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Barton County nurse topic of women's history program
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Elmina P. Spencer

The League of Women Voters will celebrate Women’s History Month next week with a program on a famous Civil War caregiver with a Barton County connection.

Karen Neuforth, executive director of the Barton County Arts Council and research coordinator for the Barton County Historical Society, will present "Elmina P. Spencer: Hospital Matron and Humanitarian," during the League meeting at noon Tuesday, March 13, at Montana Mike’s, 906 McKinley, Great Bend. As always, the public is welcome to attend, Neuforth said. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, has fought since 1920 to improve our systems of government and impact public policies through citizen education and advocacy.

Elmina (Keeler) Spencer, who homesteaded in Barton County with her husband, is not well-known in the state of Kansas. However, her accomplishments during and after the Civil War have made her a legend in her home state of New York. Although Mrs. Spencer and her husband, Robert, were opposed to war, they both enlisted to serve with the Union Army shortly after the Battle of Antietam. They were attached to the regimental hospital of the 147th New York State Volunteers, with which he served as Ward Master and she as Matron.

From Washington, D.C., to Virginia, from the carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg to the Battle of the Wilderness, Mrs. Spencer cared for the sick and wounded with what the U.S. House of Representatives would officially recognize as "great energy and remarkable devotion."

Following the war, the Spencers decided to homestead in Kansas, taking up land in Barton County, as did her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darius Keeler. Already suffering from the ill effects of his service during the war, Mr. Spencer soon died, as did his widowed mother and the Keelers, leaving Mrs. Spencer alone.

This tenacious woman made a living from the homestead and from teaching music in Great Bend. When a plague of grasshoppers decimated crops in Kansas and elsewhere in 1874, Mrs. Spencer set out on a speaking tour to raise money and supplies for her friends and neighbors. Lecturing and writing of her experiences during the war, she secured significant donations for the relief effort.

Returning to Washington and New York in the 1880s, she supported herself with teaching music and other activities until her health declined. Upon the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, she answered the roll call with 150 other survivors who received the Gettysburg Medal from the State of New York that day.

Neuforth said a fitting epitaph for this brave and inspiring woman may be taken from the report accompanying House Resolution 7262, which granted her a military pension in her own right: "She knew no fear; she was never too weary to minister personally to the wants of those who were sick or wounded; she never seemed conscious of weariness; the way was never too long or the roads too muddy for her ... Her acts of devotion place her in the first rank of heroic women."