Civil War Nurses of Mount Auburn Cemetery: Mary Sullivan Felton

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The grave of Mary Sullivan Felton at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

By Bill McEvoy

In honor of National Nurses Week, local historian Bill McEvoy has compiled histories of some of the Civil War nurses who are buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. This is part three of seven.

Mary Sullivan Felton was born on April 30th, 1839, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She died April 29th, 1896, in Boston, from pneumonia and pericarditis. Her father, Cornelius Conway Felton, died in 1862 at age 57. Mary is buried with him. He had been the President of Harvard College.

I located the following Thesis that established her as a Nurse in the Civil War. Mary and several other nurses, including Louisa May Alcott and Abby Low challenged the doctors as to their poor treatment of the sick and wounded soldiers. These women had the connections to plead their case at the highest level.

Please note the mention of Mary Phinney von Olnhausen and Anna Lowell Woodbury. They are buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery and included in this series.

These words came from Katelynn Ruth Vance’s 2017 Master’s Thesis at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. 

… The nurses kept a close watch over their patients, and their letters home reveal their protective feelings toward the men in their care, which made hospital inefficiencies even more appalling. While working at the Armory Square Hospital, Low wrote, “I begin to feel impatient . . . there are two of our patients who it seems to me ought to be doing well & yet I hear they are low.” (138) Low blamed their lack of recovery on the surgeon, observing, “Dr. Bower has charge of the ward & he is a careless miserable quack.” (139)

… Inexperienced doctors could have devastating effects on the soldiers’ lives and their recovery. This is particularly evident in a case at the Armory Square Hospital. In the spring of 1863, the hospital received a new surgeon in charge because Dr. Willard Bliss had been arrested based on the comment of a disgruntled steward who had been dismissed by Bliss. (140) The nurses initially appeared to like the new surgeon-in-charge, describing him as “exceedingly pleasant and gentlemanly.” (141) Yet, as the women watched him practice, they became concerned about his lack of professional experience. Low wrote, “we like him very much indeed but [he] is far too young to have charge of this large surgical hospital, where the worst cases are left.” (142) The women’s fears were validated in the case of a soldier who suffered from a hemorrhaged artery in his leg. The wound had ruptured and began to mortify, causing doctors to order an amputation of the leg in an attempt to save the patient. There was consensuses among the ward surgeons; however, the Surgeon-in-Charge delayed the surgery in the hopes that both the patient and the leg could be saved. When the wound ruptured a second time; the surgery occurred, but, four hours after the operation, the soldier died having “never recovered from the effect of the chloroform.” (143) Word spread that it was the first operation of its kind conducted by the new Surgeon-in-Charge. 

Despite a consensus that the soldier would have died regardless of the circumstances, the incident cemented the nurses’ belief that the new surgeon was too inexperienced. According to them, the surgeon “showed such a want of experience” and they were determined to remedy the situation for the sake of their current and future patients.” (144) 

Nurses Anna Lowell and Mary Felton left the hospital and spoke with Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, imploring him to speak with President Abraham Lincoln. They asked that Dr. Bliss be allowed to return to the Armory Square Hospital prior to his scheduled trial, arguing that the lives of the patients were at stake. Dr. Bliss was then allowed to return to the Army Square Hospital. In her memoir, Mary Phinney reflected on the impact of inexperienced physicians: “I know now that many a life could have been saved if there had been a competent surgeon in the ward.” (145) Inexperience led to botched surgical procedures as well as inefficiencies in hospital administration. 

Since nurses were a constant presence among the hospital wards, they witnessed the daily experiences of the soldiers in their care. Common concerns expressed by the nurses focused on the atmosphere of the hospital, the lack of nourishment for the soldiers, and the treatment of the patients by the medical staff. In January 1863, just a few days before falling dangerously ill with typhoid fever, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary, “a more perfect pestilence-box than this house I never saw, – cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables. No competent head, male or female, to right matters, and a jumble of good, bad, and indifferent nurses, surgeons, and attendants to complicate the chaos still more.” (146)

Nurses argued that the priorities of the medical administration were misplaced. They observed that as much, if not more, attention was given to the appearance of the hospitals than to the care of the sick and wounded ….”

Mary Felton, of Cambridge, Mass., served for a long time with her friend, Miss Anna Lowell Woodbury, at Armory Square Hospital, Washington …Women’s Work in the Civil War A record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience, 1867. That free 867-page book can be downloaded from Google Books.

Find the gravesites of the Civil War Nurses by entering their name here: Bill McEvoy can be reached at


140 Amanda Akin Stearns, The Lady Nurse of Ward E (New York: The Baker and Taylor Company, 1909), 20-21. 

141 Sarah Low to John Parker Hale, May 6-7, 1863, Frost-Sawyer Collection, New Hampshire Historical Society. 

142 Ibid. 

143 Ibid.  

144 Ibid. 

145 James Phinney Munroe, ed., Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars:    Edited from the Diary and Correspondence of Mary Phinney Baroness von Olnhausen (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1904), 34. 

146 Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War (Roseville: Edenborough  Press, 2007)

3 thoughts on “Civil War Nurses of Mount Auburn Cemetery: Mary Sullivan Felton

  1. It’s appreciated that the acknowledgement of the courage and compassion these civil war nurses showed regardless of the effect it had on their own physical, as well as mental health.
    Perhaps when the series is completed we can order a compilation of their amazing experiences in the Civil War
    Thank you

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