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‘Ella’ Gibson: Breaking barriers

  • Ella Gibson of Rindge<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Ella Gibson of Rindge<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Ella Gibson of Rindge<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

More than a century after her death, a Rindge woman is being remembered this Memorial Day for her service as the first woman chaplain in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

Elvira “Ella” Gibson, although born in Winchendon, Mass., spent much of her youth in Rindge, a place her family had called home for generations. Gibson moved to the small New Hampshire town when she was just 8 years old, and later in life became a successful schoolteacher.

But even in those early days, Gibson demonstrated a commitment to political causes, including women’s rights and abolitionism, which set her apart from the female caretakers of her time, according to Rindge historian Ken Raymond . Later in life, Gibson would support herself with writing. She wrote social critiques, a number of which were published in the liberal press.

“Even by today’s standards, one might say that Ella was eccentric,” Raymond said Tuesday. “But regardless of her beliefs, she served her country and never got any recognition for it.”

During the past few years, Raymond said he and other members of the town’s Historical Committee have been working hard to change that and honor Gibson with a veteran’s marker at her gravesite in the Church Side Cemetery next to the First Congregational Church in Rindge, where her parents, brother, sister and grandparents are also buried.

“It was very unusual for a woman to serve in this role,” Raymond said of Gibson’s unique service as an army chaplain for the First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery in the 1860s.

But obtaining a veteran’s grave marker for Gibson was not an easy task, Raymond said. The Rindge Historical Committee applied for the grave marker in February 2012. Then, by a rule change in May 2012 requiring a family descendant to give his or her blessing, the town reapplied with Laura Sullivan — a longtime Rindge resident and Gibson family descendant — serving as the signatory.

“Our application was rejected,” Raymond said, explaining that the evidence the town provided the federal government about Gibson’s Civil War service was limited due to available records. “But after several phone conversations [with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs], the marker was approved.”

The grave marker arrived while Rindge still had plenty of snow on the ground, Raymond said, and it was placed in the Church Side Cemetery just a few weeks ago.

Monday, prior to Rindge’s Memorial Day parade, residents and town officials will honor Gibson with a brief cemetery service and prayer. The Memorial Day tributes will begin at 1 p.m.

Gibson had married Rev. John Hobart in 1861 and tended the wounded and the sick alongside her husband, then chaplain of Wisconsin’s Eighth Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It was around that same time that Gibson authored a pamphlet entitled “The Soldier’s Gift: The Dangers and Temptations of Army Life” for distribution among the troops, with proceeds from the sale of the pamphlet distributed to the Northwest Sanitary Commission.

Gibson’s remarks, though, raised eyebrows, Raymond said, adding that she spoke about what she believed were the evils of the world, including profanity, immorality, gambling and intemperance. Her thoughts on these matters were not taken seriously by soldiers, who felt war was a man’s business and women should be at home, Raymond said.

By 1865, Gibson had become an ordained minister, but her appointment as chaplain to the First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery was never be endorsed by U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, because she was a woman. Despite this setback, Gibson served her post in Virginia through the end of the war.

But Gibson would not receive pay for her services until March 7, 1876 — a misfortune that can be blamed on the politics of the day, Raymond said. And not until 100 years after her death, at the age of 79, was Gibson posthumously granted her grade of captain in the Chaplains Corps of the U.S. Army, thanks to a 2001 appropriations bill.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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