Almost all of the characters I have featured in A Scratch with the Rebels also appear in Beyond all Price. The two books differ, however, in a couple of significant ways. "Scratch" is straight documented history. "Beyond All Price" is a fictionalized re-telling of the story of Nurse Nellie Chase, who is barely mentioned in the historical monologue. From the beginning, Nellie's story fascinated me because so little could be known about her. For those of you who don't recognize the name, Nellie is the heroine of my book,
Beyond All Price. She was a teen-age runaway, "married" to a gambling, hard-drinking, cheating musician who was regularly on the run from the law, dragging Nellie with him. To escape his abuse when he wanted her to become the madame of his new brothel, she signed on with a Union regiment as their matron and head nurse.
When I discovered this picture of her, crumpled up as if someone meant to toss it away, at the Military History Museum, I was thrilled. Now I knew what she looked like! And ever since then I've been saying with great confidence that only one picture of Nellie existed. It shows Nellie in Beaufort, SC, with the staff of the Roundhead Regiment in March 1862.
David Welch, the editor of the Roundhead Regiment website, and I had both hunted in vain for other pictures of her. I enlisted the help of a librarian in Philadelphia because we knew she had had a CDV taken there. I combed the archives of the Army's Military History Museum. David read every Civil War newspaper he could find. We plundered Google Books. Nothing. No record of her existed beyond this crumpled photo in Carlyle, PA. We knew only that after a year with the Pennsylvania Roundheads, she moved on to other Civil War battlegrounds, ending up in Union-occupied Nashville as matron of Hospital No. 3 in the spring of 1863.
Then, a couple of years ago David sent me this picture taken in 1863. It showed three women on a small "carte de visite." At the bottom was a handwritten label: Nurses. Hospital No. ?. Summer "63." The picture had been part of an auction held in 2006; it was listed as a rare CDV taken in Nashville. It sold for $720.00.
David had a single stunning question for me: Is the woman on the left Nellie Chase?
I've tried putting the cropped images side by side. Study them for yourself:
The hairstyles are identical. The faces are rounded ovals with symmetrical features. Both women have noticably sloping shoulders --almost looking as if they have no collarbones. They have full lips but not a wisp of a smile. (I tried running facial recognition software on the two photos, but since one is full face and the other a profile, I could not get a clear hit.)
As for the Nashville picture, we know that Nellie was one of three nurses working in Hospital No. 3 at the time this picture was taken. I've confirmed those facts from published letters in the Walt Whitman Collection that mention her. She was in a supervisory position over the others, which would fit with the image of her reading to the other two.
As a historian, I cannot prove that this new image is a picture of Nellie Chase. But as a novelist (who is permitted to tell lies, even whoppers), I can say that this is the Nellie of my imagination. So what do you think? Is this my Nellie? If you have read the book, is this how you think she might have looked? Does the picture bring her character into clearer focus?