Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson (1836-1896)
MSA SC 3520-13597
As the first Confederate woman elected into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson’s story is unique, but the compassion she showed to those in need is very familiar to other inductees. Willson continuously sacrificed her time, possessions, and safety to aid soldiers who suffered during the Civil War. Whether a wounded Union soldier or a Confederate veteran in poverty, Willson worked to better their situation. She dedicated her life to aiding those affected by the war.
Willson was born on June 5, 1836 at “Boston,” in Maryland.1 “Boston” was the Goldsborough’s farm on Dividing Creek in Talbot County. It was named after the sloop, "Boston,” a ship that an ancestor of the Goldsborough’s sailed on from New England to Kent Island and subsequently traded for the small plantation.2 Euphemia, called Pheme by her friends and family, was the third eldest of Martin and Ann Hayward Goldsborough’s eight children.3 As a child, Pheme was described as bright, adventuresome, and creative, which led her to attendance at a girls' boarding school in Tallahassee, Florida for some time in the 1850s.4, 5 By 1860, Pheme joined her family at their new home on 49 Courtland Street in Baltimore, Maryland.6
Leading up to the Civil War, Marylanders held mixed opinions on secession and the Confederacy. Maryland’s population contained less than thirteen percent slaves and had an almost equal number of free blacks. Most Marylanders supported letting slavery die a slow, natural death instead of abrupt abolishment.7 After living under the corrupt political reign of the “know nothings” in the 1850s, Marylanders were suspicious of any aggressive actions taken by the government. When Northern abolitionists began acting out violently with incidents like John Brown’s Raid or the Nat Turner Rebellion, many Marylanders became sympathetic towards the Southern cause. Although Pheme and her family did not own slaves, and Pheme’s records show no clear position on slavery, the Goldsboroughs sided with the South.
Discontent with the “uncalled for war against their brethren,” rioting broke out when Union troops marched through Maryland at the beginning of the war and four soldiers and twelve civilians died as a result of the violence.8 As tensions continued to rise between Union and Confederate supporters, 20,000 Maryland men traveled south and enlisted in the Confederate army. These numbers included many of Pheme’s friends, but Pheme’s father and brother stayed in Maryland.9 The Goldsborough family decided to risk their safety for the Confederacy in another way. Their home became a refuge for Confederate soldiers sneaking up North and it served as a stop for “blockade runners” to pick up and drop off illegal goods like mail and supplies to be sent past the Union line.10 When word came out over the need for medical help at the battle of Antietam, Pheme and a group of Baltimore women left home for Frederick, Maryland to nurse the wounded Confederate soldiers there.11
A lack of modern medical techniques and sterility made nursing a very gruesome occupation in the nineteenth century. Adding to the challenge for Pheme, all medical positions, including nursing, were considered male occupations. Women who chose to become nurses were judged by society and risked infection, injury from battle, exhaustion, and sexual harassment.12 But once on the field, the great need for medical care with many painfully injured and dying soldiers in makeshift hospitals, erased thoughts of social challenges for the female nurses.
