Civil War nurses, including:

  • Emily Flint Alder – Evergreen Cemetery in Clarion, Iowa
  • Rebecca Adel Lanning Alexander – Oak Shade Cemetery in Marion, Iowa
  • Dr. Esther Eliza Poore Allen – Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Phebe H. Allen – Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, Iowa
  • Sarah Birdsell Beach – Allerton Cemetery in Allerton, Iowa
  • Diana A. Belden – Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, Iowa
  • Arabella Letitia “Belle” Graham Coddington – Forest Home Cemetery in Mount Pleasant, Iowa
  • Isabelle McCall Compton – Glendale Cemetery in Le Claire, Iowa
  • Mary A. Douglas – Oxford Cemetery in Chariton, Iowa
  • Kate M Thompson Duncan – Evergreen Cemetery in Emmetsburg, Iowa
  • Elizabeth Fairfax – Springdale Cemetery in Clinton, Iowa
  • Eliza Aldrich Fields – Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Council Bluffs, Iowa
  • Virginia C. Fleenor – Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Carrie Emma Witmer Giddings – Fairfax Cemetery in Fairfax, Iowa
  • Catharine Githens – Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Sarah Haines – Iowa Veterans Home Cemetery in Marshalltown, Iowa
  • Mary Olivia Webber Hall – Palo Cemetery in Palo, Iowa
  • Ann Eliza Peck Harlan – Forest Home Cemetery in Mount Pleasant, Iowa
  • Nancy A. Lancaster – Fairview Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa
  • Rosina “Rosa” Zindle Hesse – Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk, Iowa
  • Dr. Nancy Maria Hill – Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque, Iowa
  • Mary E. Shelton Huston – Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington, Iowa
  • Rebecca Jane Wroe Juhnes – West Union Cemetery in West Union, Iowa
  • Georgeanna “Georgia” Wade McClellan – Oakland Cemetery in Denison, Iowa
  • Rosanna Rush Merrill – Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa
  • Harriet Frances Barnes Miller – Elmwood Saint Joseph Cemetery in Mason City, Iowa
  • Rebecca Dow Otis – Oakland Cemetery in Manchester, Iowa
  • Phoebe A. Summers Reddish – IOOF Cemetery in Indianola, Iowa
  • Emma A. French Sackett – Winterset Cemetery in Winterset, Iowa
  • Salome Rebecca Shepherdson – Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Iowa
  • Eunice Hitchkock Stebbins – Osage Cemetery in Osage, Iowa
  • Sophia Elizabeth Battice Stephensen – Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery in Union Township, Iowa
  • Rhoda Amanda Shelton Stewart – Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington, Iowa
  • Emily Joy Whitaker – Burge Cemetery in New London, Iowa
  • Cecilia Street White – Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington, Iowa
  • Annie Wittenmyer* – Edgewood Cemetery in Pottstown, Pa.
  • Mehitable E. "Auntie” Owen Woods – Old Fairfield Cemetery in Fairfield, Iowa

*Annie Wittenmyer helped create several Iowa orphanages, including the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home, which was later renamed the Annie Wittenmyer Home.She lived in Keokuk, Iowa for many years.

Emily Adler


Esther Allen


Alice Cheek


Kate Duncan

Mary Douglas


Elizabeth Fairfax


Ann Harlan


Emma French Sackett



When my fellow volunteers and I saw a 1905 newspaper article that spoke of “49 Civil War nurses receiving pensions out of the Des Moines Regional office,” we wondered who they were and how could we help honor their memory. The marking of the grave of Rosanna Rush Merrill 99 years after her death is just the beginning, a step toward paying tribute to the sacrifices of Iowa nurses, and your participation is greatly appreciated.

National Nurses Week Ceremony

On Saturday, May 7, 2022, in honor of National Nurses Week, a ceremony will be held at 12:30 p.m. in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, along with the Iowa Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and volunteers, will invite healthcare professionals and the public to join them as they honor Rosanna Rush Merrill. Find more information here.

Nurses in the Civil War

At this time in our history when the need for quality health care providers is recognized as vital. It would seem counterproductive to discourage those with ability to stay out of the field, yet 160 years ago during the Civil War, it was the reality for thousands of women in the nursing field.

A conservative estimate is that 6,000 women served in hospitals, makeshift MASH-like units and even battlefields during that bloody conflict of 1861-1865, a time when casualties in a single day could number in the thousands.

For the past year, volunteers Tim Rowley of NCMIC Insurance, Bob Niffenegger, a retired Des Moines firefighter, Kristine Bartley, storyteller and videographer, and myself have been researching Civil War nurses in Iowa.

When Kathy Bower, the current national secretary of the National Woman's Relief Corps, was contacted she responded, “that finding all the names of all the nurses will be a task that honestly may never be completed.”

In the late 1800s, Clara Barton herself stated, “That we may never know the number."

Not all the nurses were acknowledged even while they served, and some worked in such horrible conditions they did not live very long. Some received a small stipend and meager quarters while serving. None received pensions till after the successful passage of the Nurses' Pension Act of 1892. That means that any of the women who served and passed away prior to the passage of that Act are not well-documented.

Iowan Annie Wittenmyer, one of the Past National Presidents of the Women’s Relief Corp, is credited with being the reason that the Nurse's Pension act of 1892 got passed. A tall woman, with a remarkable demeanor, she showed up at Congress and went to every legislator with stories of the difficulties of the nurses left with no pension or assistance. At one point it is said she nearly camped out in front of some offices, refusing to take no for an answer.

After seeing an article in a 1905 edition of the Leon (Iowa) Reporter that stated the Des Moines pension agency was then paying out pensions to Civil War nurses, volunteers sought to find the Iowa burial spots of as many Civil War nurses as possible. Today, 37 Civil War nurses who are buried in Iowa cemeteries have been found.

About Rosanna Rush

Rosanna Rush was born in New Jersey in 1843. Her parents died before she was 18, and before her 20th birthday, she would begin serving as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C. She married Lt. Henry Merrill of 15th NJ Infantry in 1863 and welcomed her fifth child in Iowa in 1877. According to census records, Rosanna Rush Merrill was in Iowa at least until at least 1895. After living with her son for several years in South Dakota, she moved back to Iowa to live with her daughter until her death in 1923.

Rosanna was said to be a direct descendant of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The unmarked grave of Rosanna Rush Merrill in Woodland Cemetery will have a granite stone provided by the Veterans Administration. Today she is remembered and, hopefully, with continued research and documentation by Iowa volunteers, many of her peers will also be remembered for their great sacrifices.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership calendar of events is a one-stop resource for activities taking place throughout the region. Find networking information for Greater Des Moines (DSM) businesses or events specific to Downtown DSM.

Mike Rowley

Mike Rowley age 64, is a spouse, father, grandfather, retired pharmaceutical representative and native Iowan who enjoys researching history, genealogy and finding unknown or little recognized "heroes." Along with other volunteers, Rowley has helped place over 200 gravestones on these "forgotten" folks.