The Oswego County Historical Society (OCHS) will host the first lecture of the 2018 season on Sunday, April 22 at 1:30 p.m. at the Oswego Public Library at 120 E. Second St., Oswego. Guest lecturer Joyce Cook will present a program based on her new book entitled “Elmina Spencer: Oswego’s Civil War Battlefield Nurse.” Cook is a retired librarian and past director of the Fulton Public Library. The event is free and open to the public.
Born Elmina Keeler in Mexico, New York in 1819, she moved with her family to Oswego at a young age and resided there most of her life. As a young woman she was a school teacher and in 1840 married Robert Spencer, a former sailor, teacher and merchant. In 1862 Robert enlisted in the Civil War, even though he was well past draft age and restricted from action. He served as the ward master for the 147th New York Infantry regimental hospital.
“Elmina Spencer was determined to follow her husband into the war service and with him selflessly contributed to the Union cause. She served as the matron and as a nurse of the 147th regimental hospital,” said Justin White, OCHS board trustee. “The 147th was known as the “Oswego Regiment.” Veterans remembered Elimna with affection for her dedication to nursing the sick and wounded during the war.”
In 1864 Elmina was injured after the explosion of an ammunition barge. She suffered temporary paralysis, but continued working until the end of the war.
A government resolution for a military pension read in part, “She knew no fear: she was never too weary to minister personally to the wants of those who were sick or wounded…the way was never too long or the roads too muddy for her…She was on the battlefield of Gettysburg…Her acts of devotion at this one battle places her in the first rank of heroic women of the rebellion.”
Following the war, the Spencers went to Kansas as part of the homestead movement. During her time there, Elmina wrote letters to a local newspaper with accounts of war experiences. After the death of her husband, she returned to Oswego where she lived until her death at the age of 93.
A memorial bust of Elmina Spencer is carved in the wall of the Great Western staircase of the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York. This memorial represents the many women nurses who volunteered their services during the war. Elmina is buried in the Oswego Rural Cemetery.
The lecture speaker Cook came across a number of references to Elmina while editing her publication regarding the Civil War letters and diary of Lieutenant Lansing Bristol, also of the 147th New York Infantry. Intrigued by Elmina’s legacy, Cook endeavored to do more research and decided to write a comprehensive biography. She will outline the extraordinary story of the Spencers and use Elmina’s own words in her presentation. Photographs and other documents will be on display. Copies of the new biography will also be available for purchase.