When a nation passes through a great struggle like our Civil War,
great leaders are developed. Had it not been for this, probably Mrs.
Livermore, like many other noble women, would be to-day living quietly
in some pleasant home, doing the common duties of every-day life. She
would not be the famous lecturer, the gifted writer, the leader of the
Sanitary Commission in the West; a brilliant illustration of the work
a woman may do in the world, and still retain the truest womanliness.
She was born in Boston, descended from ancestors who for six
generations had been Welsh preachers, and reared by parents of the
strictest Calvinistic faith. Mr. Rice, her father, was a man of
honesty and integrity, while the mother was a woman of remarkable
judgment and common sense.
Mary was an eager scholar, and a great favorite in school, because she
took the part of all the poor children. If a little boy or girl was
a cripple, or wore shabby clothes, or had scanty dinners, or was
ridiculed, he or she found an earnest friend and defender in the
So fond was she of the five children in the home, younger than
herself, and so much did she take upon herself the responsibility of
their conversion, that when but ten years old, unable to sleep, she
would rise from her bed and waken her father and mother that they
might pray for the sisters. "It's no matter about me," she would say;
"if they are saved, I can bear anything."
Mature in thought and care-taking beyond her years, she was still
fond of out-door sports and merry times. Sliding on the ice was her
especial delight. One day, after a full hour's fun in the bracing
air, she rushed into the house, the blood tingling in every vein,
exclaiming, "It's splendid sliding!" "Yes," replied the father, "it's
good fun, but wretched for shoes."
All at once the young girl saw how hard it was for her parents to buy
shoes, with their limited means; and from that day to this she never
slid upon the ice.
There were few playthings in the simple home, but her chief pastime
was in holding meetings in her father's woodshed, with the other
children. Great logs were laid out for benches, and split sticks were
set upon them for people. Mary was always the leader, both in praying
and preaching, and the others were good listeners. Mrs. Rice would be
so much amused at the queer scene, that a smile would creep over her
face; but Mr. Rice would look on reverently, and say, "I wish you had
been a boy; you could have been trained for the ministry."
When she was twelve years old she began to be eager to earn something.
She could not bear to see her father work so hard for her. Alas! how
often young women, twice twelve, allow their father's hair to grow
white from overwork, because they think society will look down upon
them if they labor. Is work more a disgrace to a girl than a boy? Not
at all. Unfortunate is the young man who marries a girl who is either
afraid or ashamed to work.
Though not fond of sewing, Mary decided to learn dressmaking, because
this would give her self-support. For three months she worked in a
shop, that she might learn the trade, and then she stayed three months
longer and earned thirty-seven cents a day. As this seemed meagre, she
looked about her for more work. Going to a clothing establishment,
she asked for a dozen red flannel shirts to make. The proprietor might
have wondered who the child was, but he trusted her honest face,
and gave her the bundle. She was to receive six and a quarter cents
apiece, and to return them on a certain day. Working night after
night, sometimes till the early morning hours, she was able to finish
only half at the time specified.
On that day a man came to the door and asked, "Does Mary Rice live
The mother had gone to the door, and answered in the affirmative.
"Well, she took a dozen red flannel shirts from my shop to make, and
she hain't returned 'em!"
"It can't be my daughter," said Mrs. Rice.
The man was sure he had the right number, but he looked perplexed.
Just then Mary, who was in the sitting-room, appeared on the scene.
"Yes, mother, I got these shirts of the man."
"You promised to get 'em done, Miss," he said, "and we are in a great
"You shall have the shirts to-morrow night," said Mrs. Rice.
After the man left the house, the mother burst into tears, saying, "We
are not so poor as that. My dear child, what is to become of you if
you take all the cares of the world upon your shoulders?"
When the work was done, and the seventy-five cents received, Mary
would take only half of it, because she had earned but half.
A brighter day was dawning for Mary Rice. A little later, longing for
an education, Dr. Neale, their good minister, encouraged and assisted
her to go to the Charlestown Female Seminary. Before the term closed
one of the teachers died, and the bright, earnest pupil was asked to
fill the vacancy. She accepted, reciting out of school to fit herself
for her classes, earning enough by her teaching to pay her way, and
taking the four years' course in two years. Before she was twenty she
taught two years on a Virginia plantation as a governess, and came
North with six hundred dollars and a good supply of clothes. Probably
she has never felt so rich since that day.
