By Greg Meyer
In honor of Women’s History Month, we turn our attention to the story of Elizabeth Finnern. Perhaps the reader has heard the story of Elizabeth, a Greensburg resident who supposedly went to the Civil War with her husband John Finnern, disguised as a man, and participated in combat until she was discovered to be a woman. She then finished the war as a nurse in her husband’s regiment. First of all, there is discrepancy about her last name. Her tombstone has “Finnern,” but her obituary calls her “Finnan.” A directory of the 81st Ohio Regiment, her husband’s unit, lists him as “Finnan” And according to the Decatur County Historian, Russell Wilhoit, no “official” evidence of Elizabeth’s service has ever been found.
According to her lengthy obituary in the Greensburg News issue of July 19, 1907, her story is a bit different. Elizabeth Cain Finnern and her husband John were born in Germany. She was an orphan when she came to this country and settled in Rome, NY. She couldn’t be understood, so John Finnern was called in to interpret. This meeting led to romance, and they were later married in Rome. They had no children, and “lived for one another.” They ended up in Ohio by the time of the Civil War, when John enlisted. Offering her service at Sandusky, OH, she was taken to Cincinnati, where she was examined and was accepted as a laundress for the Ohio 81st Regiment, her husband’s unit.
The post of laundress was soon abolished, and Mr. Finnern was informed by a General Dodge that Elizabeth must leave. However, General John A. Logan “had observed the attachment between husband and wife and interfered in their behalf.” Elizabeth was allowed to remain with the regiment and a little “A” tent was supplied to her. Her obituary states that “She drew the government rations the same as any soldier and much of the time wore male attire. In times of danger she carried a musket just as did the soldiers and in all respects shared the rough life of the men about her.” It was further written that she had vivid remembrances of the battle of Shiloh, where she saw dead men piled in heaps. She roamed the battlefield, seeking out wounded and helping where she could. It was there where she was kicked by a mule, “and from this injury she never recovered.” The obituary never states that she actually engaged in combat herself at any time.
At every battle, Mrs. Finnern acted as a surgeon’s assistant, caring for the wounded and dying. It is written that at the battle of Lookout Mountain, she was able to perform a service for General Grant, who later “took occasion to single her out for praise. He also presented her with a towel, a very fine gift in those days of hardship.”
After the end of the Civil War, John and Elizabeth moved to Laurel, IN, where they lived on a tiny farm. A year later, they moved to Williamstown, on the northern border of Decatur County. Later, they moved into Greensburg, until John’s death in November of 1905. After his death Elizabeth was cared for by friends and members of the Women’s Relief Corps, who were responsible for getting her a widow’s pension from the government. On July 15, 1907, she died at the home of James Parker, and was buried beside her beloved husband in the Soldiers Circle of South Park Cemetery in Greensburg.
Whether or not Elizabeth Finnern served as a combat soldier in the Civil War, her contributions to the effort appear to be undeniable, and she should be remembered for them.
To learn more about women's roles in the Civil War, check out:
They fought like demons: women soldiers in the Civil War
by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook