Mehitable Woods: Civil War Hero
By Visit Fairfield | March 8, 2022
Did you know that Fairfield had its own civil war hero? Her name was Mehitable Ellis Woods, and her story is one of a true pioneer and deserves to be remembered by all Iowans!
For 51 years, Mrs. Woods was a resident of Fairfield, Iowa and during that time, she was most noted for her many trips across enemy lines to deliver supplies to "her boys", the Iowa troops who were fighting in the Civil War.
The Civil War led to an increase in the number of women taking on roles that were traditionally held by men. Nurses, community leaders, and social workers all played important parts during this time period as civilians helped influence change within their communities while also providing care for soldiers.
When the Civil War broke out, Mehitable Ellis Woods, often called "the soldiers' friend" and nicknamed Aunty Woods by the troops, was one of the women in town who gathered to make uniforms for the departing soldiers. She became a member of the Fairfield Ladies’ Aid Society, a group formed in October 1861. This group gathered supplies to send to the military hospitals that were in desperate need of bedding, clothing, and food to bolster.
Woods' first humanitarian mission was to deliver supplies of sanitary towels and other necessities at the hospital in Keokuk, Iowa where injured Iowa soldiers were sent. It was here that she realized that, in addition to medical supplies, these soldiers were in need of someone to take the place of their mother. In response, she stayed with them through most parts of 1862, working to alleviate the suffering of soldiers coming back from battle.
When Mehitable's work at Keokuk was done, she offered to carry supplies to the troops in the field and assist in nursing the sick or wounded if they could secure her a pass from Secretary of War Edwin M Stanton. The Society received the necessary papers and she obtained her own commissary wagons that would be used to deliver needed foodstuffs and medical supplies. Mrs. Woods also acted as the Society’s agent in the field and hospital for the balance of the war.
From 1863-1865, Mrs. Woods tirelessly traveled to the front lines, often serving as both physician and nurse for "her boys". Throughout the war, this brave woman made nine trips into Confederate territory to deliver the necessary supplies to Iowa troops. These trips could not have been easy given the danger of passing through enemy lines as well as the physical challenge of carrying cargoes that varied from 10 to 37 tons. On at least 2 occasions she came under fire but escaped uninjured.
September 1864 would mark her last and most difficult trip. She gathered all that the Fairfield community could furnish in pickles, vegetables, cheese, and more before stopping in Chicago to increase her supplies to 37 tons. But she was stopped in New Orleans where the post commander told her she could go no further and must surrender her supplies to him, stating that she could not pass even if she had "a pass for heaven". Mrs. Woods was a strong-willed woman who had seen more than most people could imagine. She did not back down from any challenge showed the officer her pass from the Secretary of War and finished the argument by insisting that no power on earth would keep her away. She later arrived at her destination to find that there was a great need for the supplies and services she delivered.
The end of the Civil War ended the need for her humanitarian trips but "Aunty" Woods never lost her interest in the soldiers. She received many honors and the local Hose department (predecessor to the Fire Department) was named after her. At the time of her death in 1891, hundreds of citizens and soldiers paid tribute to her with the funeral procession reaching from the city park to the cemetery. A modern day tribute to one of Fairfield's most notable citizens is now located on the Freedom Rock in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Mehitable Woods was an amazing woman who did so much for the troops during the Civil War. She was a true hero and will never be forgotten. Thank you, Aunty Woods, for your service!
If you would like to learn more about her, please visit the Carnegie Historical Museum, located at 114 S Court St.