She was now asked to take charge of the Duxbury High School, where she
became an inspiration to her scholars. Even the dullest learned under
her enthusiasm. She took long walks to keep up her health and spirits,
thus making her body as vigorous as her heart was sympathetic.
It was not to be wondered at that the bright young teacher had
many admirers. Who ever knew an educated, genial girl who was not a
favorite with young men? It is a libel on the sex to think that they
prefer ignorant or idle girls.
Among those who saw the beauty of character and the mental power of
Miss Rice was a young minister, whose church was near her schoolhouse.
The first time she attended his services, he preached from the text,
"And thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from
their sins." Her sister had died, and the family were in sorrow; but
this gospel of love, which he preached with no allusion to eternal
punishment, was full of comfort. What was the minister's surprise
to have the young lady ask to take home the sermon and read it, and
afterwards, some of his theological books. What was the teacher's
surprise, a little later, to find that while she was interested in his
sermons and books, he had become interested in her. The sequel can
be guessed easily; she became the wife of Rev. D.P. Livermore at
He had idolized his mother; very naturally, with deep reverence
for woman, he would make a devoted husband. For fifteen years the
intelligent wife aided him in editing _The New Covenant_, a religious
paper published in Chicago, in which city they had made their home.
Her writings were always clear, strong, and helpful. Three children
had been born into their home, and life, with its cares and its work,
was a very happy one.
But the time came for the quiet life to be entirely changed. In 1861
the nation found itself plunged into war. The slave question was to
be settled once for all at the point of the bayonet. Like every other
true-hearted woman, Mrs. Livermore had been deeply stirred by passing
events. When Abraham Lincoln's call for seventy-five thousand men
was eagerly responded to, she was in Boston, and saw the troops, all
unused to hardships, start for the battle-fields. The streets were
crowded with tens of thousands. Bells rung, bands played, and women
smiled and said good-bye, when their hearts were breaking. After the
train moved out of the station, four women fainted; nature could no
longer bear the terrible strain. Mrs. Livermore helped restore
the women to consciousness. She had no sons to send; but when such
partings were seen, and such sorrows were in the future, she could not
What could women do to help in the dreadful struggle? A meeting of
New York ladies was called, which resulted in the formation of an Aid
Society, pledging loyalty to the Government, and promising assistance
to soldiers and their families. Two gentlemen were sent to Washington
to ask what work could be done, but word came back that there was no
place for women at the front, nor no need for them in the hospitals.
Such words were worse than wasted on American women. Since the day
when men and women together breasted the storms of New England in the
_Mayflower_, and together planted a new civilization, together they
have worked side by side in all great matters. They were untiring
in the Revolutionary War; they worked faithfully in the dark days of
anti-slavery agitation, taking their very lives in their hands. And
now their husbands and sons and brothers had gone from their homes.
They would die on battle-fields, and in lonely camps untended, and the
women simply said, "Some of us must follow our best-beloved."
The United States Sanitary Commission was soon organized, for working
in hospitals, looking after camps, and providing comforts for the
soldiers. Branch associations were formed in ten large cities.
The great Northwestern Branch was put under the leadership of Mrs.
Livermore and Mrs. A.H. Hoge. Useful things began to pour in from all
over the country,--fruits, clothing, bedding, and all needed comforts
for the army. Then Mrs. Livermore, now a woman of forty, with great
executive ability, warm heart, courage, and perseverance, with a few
others, went to Washington to talk with President Lincoln.
"Can no women go to the front?" they asked.
"No civilian, either man or woman, is permitted by _law_," said
Mr. Lincoln. But the great heart of the greatest man in America was
superior to the law, and he placed not a straw in their way. He was in
favor of anything which helped the men who fought and bled for their
Mrs. Livermore's first broad experience in the war was after the
battle of Fort Donelson. There were no hospitals for the men, and the
wounded were hauled down the hillside in rough-board Tennessee wagons,
most of them dying before they reached St. Louis. Some poor fellows
lay with the frozen earth around them, chopped out after lying in the
mud from Saturday morning until Sunday evening.
