For Better or Worse


Throughout our country’s past, women have played a key role in supporting men during wartime. It was traditionally women who maintained the home front and provided logistical support to the soldiers on the front lines. At no time was this support more critical than during the Civil War. Across the nation, both North and South, many women volunteered in hospitals as nurses while others worked to supply food, clothing and other necessities to those serving in Union and Confederate armies. One woman, however, defied all nineteenth century gender expectations. She was not content to wait for her husband to come home from war, but rather she determined to share in the harsh realities of war. For her efforts, she received praise from all who met her, regardless of their allegiances. Her name was Fanny Ricketts. This is the story of how she risked everything to be with her husband.

Even before the Civil War erupted, Fanny Ricketts was accustomed to the hard life of a military spouse. She was born in 1828 in Elizabeth, New Jersey to a wealthy Englishman and an Anglo-American mother. Details of her early life are scarce, but she likely lived a comfortable existence until January 1856, at which time she married Captain James Ricketts of the 1st U.S. Artillery. After the wedding, Fanny accompanied him to his posting on the Rio Grande River. Upon arrival, she quickly adapted to the spartan conditions of the frontier and frequently showed a cheerful disposition in the face of adversity. She also devoted herself to those around her. She served in the hospital nursing the sick and offered a sympathetic ear to those soldiers wishing to confide in her. She often pleaded for clemency on behalf of those convicted of committing an infraction. Every member of the garrison, whether officer or enlisted man, saw her as an angel of mercy and their best friend. Unfortunately, it was not long before the rumblings of war reached the tiny outpost, and Fanny realized she would soon have to watch her husband march off to war, possibly never to return.

Like many army wives, Fanny recognized the looming war could take from her all she held dear, but she was determined to enjoy her husband for as long as she had him. When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, the federal government called upon its cadre of professional officers to train the volunteers flooding Washington, D.C. With the rest of the 1st Artillery, the couple left for Fortress Monroe, at the confluence of Virginia’s York and James Rivers, where James served as an artillery instructor for new recruits. Fanny often watched as James taught his crews how to load and fire each gun. In early summer Ricketts was transferred to Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, to command his own artillery battery. Fanny quickly became a familiar sight around headquarters. By mid-July, however, it was apparent the army was about to depart the capital, and sure enough, Ricketts and the rest of General Irvin McDowell’s force set out on July 16th to defeat the Confederate army and end the war.

After several days of marching, Union soldiers faced their Confederate counterparts along Bull Run creek, twenty-five miles from Washington, D.C. Battle began early on the morning of July 21st, and as afternoon approached, it appeared as if the North would win as Union forces steadily drove the Southerners back. As fighting intensified, the sounds traveled back to Washington where men and women were going about their usual Sunday routines. Some pondered the distant thunder, but Fanny knew what it meant and began praying for her husband. Her prayers were desperately needed as General McDowell had just ordered James and his cannons to follow the withdrawing Confederates to the high ground of Henry House Hill. Once in position, Captain Ricketts engaged in an artillery duel with Confederate cannon only 300 yards away. At the same time, Confederate sharpshooters picked off the gunners. Believing the shots came from the Henry house, James ordered his artillerymen to destroy the building, inadvertently killing 85 year-old Judith Henry who was inside. Seeing they had to take the battery, thousands of Confederates charged out of the tree line, urged on by their fearless commander, Stonewall Jackson. Already bleeding from several wounds, Ricketts tried to direct fire on the onrushing troops, but as the enemy enveloped his position, he collapsed to the ground when a bullet entered his left leg and shattered the bone near the knee joint. Believing him dead, his soldiers joined the rest of the army in fleeing back to Washington.

Word of the defeat raced ahead of the army as it staggered back into Washington during the night of the 21st-22nd. Like the rest of the city, Fanny gasped at the sight of beaten soldiers as they trudged past her doorway, but more frightening, there was no sign of her husband among them. Within hours, a young lieutenant arrived and presented her with James’s sword. He told her that Ricketts’ “last words are of her and our child.” He also spoke of the desperate but futile search for the captain’s body. Confronted by the bleak reality that she was now a widow, Fanny fell into a depression while still desperately hoping James would turn up alive and safe. Over the next two days, however, that hope grew weaker. She was on the verge of accepting the terrible truth when she received an unbelievable message. Under a flag of truce, a Confederate officer reported that Ricketts was alive, but he was suffering from his wounds in a battlefield hospital overseen by the Confederates.

