Turn Backward, O Time: The Civil War Diary Of Amanda Shelton, by Kathleen S. Hanson
Among the more praiseworthy aspects of the growing attention to primary historical sources by female writers is a book like this one, which is of particularly interest to those who have an interest in the history of nursing in the Civil War. On the face of it, Amanda Shelton is not a particularly notable person as far as the Civil War itself is concerned, as she was a young woman (19 or so at war’s beginning) whose service in hospitals was hardly particularly onerous. Even so, it is not as if the nurse’s war experience was without incident. It can be said, fairly strongly, that the war turned Shelton from a girl into a woman. The diary itself shows this transition point rather nicely, with the beginning entries of the book being a bit on the catty side with later entries demonstrating a growing maturity as the author has come to realize some important aspects of life, which she did not always in her older years feel it necessary or worthwhile to share with others, being rather private and personal and even painful. Still, the book is certainly worthwhile as a perspective of the Civil War from someone whose service was notable and whose postwar life was somewhat remarkable.
This book is a relatively short one at less than 150 pages. it begins with a foreword as well as a preface, acknowledgements, and introduction that set the author within her own time and also seek to discuss what sort of dishy and gossipy diary this happens to be, especially in its early stages. The editor of the work discusses the challenge of understanding who it is that the author is referring to and also spends a lot of time dealing with and addressing the fallout of one particular incident that had a striking and dramatic result for the diary’s author. The biggest portion of the book is the diary of Amanda Shelton between April 15, 1864, when she became a nurse, and September 11, 1866, when she returned home at last after her service was over. This is followed by letters pertaining to the dance, for it was a dance that was held at the Nashville hospital, encouraged (and apparently hosted) by the doctor at the hospital there, which led to Amanda Shelton being viewed as potentially a fallen young woman, leading to calls for her removal from the hospital, while she was horrified that the doctor, who had apparently been courting with her and flirting with her, was found to have been married and perhaps a bit on the corrupt side. After this there is a transcript of a later speech of the diary’s author in which no mention of the dance or its context is in fact made at all, as well as a bibliography and an index.
Indeed, if the wartime experience of Miss Shelton was not without incident, her postwar life was quite a bit more dramatic still. Shelton used her empathetic understanding of soldiers and their struggle to recover after injury to serve further at an asylum, and after working there for some time she started a school in her native Iowa that was known locally for its ability to successfully encourage problem children who struggled with regular schools. Her ability to reach and encourage such difficult children was recognized and appreciated within her neighborhood, and she lived a long and productive life after the war, eventually even giving speeches on the service of nurses during the Civil War that drew on her own experience. If Amanda Shelton is certainly a peripheral figure as far as the history of that great conflict is concerned, her interest in the history of nursing in the United States is more notable and her role as an example, sometimes as a cautionary tale but also as a way of demonstrating how it is that service can lead to improvement in one’s own personal and social position, to women is notable and worthwhile as well.