Pittsburgh program to honor women's experiences in Civil War

Event to feature music and readings

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Mary "Mother" Brickerdyke was not intimidated by U.S. Army brass who questioned her presence in field hospitals during the Civil War.

"She saw a need and she acted on it," retired lawyer John Burt said of the pioneer nurse. "When she was challenged by a doctor, she told him she was under a commission from God."

When Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman heard about the exchange, he reportedly told his officers, "Gentlemen, she outranks me."

Brickerdyke's story will be one of many that Mr. Burt and singer-songwriter Judith Avers will tell Saturday. Their presentation will focus on lesser-known women who played a variety of roles during the War Between the States.

Their collaboration of stories and songs will premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Shadyside. The family-friendly program is called "A Grand Convulsion in Society." The name comes from a description by an Iowa woman of life in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, Ms. Avers said.

Mr. Burt lives in Swissvale and Ms. Avers is from Edgewood. They will be joined on stage by guitarist Daniel Marcus of Regent Square and cellist Gideon Kirkwood of Highland Park.

Initial inspiration for their performance came from the 1967 book "Bonnet Brigades" by Mary Elizabeth Massey about women during the Civil War, Mr. Burt said.

The people they will sing and talk about range from New Orleans belle Sarah Morgan Dawson, a judge's daughter who kept a detailed diary during the war years, to Mary Walker, a cigar-smoking physician who earned the Medal of Honor for her battlefield medical service.

Charlotte Forten Grimke, school teacher and writer, is one of the women who has Pennsylvania connections. She was the granddaughter of James Forten, a wealthy African-American businessman from Philadelphia.

Grimke's grandfather was a friend of John Vashon, a Pittsburgh barber and landowner of mixed race whose shop was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Forten and Vashon helped to finance William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, "The Liberator."

During the Civil War, Grimke taught freed slaves in the Sea Islands off South Carolina's coast and nursed black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after the Battle of Fort Wagner. Her friends included Col. Robert Shaw, the commander of the 54th, and abolitionists Frederick Douglas and Lucretia Mott.

Grimke's journal entries include after-battle descriptions of wounded soldiers and their damaged clothes. Ms. Avers said those passages provided inspiration for her song, "The Bayonets They Wear." It describes both

"... the bloody jackets tear

That my needle and my thread repair"

and the effect on the survivors:

"... the frightened widow's stare

That no needle nor thread could repair."

"I think we will both be crying by the end of that presentation," Mr. Burt said.

Ms. Avers has written original songs for most sections of the program, but she also plans to use some traditional folk songs.

Mr. Burt's tales about each of the featured women will be based mostly on their letters and journals. He said he was eager to collaborate with Ms. Avers since he lacks musical talent. "I'll provide narration -- but singing, no," he said.

St. Andrew Lutheran is at 304 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. Suggested donation for the program is $10.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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