Heroines of war often forgotten

“The Girl I Left Behind Me,” a popular fife melody as early as the American Revolutionary War and into the Civil War and beyond, was often played as men left town to fight for the cause. Last week’s column, “Marching to a beat of a historic drum,” described how this was exactly what was heard in 1861 as men from companies D and E of the 72nd Regiment left by train from the Dunkirk depot.

  • ?Three years later from an original group of 200, only some 25 to 30 returned. In some rare cases, however, the girl was not left behind.

Some females chose to join the war disguised as men, while some were allowed to follow the unit to assist in health and hygiene tasks including running kitchens in the camp, washing, sewing uniforms, and acting as nurses for the sick and wounded on the battlefield, in camp, and in field hospitals. In some cases, this was part of the United States Sanitary Commission, formed in 1861 as a relief agency during the war. In other cases, women were “vivandieres” acting in a similar capacity, yet often dressed in a military style uniform. All of these women worked hard and were in the midst of many battles alongside the men.

In any case, only a determined and tenacious woman could handle it, as unlike many men, she chose to be there in a dangerous and an uncommon role for the era.

Today is the last day of the “Battle of Lighthouse Point” Civil War Living History Camp and Reenactment hosted by the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum on the lighthouse grounds. Along with drills, a church service, church social, a battle scene and surrender, one scenario yet to be played out today includes the discovery of a woman in the ranks.

Oddly enough, this is not that far removed from Chautauqua County’s history.

Recent research has rediscovered that one of the Dunkirk lighthouse keepers from 1874 to 1885 was not only a veteran himself, but so was his wife! She even received a pension, a much rarer occurrence at this time, with records showing it required a special act of Congress.

As anyone who does research knows, one thing often leads to another with unexpected results. It started simply enough when as a volunteer lighthouse tour guide I wanted to find out more about the children of the lighthouse keepers by using census records. Jo Ann Kaufman, a volunteer who works with Michelle Henry, the county historian, found many names. From this quest, we now know that Sarah Sinfield, buried in a simple grave at our own Forest Hill Cemetery, served alongside her husband, William, of Company E of the 72nd Regiment during the Civil War. Jo Anne and Michelle have acquired varied records from several sources, including the National Archives. It is a full story to be retold in rich detail in time to come because it is significant to our county’s history. In fact, it would be most appropriate to rededicate her grave with a veteran marker, complete with fife and drum music, as well as a monument for her at the lighthouse grounds. A brief stop at the Barker Museum with the help of assistants Dorothy and Mary using the phenomenal indexed books of Lois Barris and microfilm at the Dunkirk Library with the assistance of Judy, led to discovering an incredible account of Sarah’s life and service with a photo in the 1894 edition of the old time publication called The Grape Belt. In part it stated the following.

“Mrs. Sinfield, a woman who followed the fortunes of the 3rd Regiment, Excelsior Brigade from Williamsburg to Gettysburg had a better knowledge of hardships and suffering incident to the life of a soldier than any woman in Western NY. In 1861, when the call came for soldiers to defend the Union from destruction by its own children of the south, William Sinfield enlisted for three years as a private in Company E, 72nd Regiment, New York Volunteers. In July of 1861, Mrs. Sinfield received permission to accompany her husband. She was with the regiment at the battles of Williamsburg, Peach Orchard, Fair Oaks, Seven Pines, the second battle of Malvern Hill, Chantilly, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. At each of these battles, she aided in caring for the sick and wounded and made herself useful in various ways without having any better accommodations than were furnished the soldiers. On the march she often carried her husband’s gun and knapsack when he was unable to carry them himself.”

Sarah’s story includes her nursing duties after her husband was wounded on July 2, 1863 at the battle of Gettysburg. She was respected by all the soldiers and had a notable funeral in 1894 with all due honors at the cemetery, complete with many notable guests, the sounding of the bugle with reveille and taps, and the carrying of “the old battle flag of the 72nd Regiment under which the deceased marched in the war time.” Interestingly, although Sarah’s husband William was the listed name of the assistant lighthouse keeper, it has been discovered through recent research that his wound from Gettysburg was so severe that long after the war he had a patella that never healed and was described as an “open running wound.” A lighthouse tour quickly leads to the assumption that Sarah most likely completed the duties due to the strenuous nature of the work required – just more evidence of her resolute nature.

Make it a good week and look for more to come on Sarah’s life story and the day when as promised in 1894, we once again “strew her grave with flowers and place above her head the flag she loved.” See history come alive and come to the camp today for the Civil War period church service (10:30 a.m.), church social (11:30 a.m.), safety inspection (1:30 p.m.), weapons demonstration/battle scenario (2 p.m.), surrender (3 p.m.), and camp closing (4 p.m.).