by Ken Raymond
Elvira “Ella” Gibson was born in Winchendon MA May 8th 1821, the daughter of Isaac and Nancy (Kimball) Gibson. The Gibson family moved to Rindge in 1827. Miss Gibson became a successful teacher in the public schools of Rindge, then becoming better known to the public as a writer and lecturer on abolition and other moral issues of the time.
She married Rev. John Hobart in 1861. He was appointed as chaplain of the Wisconsin 8th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. From the beginning Ella was constantly in attendance with the Regiment in service to the sick and wounded. The 8th Wis. became nationally known as the “Live Eagle Regiment” for their mascot, Old Abe the War Eagle, a bald eagle given as a gift to the regiment before their departure to the seat of war. Old Abe was carried into battle with their color guard.
Besides the fame of Old Abe, the 8th was known as a hard fighting regiment that participated in the major battles of Iuka, Corinth, Vicksburg, Nashville, the Red River Campaign and many other lesser engagements. Old Abe survived the war and lived for many years, appearing at election rallies, GAR conventions and veterans reunions. When Old Abe wasn’t on tour he lived at the Wisconsin State Capitol until his death. Old Abe is considered the inspiration for the “Screaming Eagle” insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
During this period Ella authored “The Soldiers Gift” a pamphlet for distribution to the troops. The proceeds from the sale of this pamphlet were distributed to the Northwest Sanitary Commission. This organization and others like it were involved in matters of army sanitary conditions and aid to the troops and are credited with greatly improving camp conditions and reducing the incidence of disease, the leading cause of death during the war.
In 1864 Ella became an ordained minister herself, and was recommended for appointment by Wisconsin Governor Lewis and other state officials as chaplain to the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery. President Abraham Lincoln endorsed the appointment, but Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton refused to muster her because she was a woman. Despite this she served at her post, at Fort Lyon, Alexandria, VA through the end of the war. By an act of Congress in 1869, pay for her services was belatedly approved. Her pay was further delayed until March 7th 1876, when she received from US Treasurer John C New $1210.56, the amount in full, at which time she distributed most of that sum to causes of her choosing. During her line of duty, Ella contracted malaria, which severely disabled her.
Ella was divorced, resuming her maiden name in 1868, making her home with a sister in Barre MA. Despite her disability she supported herself through her writing. She became an advocate for women’s rights and other issues. She contributed to the liberal press for the rest of her life. Her writing appeared in many periodicals of the day including The Truth Seeker, The Boston Investigator, The Ironclad Age and The Moralist. She was the Editor of the later publication during the early 1890s.
According to her March 8th 1901 obituary Ella died at the age of 79 two months short of her 80th birthday in Barre MA. At her own request, no funeral was held and her remains cremated, her ashes scattered. Because she was not officially mustered into the Army she was ineligible for disability benefits and received no compensation for her service other than the pay that took eleven years to realize. One hundred years after her death a military appropriations bill of 2001, the 107th Congress, Senate Bill 1438 became Public Law 107-107 (2002), posthumously granted her the grade of captain in the Chaplains Corps of the U.S. Army.