History Wars Civil War

Why this caregiver was allowed to follow her husband to battle

Famed explorer and Civil War amputee John Wesley Powell achieved great things after his war wounds in part thanks to his wife, Emma.
Logan Nye Avatar
John Wesley Powell and emma dean powell
John Wesley Powell and his wife, Emma, in Detroit in 1863.

U.S. Army Major John Wesley Powell served at the Battle of Shiloh. When he fought at Pittsburgh Landing in April 1862, the new husband and 28-year-old man suffered a wound that haunted him the rest of his life. A Confederate bullet slammed into his right forearm, necessitating amputation. Though he described himself as a “maimed” man and suffered nerve pain the rest of his life, he served through the end of the war. And then he became one of America’s most impactful explorers.

That post-injury service is almost certainly thanks to the careful ministrations of his wife, who accompanied him on campaigns and expeditions for the rest of his life.

What was John Wesley Powell best known for?

John grew up exploring the wilderness of Illinois. The active boy grew into a man and teacher. He studied at taught at multiple colleges in Illinois and Ohio but never got his degree. And when it became clear that war was coming, he studied military science and engineering to get ready.

He joined the U.S. Army as a private, got elected to sergeant major, then received a commission to second lieutenant, and finally recruited an artillery battery and became a captain and battery commander. That was all in his first year.

He also got married to Harriet Emma Dean Powell.

But his run of great luck took a turn in April 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh. There, as he prepared to give an order to fire, a Minie ball suddenly struck him in the right forearm. He made it to a hospital tent where he was treated by William D. Medcalfe of Illinois. Medcalfe, like many military doctors of the day, operated outside his normal skillset.

A druggist by trade, Medcalfe performed Powell’s amputation but left nerve damage that would haunt him the rest of his life.

But Powell did have an advantage most soldiers wouldn’t: His wife made it to the Tennessee hospital and provided support to him before and after the amputation.

john wesley powell
Powell served as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881 to 1894. This photograph dates from early in his term of office.

Emma Dean Powell

Harriet Emma Dean Powell went by Emma. She and John fell immediately in love after their meeting in 1855 and married in 1861. Emma’s care for John continued as her husband, despite the loss of his arm, stayed on active duty.

John requested a permanent pass for his wife to help him. He continued to serve, in combat, until the end of the war. Emma went with him and the Army. During battles, John went forward into the fight and Emma volunteered at the field hospitals. As Congress later summarized in a special bill to ensure that Emma received a pension after her husband’s death:

During most of his military service she kept near him and it is due to a large extent to her loving care and intelligent nursing that Major Powell was able so soon after the amputation of his right arm to rejoin his command in the field and render valuable and conspicuous service to his country in his campaigns during the nearly three years of his army life which followed. At the siege of Vicksburg she not only ministered to her husband’s wants but also gave her best services in the hospitals at Vicksburg to other wounded officers, being retained within the lines by special direction of General Grant.

“Emma Dean Powell,” 57th Cong. 2nd Sess., Senate Report No. 2302, as cited in emergingcivilwar.com

In 1865, John finally accepted a discharge. But he emerged as an accomplished explorer of the American West, summitting Pike’s Peak, leading the first expedition through the Grand Canyon, and exploring vast sections of Colorado.

For most of John’s famed career after the war, Emma was there supporting him. As one historian put it, she climbed Pike’s Peak with him while “clad in multiple petticoats and a dress that reached her boot tops.” When part of an 1868-1869 expedition wintered in the Rocky Mountains, she was the only woman to stay in the camp rather than return east for the winter. While there, she prepared 175 animal study specimens for collection.

Emma Dean Powell
Emma Dean Powell.

Emma took part in the expeditions even when she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Mary. She headed west for the Green River expedition at five months of pregnancy, then went to Salt Lake City to give birth, and returned to the expedition camp with the infant.

After that expedition, Emma did slow down her own exploring, largely staying in Washington D.C. to care for Mary as her husband continued his own career.

But as Congress acknowledged after John Wesley Powell’s death, her role as a caregiver made John’s continued military service possible. And it’s certain that his explorations would have suffered without her presence as well.