Nellie Chase – Nightingale of Fredericksburg

The battle of Fredericksburg abounds with stories of civilians within the town who became refugees of war. Jane Howison Beale ranks among the top women accounts that include the prelude and aftermath of that devastating battle. Other notable women of the battle include Clara Barton who nursed soldiers at Chatham Manor. Another nurse, little known and shrouded in scandalous and speculative rumors, was also present at Fredericksburg.

A rare photograph of Nellie Chase

Nellie M. Chase was born Ellen Merrill Chase on March 1, 1838 in New Hampshire to Jacob E. Chase and Jane Steele Merrill, and was a distant cousin of US Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Little can be substantiated as fact about her early years. One author, Carolyn Schriber, wrote a historical novel centered around Nellie’s life and depicts her as a teenage runaway who eloped with a man of questionable standing. According to the rumors, after four years of marriage, Nellie drew a line when her husband asked her to become the Madame for a new brothel he planned to open.

Unwilling to further tarnish her reputation, she escaped into the army at the start of the Civil War. She became a nurse and matron for the 12th Pennsylvania for three months before transferring to the 100th Pennsylvania, also called the “Roundhead Regiment.” Working alongside Colonel Daniel Leasure, she traveled to Port Royal, South Carolina during Burnside’s 1861 coastal campaign, where she dived right into the duties of a regimental nurse, tending to wounds and assisting the doctors as she was allowed.[1]

San Francisco publication “The Golden Age”, dated March 1862

Word of her past caught up with her and many questioned her ability to properly serve the regiment and if she was even suitable to be around vulnerable, impressionable men far from their homes and wives/sweethearts. Chase, however, proved her worth on countless occasions, including when Colonel Leasure fell ill along with one of her most outspoken naysayers, Reverend Browne. She nursed them, regardless of their prejudice towards her, risking her own health in the process.

Even after the war, her unseemly reputation as the wife of a criminal haunted her memory. Frank Moore, the author of Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice, included a segment about Chase. During the process of gathering research for his book, an anonymous soldier cautioned Moore to do a little more digging into Miss Chase’s past before putting her on a pedestal alongside other notable women such as Cornelia Hancock, Fannie Ricketts, and Clara Barton. This, along with Moore’s own findings about Chase, tainted her memory in the eyes of the author, an example of how attitudes toward Victorian womanhood colored the interpretations of the lives of women during and after the war.[2]

The soldiers she tended to often knew nothing of her past and didn’t seem to care. What she did in the present to assist in their suffering mattered more to them. She dressed their wounds, fed them, gave them water, distributed medicines and other much needed medical supplies, etc. She argued for the life of soldiers considered “lost causes” like the “One-Armed” soldier whom Chase personally attended. His story, written and published in a magazine after the war, won Chase even further renown for her capable skills as a nurse and caregiver.

Below is the account from the One-Armed soldier at Fredericksburg who stormed the deadly open ground at Maryes Heights on December 13, 1862.

’Steady, men — forward!’ rang out the voice of our commander; and disentangling from the retreating fugitives, we steadily bore on till we neared the batteries, and with a cheer sprang forward. That instant a line of fire leaped from behind a stone wall close in our front, and – I don’t remember anything more about it. My next recollections were of a confused and contradictory character; one instant I was fully conscious; the moment following, utterly lost.

Then I would imagine I was at home and half asleep, while all the house was astir with some past or anticipated catastrophe with which I was in some way connected. Then all was dark and a great load seemed to press me down and glue me to the ground in spite of all my efforts to rise. Then I heard voices, all strange and heartless but one; this had chords of human sympathy in it. I could feel something force open my jaws, and a fluid trickle into my throat, which I managed to swallow to prevent strangling; still it trickled down, and still I painfully swallowed, hoping praying that it would stop; but it did not, until I recognized that it was some powerful stimulant that I was taking, and that I was becoming more able to swallow it. All this time I could hear the kind voice encouraging me; also some cold unsympathizing voices. I could not distinguish what they said; only by the tone could I tell the sympathetic from the unsympathetic. At last I heard the words in part of one who said, “It’s no use working over him; he’s dying now.” Quietly, but O, so earnestly and tenderly, the kind voice replied, “No, doctor, he’s not dying; he’s coming to life; he will live if we don’t give him up. This wound on his head won’t amount to anything if we can get him warmed up. Don’t you see that he’s been nearly frozen to death while faint from loss of blood? But he’s coming on finely, and by and by you can take off his arm, and the man may get well. Who knows but he has a mother or a sister to love him, and thank you or me some day for a son or brother saved?”

