Shirley Hallett is thinking a lot about her great-great-grandmother, Ellen Forbes, this Veterans Day.

Forbes was a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and tended to wounded soldiers until she contracted malarial typhus and was sent back to her home in Maine.

“She was born Sept. 1, 1837, and died Dec. 4, 1908,” Hallett, 75, of Pittsfield, recalled. “She was born in Norridgewock to Darius Forbes and Elizabeth Pottle Forbes and was the niece of Sidney Perham who was serving in Washington as a Maine Congressman when the war began. While visiting him in Washington, Ellen Forbes realized how much help was needed and volunteered to travel there at her own expense to care for the wounded men. She began nursing the wounded at the Battle of Bull Run.”

Forbes also served as liaison between sick soldiers and their families, even after she returned to Maine, ensuring news, supplies and money were sent to soldiers, and sometimes, she even notified families of their deaths, according to Hallett. Later, she would lobby in Washington to ensure Civil War nurses received pensions.

“A special act of Congress got her a pension of $25 a month, May 18, 1886,” Hallett said.

Forbes’ story is told in the book, “A Vast Army of Women: Maine’s Uncounted Forces in the American Civil War,” written by Lynda L. Sudlow and copyrighted in 2000.

A statue of Forbes was dedicated in 1914 in the Hall of Flags at the state house in Boston. Hallett’s mother, Dorothy Leavitt, Ellen Forbes’ great-granddaughter, was 12 at the time and gave a speech at the dedication, according to Hallett. The statue depicts Forbes on the battlefield, leaning over a wounded soldier and offering him a glass of water.

This family history did not become clear to Hallett until after her mother died 20 years ago, leaving papers, notes, Forbes’ dresses and other items in various places in her Lynn, Massachusetts, home. Though Hallett had heard some of it while growing up, she did not realize the magnitude of Forbes’ legacy until she started finding and organizing the mementos her mother, a teacher, had stored away. Hallett to this day is discovering new information about her great-great-grandmother.

“Mother kept everything but not in any order, so papers and books were mixed in with newspapers,” Hallett said. “After she died I started straightening out all these papers.”

Hallett lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, until she moved to Maine with her husband, Richard, in 1967. He became a minister in Limerick, in York County, before moving to Pittsfield where he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church for several years. He died of brain cancer 12 years ago.

A retired social worker, Shirley Hallett had one brother, Richard, who was a minister and concert violinist in Washington, D.C. He performed in symphonies and private events at places such as embassies, according to Hallett, who, years ago, also wrote special features for the Morning Sentinel’s Life & Leisure section.

Hallett said that one day she opened the Morning Sentinel and read a story about Ellen Forbes being featured in “A Vast Army of Women,” and learned even more about her great-great-grandmother.

“It was jaw-dropping,” she said. “I wish so much my mother was here to answer questions.”

For Hallett, Veterans Day holds new meaning as she, later in life, continues to discover more details about her great-great-grandmother. The Civil War does not seem so long ago — or far away — anymore.

“I do think about her, especially when I watch something on PBS about the Civil War and see the pictures of all the dead, just laid out on the grass and fields, and people standing over them, and the fact that a lot of them were injured and were going to die and got no care. That’s when I think about her and the other nurses and the doctors.”

The Maine Historical Society’s website, Maine Memory Network, features a poem written by Forbes in her own handwriting:

“Through illness, wounds and weariness/You nursed the boys in blue/And lovingly and tenderly/Their hearts turned to you. Then think, when e’er this collar soft/Your honored throat shall deck/Some grateful soldier boy has laid/His arms around your neck!”

Hallett admires her great-great-grandmother for her courage and selflessness.

“Wonderful, amazing, kind, good people come from someone’s family,” she said. “I’m very glad she came from ours.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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