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Researcher brings Civil War-era women to life

WINCHESTER -- Virginia Benson greeted visitors to the Old Court House Civil War Museum Saturday wearing a hoop skirt and cheerful smile that belied the often sobering history lesson she was about to give about women and the Civil War in Winchester.

The task of attending to soldiers with gruesome wounds left by grape shot and lead minie balls was harsh enough. Before 1861, people hoped for what they called "a good death" in which they would pass away surrounded by family members who would record their last words and hear them profess their Christian beliefs, Benson said.

The sudden, mass killings of the Civil War dashed expectations of a good death, Benson said. Instead, soldiers turned to nurses for solace as they lay on their death beds far from their homes.

"When he died, she'd make sure a Bible was handy and comfort him by reading from the passages," Benson said.

But the grim duties of nurses were made even harder by boorish male doctors who made no secret of their disdain for the women volunteering as nurses, matrons, cooks and laundresses, Benson said.

She referred to the following passage from the memoir of Union surgeon John H. Brinton as typical of the hostile reactions women encountered:

"Can you fancy half a dozen or a dozen old hags, for that is what they were, surrounding a bewildered hospital surgeon, each one clamorous for her little wants . . .Usually nothing but complaints, fault-find as to yourself, and backbiting as to companions of their own sex. In short, this female nurse business was a great trial to all the men concerned."

Attitudes like Brinton's notwithstanding, most of the women persevered. Benson depicted three of them on Saturday: Confederate activist and Winchester resident Mary Greenhow Lee, Susan Hall, a nurse who joined the Union's Sanitary Commission and an unidentified generic nurse..

The living history presentation was an extension of Benson's research into the role of Winchester women in the Civil War. She also lectures and has written a novel about the effects of the war on a farm family from the Winchester area that she said she hopes will be published soon. Benson's primary job is program analyst with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Benson said she was fascinated by Lee, who was born into a wealthy socialite family in Richmond and married Winchester attorney Hugh Holmes Lee in 1843. Benson began her historical research by studying Lee's diary and found accounts in it of her efforts to provide food and other supplies to wounded Confederates.

"You can put this whole war together by looking into these diaries," Benson said of those by Lee and other women. "They mimic whatever you've been told about what happened in the war."

Benson said she also learned that Lee started an underground Confederate post office that was used to smuggle letters in and out of Winchester when it was under Union occupation. Her activities incurred the wrath of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, who ordered her out of Winchester in the closing months of the war.

"She did anything to irritate the Union," Benson said.

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