Although young and inexperienced at the age of 26, Pheme quickly made an impact on the Confederate wounded in Frederick. After the battle was over, she went to Point Look out, a prison for captured Confederates, and cared for the soldiers there.13 The experience she gained from treating those in Frederick would prove very useful as the war continued. Less than a year after Antietam, news traveled to Pheme about a very bloody battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In Gettysburg, General Lee, commander of Confederate soldiers, was forced to flee the area, leaving 5,500 wounded behind with under manned, under supplied, medical support. Union troops, with almost 15,000 wounded of its own to care for, had inadequate means to care for the 2,000 Confederate prisoners and 5,500 confederates wounded at the scene. To make matters worse, General Meade, commander of Union forces at Gettysburg, left the area to pursue retreating Confederate forces, taking substantial medical supplies and personnel with him. This left the Union soldiers with only 106 surgeons and 30 ambulances.14
Pheme traveled to Gettysburg and was assigned to care for wounded soldiers at a makeshift hospital in Pennsylvania College, now named Gettysburg College. Tasks assigned to Pheme and other nurses included preparing food and dressings, administering to the wounded and reading the burial service over those who passed away.15 There was a serious lack of clothing for the wounded Confederates, whose uniforms were contaminated with blood and dirt. To make matters worse, the federal government banned the confederate soldiers from having shoes or boots. Pheme decided to go beyond the call of duty by smuggling clothing, even giving away clothing that she did not deem necessary for herself, to the Confederates.16 The most memorable smuggling incident for Pheme involved concealing boots under her large hoop skirt. After creatively hanging the boots by their shoelaces under her skirt, Pheme traveled back to the “hospital” at Pennsylvania College. To Pheme’s dismay, a Yankee officer politely insisted on helping her into the ambulance she was traveling in. She was certain that the boots under her skirt would bump against the side of the ambulance and reveal her scheme. Fortunately, she got in and out of the ambulance with boots in tact and the Union officer oblivious of their existence.17
Most undertakings by Pheme were not as humorous as the boot incident. The treatment of Colonel Waller Tazewell Patton, the great-uncle of the famous World War II General George S. Patton III, displayed Pheme’s selfless heroism. Colonel Patton was shot through the lungs and unconscious.18 The placement of his wound was such that Colonel Patton had to be placed in an upright position to prevent hemorrhaging and suffocation. With no appropriate prop available, Pheme offered herself as a support device for Colonel Patton.19 Other nurses carefully positioned him against her back and fastened his unconscious body to hers. She sat on the floor, sitting still the entire night, with her body numbing under the pressure. In the morning, Patton died.20
After the death of Colonel Patton, Pheme could have gone home with the opening of an improved medical facility named Camp Letterman. Loyal to the wounded soldiers, Pheme chose to stay in Gettysburg, working at the new hospital for nine weeks.21 There she was assigned to 100 men, split evenly with 50 Confederate and 50 Union soldiers. Pheme worked tirelessly, laboring day and night, only stopping when sleep was entirely necessary. She placed the well being of soldiers before partiality, treating Union soldiers just as well as Confederates. Her work there culminated with the treatment of her favorite patient, Sam Watson.
Watson was from the 5th Confederate regiment out of Texas and had his right arm amputated.22 Pheme described Watson as, “One of the most attractive boys I ever saw.”23 Watson’s condition seemed dire at first, but he improved, almost teasing Pheme with a chance of recovering. Unfortunately, on September 13, 1836, Watson succumbed to his injury and passed away. His death seemed like the last straw for Pheme and she returned Baltimore immediately afterward. At home, Pheme wrote Watson’s parents a heartfelt condolence letter, expressing the significant impact Watson had on her. The gruesome sights of the war had taken its toll on Pheme, her sister described her as “never the same joyous girl again,” upon return.24 But along with painful memories came endless gifts and words of gratitude from her patients. Pheme kept a book with the signatures of patients she treated and often times soldiers would include letters and poems of thanks next to their signatures, in the book. One soldier even carved her a beautiful wooden ring with an affectionate version of her name, Effie, on its face.25 Pheme had a clear impact on the wounded soldiers lives and she would continue to aid the Confederacy back in Maryland.
Pheme and her family continued their work with “underground” deliveries of medicine, food, and supplies to soldiers both in prisons in the Union and hospitals in the Confederacy.26 Under strict Union control, Baltimore officials became suspicious of Pheme’s activities and intercepted a letter that led to her arrest on the charge of aiding the escape of a Confederate prisoner.27 While the transcript of the actual letter is lost, in some of Pheme’s confiscated letters to prisoners and Confederate patients, Pheme had said things as harsh as, “I rather see the Devil himself and rest in his fiery arms than have a Yankee Emancipated man come near me. I just hate the very air they breathe and would like to kill every one I see.”28
Lieutenant Colonel Fish received orders to arrest Pheme, with the confiscated letter enclosed as evidence. Lt. Col. Fish was an unsympathetic character who was later found guilty for a variety of crimes including embezzling money, accepting bribes, and visiting prostitution houses while in an Army Officer’s uniform.29 In the middle of the night on November 23, 1863, Lt. Co. Fish had the Goldsborough house surrounded with an excessive number of well-armed guards. The overwhelming show of force was policy of the Union at the time.30 The Goldsborough family, expecting a stop from Confederate smugglers that night, rushed to hide illegal materials from the arresting soldiers and with quick thinking and cooperation from Pheme’s parents and 7 siblings, the items were hidden successfully.31 Pheme was identified, arrested, and the house was put under guard until the morning.