Despite the fact he was now a prisoner of war, Fanny immediately resolved to join her husband and nurse him back to health — even if she had to go into captivity with him. She petitioned and received from General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of all Union armies, a passage of safe conduct through Union lines as well as a carriage and driver. When she arrived at the edge of Confederate territory, she was halted by Southern soldiers and prevented from going any further. Refusing to abandon her mission, she penned a brief note to her old friend J.E.B. Stuart, now a Confederate cavalry officer, reminding him of their time together along the Rio Grande and asking for his assistance in reaching her husband. Stuart presented the brave woman with a pass to enter Confederate lines, but he also declared she had to sign a written parole stating she would not behave as a spy while behind the lines. Indignantly, Fanny ripped the parole in half and shouted she was “no spy but the wife of a wounded officer, and [I] will go as your prisoner but never sign this.” She then demanded to be taken to see Confederate General Joseph Johnston who allowed her to search for James. She finally found him on July 26th, five days after the battle, but her ordeal was just beginning.

Upon arriving at the makeshift hospital, she blanched at the sight in front of her. She saw a soldier undergoing amputation, and moments later, she shuddered after passing by two bloody legs and an amputated arm. She also had to stop on the stairway so stretcher-bearers could carry two bodies down to the main hall. Finally, she entered James’s room and saw her beloved laying on a bed, delirious with fever and clutching his mangled leg. Rushing to his side, Fanny grasped his hand and watched as his eyes slowly focused on her. He murmured softly, “I knew you would come.” As his eyes closed again, doctors approached her and said it was essential to amputate the leg. She emphatically rejected the notion, knowing James was not strong enough to survive the operation. Suitably chastened, the doctors turned away while Fanny set to work tending his wounds. She fed and washed him and changed his bandages as often as necessary. Though her main focus was on her husband, she could not ignore the plight of the other wounded soldiers, and soon she was working around the clock to ease each man’s suffering. By August, however, conditions in the hospital had deteriorated to the extent it was decided to move the wounded to Richmond, the Confederate capital.

Learning of the imminent transfer, Fanny declared she would share James’s confinement. Moved by her commitment, Colonel Wade Hampton of South Carolina secured an ambulance for the couple to ride in and provided them with nourishment along the way. This compassion came to an end when the pair arrived in Richmond and were thrown into the city’s poorhouse and later the infamous Libby Prison. The conditions were deplorable, and the suffering intensified over the next several months. Fanny watched as her husband slid into unconsciousness for large amounts of time, and she feared he was at the point of death. Her devotion, however, won the admiration of several Confederate wives who defied social convention to supply the couple with baskets of food. Thanks to these efforts, Captain Ricketts began to recover, but in November he learned he and other officers faced possible execution in return for the deaths of Confederate privateers recently captured by the Union navy. In desperation, Fanny appealed to the women who had befriended her, and they persuaded their husbands such retaliation would damage the Confederacy’s image. Miraculously instead, Ricketts was exchanged for a Confederate officer. By the end of 1861, James and Fanny Ricketts were back home in Washington, D.C.

Though not called upon to act as heroically as she did in the war’s first months, Fanny continued to show courage and commitment throughout the remaining years of civil war. In early 1862 Ricketts was promoted to brigadier general, but Fanny insisted on accompanying him into the field until the eve of battle forced her return to Washington. Following the bloody Battle of Antietam in September, she learned he had reinjured his left leg when his horse had been shot and rolled over on him. As before, she saw to his recovery, but once he was healed, she devoted herself to the care of other wounded soldiers. She worked tirelessly in the weeks and months after the epic Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 and throughout the first half of 1864. Then in September she received word Ricketts had been severely wounded in the right breast. She once again braved all dangers to be by his side. Though the bullet had been removed by the time she arrived, his recovery was still in doubt. Showing the same dedication she had in 1861, she vigilantly nursed him back to health. After the war ended in 1865, they remained in Washington until James died in September 1887, never fully healed of his war wounds. Fanny herself lived until December 1900 when she was laid to rest beside her husband in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of all she sacrificed in the name of love.

Fanny Ricketts’ actions provide a noble example of service to family, country and any in need of help. She was willing to brave all manner of obstacles and hardships to be with her husband. From the barren frontier to the dank prison cells of Richmond, Virginia, she faithfully followed wherever James led. Her fidelity, devotion and commitment were evident to her friends and enemies alike, and by the end of the war, she had become a national heroine. Fanny Ricketts fought the good fight in her own way, on her own terms.

1 Comment

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One response to “For Better or Worse

  1. What a great story about a complete unknown (at least to me). It was very interesting to read that her previous association with J.E.B. Stuart allowed her safe passage behind enemy lines to attend to her husband. Nice work Jake!!

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