Mrs. Emma Miller, first VA woman employee, 100th anniversary of her passingPosted: January 18, 2014
From the Veterans Affairs Historian
“We don’t want a vast net-work of soldiers’ poor-houses scattered through the land, in which these brave fellows will languish away dull and wretched lives. Nor do we want petty State asylums, to be quarreled about and made the subject of party politics. We want to economize our battered heroes, and take care of them in such a way as to maintain the military spirit and the national pride, to nurse the memories of war, and to keep in the eye of the Nation the price of its liberties.” Rev. Henry Bellows, U.S. Sanitary Commission, Report No. 67, 1863.
One hundred years ago, on January 18, 1914, Mrs. Emma L. Miller, the first matron and female employee in VHA’s early history, passed away. She was a notable woman, not only because she was the first matron, but because her lifelong devotion and service to Civil War veterans drew admiration from the men whom she took care of, and won her enough respect from the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers’ Board of Managers that they appointed her as the first woman officer in that organization—a rarity at the time.
Before the Civil War, Emma L. Miller lived a simple life as a young wife and mother moving with her husband from Pennsylvania, to Illinois, then settling in Ohio, as they chased the American dream. All of that changed when she lost her husband during the American Civil War. She, along with thousands of her Northern “sisters” who experienced the same loss—be it brother, son, husband, cousin, or friend—joined forces and funneled their grief into compassionate and fervent causes that rendered care and aid to soldiers who survived the war’s ravages. She became very active in the Cincinnati and Cleveland branches of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was charged by Congress with providing medical care, support, and services to the Union’s volunteer forces. After the war, in October 1865, when the State of Ohio established a soldier’s home in Columbus for sick and injured discharged soldiers, she was appointed as its matron.
When the U.S. government established a branch of its National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (later named National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers) in March 1867, it initially took over the state home in Columbus, but later selected a site in Dayton as its permanent location for the Central Branch home. Miss Miller became the first matron for the National Homes and brought 16 disabled “boys in blue” with her to the new Dayton site in the fall of 1867.
As matron, she helped at the hospital, oversaw laundry operations, ran the Home’s hotel (see photo, left). Later she was promoted to Superintendent of the General Depot, where much of the clothing and supplies for all of the National Homes was manufactured and distributed. This was a very rare position to held by a woman in those days. In the 1880 National Home’s annual report, she reported that the “Matron’s Department” had washed, pressed, repaired, and reissued over 1,703,648 pieces of laundry and linens, averaging 32,762 pieces per week. Worn out linens were condemned, then washed and reused in the hospital as bandages and dressings, in the engineer’s department as wipers and wrappings for steam-pipes, and as wipers and mops elsewhere.
Emma Miller was about 35 years old when she first became matron for the National Home’s Central Branch in 1867. When she was appointed as Superintendent of the Depot, effective January 1, 1895, she became an officer on the Board of Managers staff and remained so until her death. She was a fixture of the Dayton home for nearly 50 years and she lived on-site, like other officers of the National Home. In 1870 she shared quarters with her three children—Anna (18), Joseph (16), and Henry (13)—and three Irish-born servants. She spent her entire post-Civil War life at the National Home in Dayton and grew old along with many of the men whom she originally took care of during the war.
Emma Miller died in her quarters at the National Home on January 18, 1914 after a short illness and, at her request, was buried in the Dayton National Cemetery (formerly the National Home’s cemetery). [photo of headstone, below, Memorial Day 2007]