Pheme, who claimed her crimes were, “feeding the hungry and clothing the naked”, was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to banishment from the Union for the remainder of the war.32 If she returned North before the war was over, she would be considered a spy and shot immediately. The terms of her travel were very strict. Under heavy guard, she was only allowed to carry two trunks and $225, and was stripped searched before her journey South. Even under these dangerous conditions, Pheme managed to smuggle some dispatches with her to Richmond through a secret compartment in the lap desk she carried.33 She was put on a steamboat and arrived in Richmond on December 4, 1863.34
Pheme, without friends or family, wrote in her diary of her loneliness on her first night in Richmond, “My very heart died within me & I felt truly that I was alone 'a stranger in a strange land.'”35 But that all changed the next morning when she was received like royalty from Richmond. With many Southerners praising and introducing themselves to Pheme, “before 12 o clock [I] had some 15 friends & the feeling of loneliness was wearing away,” she wrote.36 At one point, the Maryland regiment of Confederate soldiers recognized Pheme and passed by cheering with their hats off in tribute. Even though they were overstaffed, Confederate President Jefferson Davis made sure she was hired at the Department of Treasury. The family of the slain Colonel Patton offered Pheme lodging as a token of their thanks, but she declined and stayed at several boarding houses during her exile.37 With the violence of the war continuing, Pheme resumed nursing in addition to her duties at the Treasury. She would work her job at the Treasury in the morning and nurse in the afternoon until exhaustion.38
On March 26th, Pheme left Richmond with Captain Thomas Houston to visit his home outside the city. While traveling in Rockbridge County, Pheme and Houston learned of Richmond's evacuation on April 2 1865, and General Lee’s consequent surrender on April 5th.39 She wrote in her diary of “deep sorrow and humiliation” along with “agony and fear” over the defeat.40 By June, Pheme’s father, Martin Goldsborough, arrived in Rockbridge County to bring his daughter home. They returned to Baltimore on July 2, 1865.41
After the War, Pheme and the Goldsborough family continued to aid ailing Confederates, through charities organized to help those Confederate veterans in need. Her father, an agricultural merchant, was almost certainly involved in the Baltimore Agricultural Aid Society, which helped veteran Confederate farmers.42 When not volunteering her time, Pheme lived as a young, popular, socialite in Maryland, attending balls and taking singing lessons. She was even crowned as Queen of “Love and Beauty” at a local Ball.43
On June 29, 1874, at the age of 38, Pheme married Charles Perry Willson in Cambridge, Maryland.44 Willson served for the Confederacy as a Sergeant Major in G Company, 7th Virginia Cavalry, Laurel Brigade.45 Although Willson’s brigade fought in Gettysburg during Pheme’s tenure there, he was not there due to a gunshot wound in his right thigh that he was recovering from. Charles and Pheme’s humor shown through their extremely amusing marriage contract, filled with stipulations like “good breath” and the like.46 Charles was a widower of a close friend of Phemes, and she inherited 5 stepchildren with the marriage. She later gave birth to three children of her own, Martin, Sam, and Ann.47 After their wedding, the Willson family moved to Summit Point, West Virginia.48 There, the family farmed, while running a mercantile establishment and a boarding house. Pheme played an integral role in the establishment of their local Episcopal church, raising about a third of the funds to build the structure. Her sister described Pheme’s efforts saying, “Mrs. Willson devoted the same energy to church work that she had given the Confederate cause and the beautiful stone church standing now at Summit Point is largely due to her efforts.”49
In November 1880, two of Pheme’s three children, Martin and Sam died in the same week. Her husband Charles died in 1893 and on March 10 1896, Pheme died of cancer.50 Her obituary so accurately states that, “Into every Federal prison in the United States where Confederate soldiers were confined went articles of comfort, both of food and raiment, to the suffering prisoners, while she worked day and night to procure funds to further that purpose.”51 Pheme, her husband, and her children are all buried at their family plot Green Hill Cemetery in Berryville, Virginia.52
Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson devoted her life to aid those wounded
soldiers, prisoners, and veterans affected by the Civil War. While she
personally sided with the Confederate cause, she treated Union soldiers
just as well as Confederate, putting the health of all soldiers above political
viewpoints. She sacrificed so much of her life, often nursing until pure
exhaustion, to provide others with treatment and much needed comfort.
