Mary “Mammy” Ruggles, Civil War nurse and heroine
The headstone immediately to the left of the tree trunk marks the grave of Mary Ruggles (1805-1874), a woman in York, Pennsylvania, who daringly rescued a U.S. army flag during the Confederate occupation of her hometown. Photo from the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association.
During the Civil War, the sprawling U.S. Army Hospital at Penn Common dominated the south side of York, Pennsylvania. A team of doctors and nurses tended to thousands of wounded Union soldiers from the battlefields at Antietam, South Mountain, and Fredericksburg during the autumn and winter of 1862. By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign in early June 1863, many of these patients were still recuperating in the various wards.
Often a 58-year-old local woman, Mary Ruggles, brought homemade bread, cakes, and other delicacies to the wounded and ill men, and spent time comforting and conversing with them. The soldiers came to deeply appreciate her many acts of kindness and mercy, and soon they gave her the affectionate nickname of “Mammy.”
She was to play the role of heroine during Confederate Major General Jubal A. Early’s occupation of York during the Gettysburg Campaign.
Here is her story…
Mary Ruggles lived in a modest house on Washington Street with her daughter Matilda (nicknamed “Agnes”) and son-in-law George Geiselman. Nearly every day, she would walk some six blocks over to the military hospital and make her rounds, cheering and comforting the patients. It was a routine they came to expect and anticipate from their beloved matron, whose motherly instincts elicited admiration and affection.
By Saturday evening, June 27, everything had changed. News spread that a major Confederate force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry was approaching from the west. The ambulatory patients had taken up arms and marched to Wrightsville to help defend the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, a vital crossing point for the enemy to reach Lancaster County and perhaps attack Harrisburg from the rear. Only Wisconsin-born Dr. Henry Palmer and a skeleton staff remained with the half dozen or so patients who were took badly injured to risk being moved. Several of the nurses remained, and “Mammy” was still present to lend her assistance.
When word came that the Confederates were arriving in York the next morning, the nurses debated how best to save the large U.S. flag that floated from the hospital’s main flag pole. They were determined not to allow the flag to fall into enemy hands. As the alarm sounded that the Rebels were near, some of the nurses lowered the flag and rolled it up. They folded it around Mammy’s waist where it would be safeguarded and hidden in the folds of her petticoat.
As the Rebels fanned out throughout downtown York, they reached the hospital. The flagpole, of course, was empty. Mammy calmly walked some six blacks through the soldiers back to her home near the Codorus Creek. They never suspected she was a covert Union flag bearer. Some accounts suggest she prayed with each step she took, expecting at any moment to be halted and searched. However, she appeared innocuous, and the Rebels ignored her. She reached the house safely and hid the flag out of sight.
When the Rebels left, Mammy returned the flag to the hospital. On July 4, it was again floating in the summer breezes above the York U.S. Army Hospital.
Mary Ruggles died in 1874 and was buried in York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery. A simple marble headstone marks her final resting place, and nearby, a wayside marker commemorates her life as part of the cemetery’s Civil War walking tour.
In 1937, she received another posthumous honor. The local chapter of the Daughters of Union Veterans named their post as the Mammy Ruggles Tent #50. It is still active today.
Penn Common, the site of the wartime military hospital, is now a city park, and a bronze relief map depicts the layout of the old medical facility’s grounds and buildings. In the center of the park, not far from the parade grounds, is a large Soldiers and Sailors monument that commemorates York’s Civil War heritage and veterans.