One blue-eyed lad of nineteen, with both legs and both arms shattered,
when asked, "How did it happen that you were left so long?" said,
"Why, you see, they couldn't stop to bother with us, _because they had
to take the fort_. When they took it, we forgot our sufferings, and
all over the battle-field cheers went up from the wounded, and even
from the dying."
At the rear of the battle-fields the Sanitary Commission now began
to keep its wagons with hot soup and hot coffee, women, fitly chosen,
always joining in this work, in the midst of danger. After the first
repulse at Vicksburg, there was great sickness and suffering. The
Commission sent Mrs. Hoge, two gentlemen accompanying her, with a
boat-load of supplies for the sick. One emaciated soldier, to whom she
gave a little package of white sugar, with a lemon, some green tea,
two herrings, two onions, and some pepper, said, "Is that _all_ for
me?" She bowed assent. She says: "He covered his pinched face with his
thin hands and burst into a low, sobbing cry. I laid my hand upon
his shoulder, and said, 'Why do you weep?' 'God bless the women!'
he sobbed out. 'What should we do but for them? I came from father's
farm, where all knew plenty; I've lain sick these three months; I've
seen no woman's face, nor heard her voice, nor felt her warm hand
till to-day, and it unmans me; but don't think I rue my bargain, for
I don't. I've suffered much and long, but don't let them know at
home. Maybe I'll never have a chance to tell them how much; but I'd go
through it all for the old flag.'"
Shortly after, accompanied by an officer, she went into the
rifle-pits. The heat was stifling, and the minie-balls were whizzing.
"Why, madam, where did you come from? Did you drop from heaven into
these rifle-pits? You are the first lady we have seen here;" and then
the voice was choked with tears.
"I have come from your friends at home, and bring messages of love and
honor. I have come to bring you the comforts we owe you, and love
to give. I've come to see if you receive what they send you," she
"Do they think as much of as as that? Why, boys, we can fight another
year on that, can't we?"
"Yes, yes!" they cried, and almost every hand was raised to brush away
She made them a kindly talk, shook the hard, honest hands, and said
good-bye. "Madame," said the officer, "promise me that you'll visit my
regiment to-morrow; 'twould be worth a victory to them. You don't know
what good a lady's visit to the army does. These men whom you have
seen to-day will talk of your visit for six months to come. Around
the fires, in the rifle-pits, in the dark night, or on the march, they
will repeat your words, describe your looks, voice, size, and dress;
and all agree in one respect,--that you look like an angel, and
exactly like each man's wife or mother. Ah! was there no work for
women to do?
The Sanitary and Christian Commissions expended about fifty million
dollars during the war, and of this, the women raised a generous
portion. Each battle cost the Sanitary Commission about seventy-five
thousand dollars, and the battle of Gettysburg, a half million
dollars. Mrs. Livermore was one of the most efficient helpers in
raising this money. She went among the people, and solicited funds and
supplies of every kind.
One night it was arranged that she should speak in Dubuque, Iowa, that
the people of that State might hear directly from their soldiers at
the front. When she arrived, instead of finding a few women as she had
expected, a large church was packed with both men and women, eager to
listen. The governor of the State and other officials were present.
She had never spoken in a mixed assembly. Her conservative training
made her shrink from it, and, unfortunately, made her feel incapable
of doing it.
"I cannot speak!" she said to the women who had asked her to come.
Disappointed and disheartened, they finally arranged with a prominent
statesman to jot down the facts from her lips; and then, as best he
could, tell to the audience the experiences of the woman who had been
on battle-fields, amid the wounded and dying. Just as they were about
to go upon the platform, the gentleman said, "Mrs. Livermore, I have
heard you say at the front, that you would give your all for the
soldiers,--a foot, a hand, or a voice. Now is the time to give your
voice, if you wish to do good."
She meditated a moment, and then she said, "I will try."
When she arose to speak, the sea of faces before her seemed blurred.