1. “Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson.”
Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 1995. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/wilson.html
2. James Bordley, The Hollyday and related families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1962), 278. Return to text.
3. E.F. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie: The Story of Euphemia Goldsborough, Confederate Nurse and Smuggler. (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1998), 13. Return to text.
4. Ibid. Return to text.
5. “Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 1995. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/wilson.html Return to text.
6. E.F. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie: The Story of Euphemia Goldsborough, Confederate Nurse and Smuggler. (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1998), 13. Return to text.
7. Ibid, 1. Return to text.
8. Ibid, 4. Return to text.
9. Ibid, 4, 15. Return to text.
10. Ibid, 17. Return to text.
11. Ibid, 8. Return to text.
12. Carolyn Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History. (Forestville, MD: Women of Achievement in Maryland History Incorporated, 2002), 192-193. Return to text.
13. Hugh Martyr, “Cornelia Hancock and Euphemia Goldsborough at Gettysburg.” The American Civil War Society Newsletter. February 2001. http://www.acws.co.uk/archives/history/hospital.htm Return to text.
14. Ibid. Return to text.
15. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie, 19. Return to text.
16. Ibid, 23. Return to text.
17. Ibid. Return to text.
18. Ibid, 21. Return to text.
19. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, 192-193. Return to text.
20. Ibid. Return to text.
21. Martyr, “Cornelia Hancock and Euphemia Goldsborough at Gettysburg.” Return to text.
22. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie, 26. Return to text.
23. Ibid. Return to text.
24. Ibid. Return to text.
25. Ibid. Return to text.
26. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, 192-193. Return to text.
27. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie, 27. Return to text.
28. Ibid, 110. Return to text.
29. Ibid, 156. Return to text.
30. Ibid, 27. Return to text.
31. Ibid, 28. Return to text.
32. “Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 1995. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/wilson.html Return to text.
33. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie, 30. Return to text.
34. Ibid, 32. Return to text.
35. Ibid, 88. Return to text.
36. Ibid. Return to text.
37. Ibid, 33. Return to text.
38. Ibid, 34. Return to text.
39. Ibid, 35-36. Return to text.
40. Ibid, 91. Return to text.
41. Ibid, 37. Return to text.
42. Ibid. Return to text.
43. Ibid, 94. Return to text.
44. Ibid, 38. Return to text.
45. Ibid. Return to text.
46. Ibid, 138. Return to text.
47. Ibid, 38. Return to text.
48. “Euphemia Mary Goldsborough Willson.” Maryland Commission for Women. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, 1995. http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/wilson.html Return to text.
49. Conklin, Exile to Sweet Dixie, 153. Return to text.
50. Ibid, 158. Return to text.
51. Ibid. Return to text.
52. Ibid, 40. Return to text.
Biography written by 2009 summer intern Stephanie Berger.
to Euphemia Goldsborough Willson's Introductory Page
|| Search the Archives || Education & Outreach || Archives of Maryland Online ] Governor General Assembly Judiciary Maryland.Gov