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Mrs. Lydia Wilson "Mother" Holliday

Civil War Nurse

Mother Holliday at an advanced age. Courtesy her son John, for whom the Wheeling's Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) post was named, Mrs. Lydia Wilson Holliday was an American Civil War hero.

Her strong sense of patriotic duty compelled her, “at first tap of the Drum for Lincoln call” as she would later write, to volunteer as a nurse at Camp Carlile on Wheeling Island. Appalled by the conditions, including inadequate food, clothing, and other military supplies, she “stripped her home of its furnishings” so that the new recruits “might not suffer privations.” As casualties mounted and more wounded soldiers were brought to Wheeling’s improvised military hospitals like Sprigg House (The Windsor) and the Athenaeum, Mrs. Holliday dedicated herself to tending the wounded and actively recruiting more women to serve as nurses.

As the war raged on, Mrs. Holliday, then more than 60 years of age, left Wheeling to serve as an army field nurse at both battles of Winchester, Snicker’s Ford, Kernstown, Fisher’s Hill, Opequon, and Cedar Creek. Among the soldiers who witnessed her brave exploits within range of enemy fire she earned a reputation as a fearless angel of mercy, a renown that would endure long after the war ended and endear her to Union veterans across the nation.

“Mother” Holliday, as she was affectionately known, refused all compensation for her services as an army nurse, a fact that would make it difficult for her to collect a pension late in her long life. G.A.R. Commander Richard Robertson said Mother Holliday was “honored, respected, and loved by every old soldier in this vicinity, many of whom were actual beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by her as an army nurse during the dark days of rebellion.”

After the war, Mother Holliday was a prominent member of the Woman’s Relief Corps, auxiliary of the J.W. Holliday Post, which of course, was named in honor of her beloved son. She was well known for making numerous “crazy patch quilts” to be raffled to raise money for the post. She had been working on another one just before her death.

In January, 1893, 90 year old Mother Holliday finally applied for her military pension due to her inability “to earn a support by reason of old age and debility.” The well respected Wheeling surgeon Dr. John Frissell who, during the Civil War, was appointed by Gov. Pierpont medical superintendent of the military prisners and sick soldiers of Wheeling & the surgeon-general of the United States Army, swore out an affadavit on Mother Holliday’s behalf, certifying her service said she “was regarded the best nurse in Wheeling.”

“Well I have pass my 91 mile stone and it will not be long that I would need it but if you gentlemen think I am not worthy you know best. So I suppose this is the end of the Chapter and I am left out in the cold.”-letter dated Nov. 1893

Himself a veteran and witness to her courage, Congressman B.B. Dovenor introduced a bill to finally get Mother Holliday the army pension to which she was richly entitled. The bill passed just two years before Mother Holliday did. She was living her son Harry’s family at 2330 Eoff Street when Commander Robertson went visited to prepare the long overdue pension voucher. Before she would sign, 96 year old Mother Holliday asked him, “Can I get married without losing it?” When he said yes, she replied, “Good! I’m glad of that. For I read in the paper the other day where a couple were married, the groom being 103 and the bride 102. So you see, there is a good chance for me yet.”

She received $20 per month.

Mother Holliday was reportedly the oldest person in Wheeling when she died on October 5, 1899, having recently celebrated her 97th birthday. Though the original funeral plans called for six pallbearers to be selected from among her many grandsons and great grandsons, the family agreed to allow six Union veterans to serve instead. Members of the Holliday Post had requested the honor of carrying their revered Mother Holliday to her final rest. She was, after all, “one of themselves.”

Read about John W. Holliday.

See a PowerPoint presentation by Sean Duffy and Jon-Erik Gilot of the G.A.R. in Wheeling, and the Oglebay Collection.

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