She was talking into blank darkness. She could not even hear her own
voice. But as she went on, and the needs of the soldiers crowded upon
her mind, she forgot all fear, and for two hours held the audience
spell-bound. Men and women wept, and patriotism filled every heart. At
eleven o'clock eight thousand dollars were pledged, and then, at the
suggestion of the presiding officer, they remained until one o'clock
to perfect plans for a fair, from which they cleared sixty thousand
dollars. After this, Mrs. Livermore spoke in hundreds of towns,
helping to organize many of the more than twelve thousand five hundred
aid societies formed during eighteen months.
As money became more and more needed, Mrs. Livermore decided to try
a sanitary commission fair in Chicago. The women said, "We will
raise twenty-five thousand dollars," but the men laughed at such
an impossibility. The farmers were visited, and solicited to give
vegetables and grain, while the cities were not forgotten. Fourteen of
Chicago's largest halls were hired. The women had gone into debt ten
thousand dollars, and the men of the city began to think they were
crazy. The Board of Trade called upon them and advised that the fair
be given up; the debts should be paid, and the men would give the
twenty-five thousand, when, in their judgment, it was needed! The
women thanked them courteously, but pushed forward in the work.
It had been arranged that the farmers should come on the opening day,
in a procession, with their gifts of vegetables. Of this plan the
newspapers made great sport, calling it the "potato procession." The
day came. The school children had a holiday, the bells were rung,
one hundred guns were fired, and the whole city gathered to see the
"potato procession." Finally it arrived,--great loads of cabbages,
onions, and over four thousand bushels of potatoes. The wagons each
bore a motto, draped in black, with the words, "We buried a son at
Donelson," "Our father lies at Stone River," and other similar ones.
The flags on the horses' heads were bound with black; the women who
rode beside a husband or son, were dressed in deep mourning. When the
procession stopped before Mrs. Livermore's house, the jeers were over,
and the dense crowd wept like children.
Six of the public halls were filled with beautiful things for sale,
while eight were closed so that no other attractions might compete
with the fair. Instead of twenty-five thousand, the women cleared one
hundred thousand dollars.
Then Cincinnati followed with a fair, making two hundred and
twenty-five thousand; Boston, three hundred and eighty thousand; New
York, one million; and Philadelphia, two hundred thousand more than
New York. The women had found that there was work enough for them to
Mrs. Livermore was finally ordered to make a tour of the hospitals
and military posts on the Mississippi River, and here her aid was
invaluable. It required a remarkable woman to undertake such a work.
At one point she found twenty-three men, sick and wounded, whose
regiments had left them, and who could not be discharged because they
had no descriptive lists. She went at once to General Grant, and said,
"General, if you will give me authority to do so, I will agree to take
these twenty-three wounded men home."
The officials respected the noble woman, and the red tape of army life
was broken for her sake.
When the desolate company arrived in Chicago, on Saturday, the last
train had left which could have taken a Wisconsin soldier home. She
took him to the hotel, had a fire made for him, and called a doctor.
"Pull him through till Monday, Doctor," she said, "and I'll get him
home." Then, to the lad, "You shall have a nurse, and Monday morning I
will go with you to your mother."
"Oh! don't go away," he pleaded; "I never shall see you again."
"Well, then, I'll go home and see my family, and come back in two
hours. The door shall be left open, and I'll put this bell beside you,
so that the chambermaid will come when you ring."
He consented, and Mrs. Livermore came back in two hours. The soldier's
face was turned toward the door, as though waiting for her, but he was
dead. He had gone home, but not to Wisconsin.
After the close of the war, so eager were the people to hear her,
that she entered the lecture field and has for years held the foremost
place among women as a public speaker. She lectures five nights a
week, for five months, travelling twenty-five thousand miles annually.
Her fine voice, womanly, dignified manner, and able thought have
brought crowded houses before her, year after year. She has
earned money, and spent it generously for others. The energy and
conscientiousness of little Mary Rice have borne their legitimate
Every year touching incidents came up concerning the war days. Once,
after she had spoken at Fabyan's American Institute of Instruction, a
military man, six feet tall, came up to her and said, "Do you remember
at Memphis coming over to the officers' hospital?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Livermore.
While the officers were paid salaries, very often the paymasters could
not find them when ill, and for months they would not have a penny,
not even receiving army rations. Mrs. Livermore found many in
great need, and carried them from the Sanitary Commission blankets,
medicine, and food. Milk was greatly desired, and almost impossible to
be obtained. One day she came into the wards, and said that a certain
portion of the sick "could have two goblets of milk for every meal."
