Rushford founders’ Civil War connections

George Stevens
By : 
Laura Deering and Donna Hansen
Tri-County Record

(Part one focused on the early lives of Rushford founder George Stevens and his second wife Harriet (Rees Colfax) Stevens, roughly the timeframe of 1830 - 1854. It can be found in the May 24 edition of the Tri-County Record. Part two focused on the Stevens’ involvement with the Underground Railroad and can be found in the May 31 edition.)

Most of us have heard of Clara Barton, a nurse in the Civil War.  Clara captures an entire chapter in the book Women’s Work in the Civil War (L.P. Brockett, 1867). Rushford also had a woman worthy of her own chapter in the book - Harriet (Rees Colfax) Stevens. Harriet was the second wife of Rushford town founder George Stevens.

Harriet Stevens Civil War service

Thankfully, Harriet’s Civil War activities were published in 1867 and much is known about her service. Below is the introduction to Harriet’s chapter:

“– a widow and fatherless – her first labors in the hospitals in St. Louis – her sympathies never blunted” begins her chapter.  It goes on to share, “Her mother and friends disapproved of her going, and said all they could in opposition. She listened and delayed, but finally felt she must yield to the impulse. The opposition was withdrawn…and the last of October, 1861, she arrived alone in St. Louis, MO.”  I should think many of us have faced such challenges in life, and can feel her desolation yet determination.

Harriet was very brave to travel alone from her home town of Michigan City, Ind.  She arrived at 10 p.m. This may have been her first trip away from familiar surroundings, and now she entered a war zone.  She immediately started work in a crowded ward, treating wounded soldiers from Fort Donelson.  

The book She Went to War: Indiana Women Nurses in the Civil War (Peggy Seigel, 1972) details the heroics of Harriet and one other nurse, who shared responsibilities for caring for up to 300 soldiers at a time following the Battle of For Donelson. “They were dangerously ill with pneumonia and died very soon. Here lay those with the worst wounds and amputations.”

By spring, it is documented that Harriet found herself “much worn by severe work and frequent colds, and changed to a position with the Sanitary Commission.” Unexpectedly, they found themselves in the battle of Island No.10, considered the most inaccessible major battlefield of the Civil War.  Island No. 10 was an island on the Mississippi river and fortified by the Confederates to maintain control.  Even Union ironclad boats were prey, and the area was known as a kill zone.   

Adeptly captured in Brockett’s chapter on Harriet, “this was beyond the power of imagination to conceive, and the nurses were too busy in their cares to sleep or eat.”  The firing was described as “incessant and protracted.”  

After ten days of battle the wounded were loaded on an Army boat, the Louisiana.  Harriet made several boat trips with desperately wounded men, sometimes up to 275. The scene of wounded and sick men stacked on the decks must have been overwhelming, yet it is written of Harriet “and her friends were very busy in the care of the poor men, giving unceasing attention and even then feeling that they had not done half enough.”  

Immediately they encounter another battle, the famous conflict of Shiloh. Here is where the country witnessed the first battle of “modern warfare.” Cannons had more accuracy and the mini-ball was a more effective and deadly bullet. But the nation was not proud of the results – they were horrified. In the 2017 bestseller book Grant (Ron Chernow), described the new benchmark of carnage that stunned everyone.  At the battleground “for miles and miles wherever we rode we found dead bodies scattered in the woods in all directions.” General Grant documented the scene “I saw an open field…so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”

Harriet served two-and-half years as a nurse, including “that terrible struggle at Vicksburg, never spared herself,” (The Churchman, Vol. 106). It would be remiss to leave out her spiritual support to the dying.  Brockett notes, “For some time when men were dying all around with typhus fever and wounds… Mrs. Colfax and other ladies would often at their request offer up prayers.” 

Shortly after the war, Dr. Paddock wrote a letter from St. Louis, stating, “I know of none more deserving of honorable mention and memory, than Mrs. Harriet R. Colfax…sympathizing nurse and friend of the sick and wounded solider.” Dr. Paddock goes on to write, “No female nurse was more universally beloved and respected than was Mrs. Colfax.”

In 1864, Harriet returned home to Michigan City, where she was “honored, beloved and respected, as her character and services demand.” 

George Stevens Civil War service

Like Harriet, George also joined the Union forces in the fall of 1861. Unlike Harriet, George had a family and had accumulated wealth. Given his age, (43) George was not required to serve.  He moved his family out of Rushford to Winona, Minn., perhaps out of protection for what a larger city may offer. 

George next traveled to his previous residence in St. Charles, Ill., where he served as Quartermaster of the freshly minted volunteer unit of the 8th Illinois Calvary, only a month old.  George reported directly to General Farnsworth.

His role is of much significance to the success and contentment of the regiment. Quartermasters carried heavy responsibility, primarily the ability of the unit to be on the move. Such as camp furnishings and gathering of food while mobile, all means of transportation and regular supplies for the army. Quartermasters also needed to be trustworthy, as they handled the finances and payments, including payroll.  

It is interesting that George made the journey to St. Charles to join the fight.

Understanding the community’s past of proud abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities, however, it seems to reflect George’s values best. Matter of fact, Lincoln nicknamed them "Farnsworth's Abolitionist Regiment." 

While George served about five months and resigned in January 1862, his regiment became very famous. They later fought at Gettysburg. And when Lincoln was assassinated, it is this group that protected his body in the Capitol Rotunda. They are the pride of Illinois and solemnly escorted Lincoln’s body back to their home state for burial.