Possible picture of Nellie Chase at Hospital #3 in Nashville (far left)

Yes, I was saved; I understood it all now; I remembered the battle, and that my present condition was in some way the result of it; and for the sake of that dear mother and sister so strangely invoked, I made an effort to unclasp my eyelids, and opened my eyes once more to the light of the sun. At first the glare confused me, but soon I could distinguish three surgeons beside me, watching my symptoms with curiosity, if not with interest. On the other side of me, as I lay on the ground under a large hospital tent, there was kneeling a woman; her left hand was under my head; in her right she was holding a spoon, with which, at short intervals, she dipped some warm fluid from a cup held by a boy soldier, her attendant. I tried to speak, but could not; she merely shook her head, to discourage my efforts, and turning to the lad, said, “Now, Johnny, the beef soup.” In a moment the soup was substituted for the toddy, and I gradually felt life, and the love of life, coming back to me. Looking around, I saw near me a basin of water, with a sponge, and the lady’s hands covered with blood. I inferred, what I afterwards learned to be the case, that she had been washing the clotted gore from my hair and face and had discovered that what looked like a fatal wound on the head was merely a scalp cut, which had bled profusely, and looked hopeless, but was not so in reality.

Gradually, I recovered sufficient strength to undergo the amputation of my shattered right arm, and then recovered entirely. I had been struck both on the head and army at the same time, and lay senseless on the field till late in the night, when the stretcher-carriers found me, and bore me to the city, where I was thrown into an ambulance and taken across the river. After waiting my turn with hundreds of others, I thank God that, when that turn came, I fell into good hands—the blessed hands of a kind-hearted woman! Even here, amid the roar and carnage, was found a woman with the soul to dare danger; the heart sympathize with battle-stricken; sense, skill, and experience, to make her a treasure beyond all price. The choicest blessings of Heaven be hers in all time to come! Since my recovery I have observed her in her ministrations, and I see she is gifted in a wonderful degree for scenes like these. She has been in the army ever since the war broke out, and ever at the front. Rear hospitals are no place for this noble girl. Though not twenty-four when I saw her on that memorable day, I do not believe, as an army nurse, she has the equal any where. The surgeon of the Seventy-ninth New York (author’s note: Highlanders), stationed in the hospital from which this is written, has placed her in charge of our supplies and stores, and most efficiently does she deal them out.

“Roundheads” at Beaufort, S.C., January 1862. Left to Right: Chaplain R. A. Browne, J.H. Stevenson, “Bob”, the regimental cook, Col. Daniel Leasure, and surgeon Horace Ludington. Sitting in front is Mrs. Nellie (Chase) Leath, the unit nurse. Photocopy courtesy of Joseph Leasure, lateral descendant of Col. Leasure, from original USAMHI photo, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

Many a poor wounded soldier would lack his timely stimulant, or food proper for his condition, if she did not pass through the tents at all hours of the day and night; for they say she seldom sleeps. For many months she was connected with the One Hundredth Pennsylvania, known as the Roundhead Regiment, and went with it to South Carolina. At the time of Benham’s defeat on James Island, Dr. McDonald, who was there, says she performed incredible labors, as she does here. Among the many developments of character produced by this war, I have seen none that I consider more admirable than Miss Nelly M. Chase. She has never been a paid nurse, but considers herself a member of the regiment, and works for others only when she cannot accompany it. For all the labors, privations, and hardships of her campaigning life, her only reward, is the consciousness of being so largely useful, and the unbounded admiration and gratitude of the private soldiers, who almost worship her.[3]

In 1863, Chase left the eastern theatre and went to Tennessee. She became matron of Union Hospital Number 3 in Nashville that spring. It was there that she met her second husband, Lieutenant George W. Ernest of the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company B, later promoted to Captain of the 13th US Colored Infantry, mustered out of Nashville.

Philadelphia Press, dated August 19, 1863

A change of location didn’t change Nellie’s devotion to the cause of nursing and she received all the more acclaim for her services. More soldiers wrote into their newspapers to praise Nellie’s compassion and hard work, equating her to Florence Nightingale, the famed nurse from the Crimean War.

On June 8, 1864, Nellie and George W. Ernest were married in Davidson, Tennessee. Life would take her and her husband to Paris, Tennessee where they worked at the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) hotel in 1878. Unfortunately, this year would be the last for both of them.

Yellow Fever broke out in Memphis and the epidemic swept through the town with such violent force that many evacuated. As they evacuated, they spread the disease to other parts of Tennessee, including Paris. George and Nellie Ernest converted the hotel into a hospital to care for the local railroad employees. It was because of their desire to help those who fell ill, that Nellie began to show symptoms of the very disease she fought to contain. She was moved to the Yellow Fever hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, but died September 20th, 1878. George, who had dutifully followed her to Louisville, contracted the disease himself the day after she passed. Within two days, he joined her in death.[4]

Nellie and George were buried together in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. Their joint gravestone mentions nothing of her service as a nurse during the Civil War, but her legacy remains in the archives and as mentions in books alongside other women who demonstrated their devotion to their country.




[2] Frank Moore, Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-sacrifice, (United States: S. S. Scranton & Company, 1866), p. 536

[3] Moore, pp. 536-540 (transcription available:


3 Responses to Nellie Chase – Nightingale of Fredericksburg

  1. Best ever, that I have read about a soldier trying to live with near deadly wounds, and the help he received. Very good read.

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