"Do you remember," said the tall man, who was then a major, "that one
man cried bitterly and said, 'I want two glasses of milk,' and that
you patted him on the head, as he lay on his cot? And that the man
said, as he thought of the dear ones at home, whom he might not see
again, 'Could you kiss me?' and the noble woman bent down and kissed
him? I am that man, and God bless you for your kindness."
Mrs. Livermore wears on her third finger a plain gold ring which has a
After lecturing recently at Albion, Mich., a woman came up, who had
driven eight miles, to thank her for a letter written for John,
her son, as he was dying in the hospital. The first four lines were
dictated by the dying soldier; then death came, and Mrs. Livermore
finished the message. The faded letter had been kept for twenty years,
and copies made of it. "Annie, my son's wife," said the mother, "never
got over John's death. She kept about and worked, but the life had
gone out of her. Eight years ago she died. One day she said, 'Mother,
if you ever find Mrs. Livermore, or hear of her, I wish you would give
her my wedding ring, which has never been off my finger since John put
it there. Ask her to wear it for John's sake and mine, and tell her
this was my dying request.'"
With tears in the eyes of both giver and receiver, Mrs. Livermore held
out her hand, and the mother placed on the finger this memento of two
Mrs. Livermore has spent ten years in the temperance reform. While
she has shown the dreadful results of the liquor traffic, she has
been kind both in word and deed. Some time ago, passing along a Boston
street, she saw a man in the ditch, and a poor woman bending over him.
"Who is he?" she asked of the woman.
"He's my husband, ma'am. He's a good man when he is sober, and earns
four dollars a day in the foundry. I keep a saloon."
Mrs. Livermore called a hack. "Will you carry this man to number ----?"
"No, madam, he's too dirty. I won't soil my carriage."
"Oh!" pleaded the wife, "I'll clean it all up for ye, if ye'll take
him," and pulling off her dress-skirt, she tried to wrap it around her
husband. Stepping to a saloon near by, Mrs. Livermore asked the men to
come out and help lift him. At first they laughed, but were soon made
ashamed, when they saw that a lady was assisting. The drunken man was
gotten upon his feet, wrapped in his wife's clothing, put into the
hack, and then Mrs. Livermore and the wife got in beside him, and he
was taken home. The next day the good Samaritan called, and brought
the priest, from whom the man took the pledge. A changed family was
Her life is filled with thousands of acts of kindness, on the cars, in
poor homes, and in various charitable institutions. She is the author
of two or more books, _What shall we do with Our Daughters?_ and
_Reminiscences of the War;_ but her especial power has been her
eloquent words, spoken all over the country, in pulpits, before
colleges, in city and country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast.
Like Abraham Lincoln, who said, "I go for all sharing the privileges
of the government, who assist in bearing its burdens,--by no means
excluding women," she has advocated the enfranchisement of her sex,
along with her other work.
Now, past sixty, her active, earnest life, in contact with the people,
has kept her young in heart and in looks.
"A great authority on what constitutes beauty complains that the
majority of women acquire a dull, vacant expression towards middle
life, which makes them positively plain. He attributes it to their
neglect of all mental culture, their lives having settled down to a
monotonous routine of house-keeping, visiting, gossip, and shopping.
Their thoughts become monotonous, too, for, though these things are
all good enough in their way, they are powerless to keep up any mental
life or any activity of thought."
Mrs. Livermore has been an inspiration to girls to make the most
of themselves and their opportunities. She has been an ideal of
womanhood, not only to "the boys" on the battle-fields, but to tens
of thousands who are fighting the scarcely less heroic battles of
every-day life. May it be many years before she shall go out forever
from her restful, happy home, at Melrose, Mass.
Mrs. Livermore died at her home, May 23, 1905, at 8 A.M., of
bronchitis. She was in her eighty-fourth year, and had survived her
husband six years. When her funeral services were held, the schools of
Melrose closed, business was suspended, bells were tolled, and flags
floated at half-mast. She was an active member of thirty-seven clubs.
The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon her, in 1896, by Tufts