Ann Bradford Stokes: From “Contraband” to Civil War Naval Nurse

Image: U.S. Navy

As the ship began to move downstream along the Mississippi River, the young woman in the long dark dress and black headscarf took a deep breath and stepped into the ward. Before beginning her rounds, she paused to survey the room. In front her, she saw rows of beds full of fearfully wounded soldiers. Some had their arms and legs blown off; others were missing entire sections of their face, and a few had live worms crawling from their wounds. The ones who weren’t wounded suffered from hosts of diseases: typhoid, cholera, malaria, scurvy, dysentery, Tuberculosis, and Vitamin C deficiency. Despite knowing most of them would die, she worked tirelessly to comfort them.

It was May 1863, two years into the Civil War, and Ms. Ann Bradford Stokes, a former enslaved person, suddenly found herself as one of four Black nurses stationed aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover,  the Navy’s first hospital ship in a job she never could have imagined.

In 1830, Stokes was born on a plantation in Rutherford County, Tennessee. Little else is known about her early life except that she was unable to read or write. Her narrative picks up again in January 1863 when she escaped from the plantation and ended up somewhere along the Cumberland River where she was eventually picked up and taken on board the Union ship, the U.S.S. Red Rover as “contraband”–according to the 1861 Confiscation Act, enslaved people who escaped Confederate states to Union territory were legally regarded as confiscated enemy property (“contraband”). Prior to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, their status was uncertain; however, after signing it, contrabands were considered free. But Stokes, like so many others, had no where to go. Hungry and homeless and refusing to return to the plantation, Stokes chose to stay on board, and sign up as a volunteer with the Sister of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame, who were called upon by the Governor of Illinois to act as nurses.

The sisters welcomed female contraband, believing their midwifery skills had accustomed them to blood. And so Stokes, now part of the sisterhood, was officially enlisted in the United States Navy as a “first class boys,” a rank given to young men under seventeen who performed general sailor duties. For the first time in her life, Ann Bradford Stokes was paid accordingly for her work. On the ship, she and four other Black women, who also had escaped their enslavers, cooked and cleaned and laundered, but, most of their time was spent nursing the wounded or sick. Lacking professional training in medicine, the women relied on intuition and folk remedies—when the war first broke, there were 150 hospitals in the entire country and nursing as a profession was in a nascent stage.

None of this discouraged the women, who endured ghastly conditions: the summer heat from the Mississippi was dreadful. It came with a devastating humidity that brought with it haughty flies and mosquitoes that buzzed incessantly around the infected wounds. Bandages oozed with blood and pus, emitting a rancid stench that seeped into their skin and noses and hung in air. For 18 months, under the direction of the Sisters, Stokes and her fellow nurses cared for and treated almost 3,000 patients.

In 1864, she retired from service and married Gilbert Stokes, a Black soldier whom she had met on board the ship. The young couple moved to southern Illinois, but two years later, Gilbert died. In 1867, she remarried and, with her second husband, moved to a farm in Belkap, IL where she had one child. Sometime in the 1880s, Stokes applied on behalf of her first husband to receive her pension as a soldier’s widow. But her inability to read or write made the application process tedious, and the Navy denied her request.

Stokes was not deterred.

In failing health, she learned to read and write, and in 1890, reapplied for her pension. This time, she laid out her own argument: She wanted the pension not based on her husband’s military service, but her own. It was a brilliant move, one that seemed to blindside the pension office. Confused, they sent her application to the Navy that verified Stokes  18 months service as “boy.” As such, she was entitled to a pensionable disability.

In 1890, the United States Navy granted Ann Bradford Stokes her a pension of $12 per month, making her the first woman to apply and be granted a pension based on her own military service.


Image: National Library of Medicine

In celebrating Ann Bradford Stokes’ legacy, it seems fitting to honor the other four Black women who served alongside her on the U.S.S. Red Rover:

Ellen Campbell

Alice Kennedy

Sarah Kinno

Betsy Young (later known as Young-Fowler).