In 1837 when she was twenty, she married Cyrus Aiken of Vermont. The couple honeymooned in Boston and then set out by stage and flat boat along the Erie Canal west toward Chicago. Their purpose was to settle on the Rock River at Grand DeTour, Illinois in Ogle County. The area was a colony of Vermont expatriates including John Deere, the founder of the farm machinery company who was a blacksmith from Rutland, Vermont.
Pioneer life was tough on Lizzie and other women in the area. Tragedy struck in her early years in Brimfield, Illinois in Peoria County when she lost all four of her boys to cholera, then her sister, and finally her husband was incapacitated due to illness and their small estate was lost after a move to Peoria. As the start of the Civil War, she both nursed and performed missionary duties among soldiers in the sick tents near Peoria.
During the Civil War, nurses were called "Angels of the Battlefield." Maryland gave us Clara Barton who years after the war founded the American Red Cross. Another famous nurse of that era hailed from Peoria, Illinois.
Early in 1861, a young widow that soldiers called "Aunt Lizzie" Aiken showed up one day at the headquarters of the Sixth Illinois Cavalry also known as "The Governor Yates Legion" near Peoria. She reported to the head surgeon Major Niglas to offer her services taking care of the wounded, building morale, and doing the hard jobs that then as now define nursing.
She also did missionary work, read the Bible to the soldiers, and wrote or read letters for them. She worked without any pay at first and without a military rank as a volunteer. Even when she entered federal service in 1862, her salary was $12 per month when it was paid. "What shall we call this kind lady?" a soldier asked Dr. Niglas. "Call her 'Aunt Lizzie,' we all just call her Aunt Lizzie."
Aunt Lizzie was asked to go to Cairo but she ignored her own safety and followed the unit to Shawneetown, Illinois. In the severe winter of 1861-1862, she and one other nurse took care of between twenty and eighty patients each day by taking two six-hour shifts each day. In January 1862, she was paid a visit one day by General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman who wanted to congratulate her for having saved the lives of four hundred men.
At Shawneetown in early 1862 she wrote to a friend, "Twenty-four nights in succession I have sat up until three in the morning, dealing out medicine. I cannot think of leaving these poor fellows if there's any chance of their living. I have, for the last month, written ten letters a week. I correspond with four Ladies Aid Societies."
She moved with the regiment to a new assignment in Paducah, Kentucky at St. Mark's Hospital with "Mother Sturgis," the wife of another officer. Finally when the Sixth Illinois Cavalry went further south into Confederate territory, Aunt Lizzie and Mother Sturgis were left to do general nursing work for Union Soldiers at Ovington Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee and were no longer assigned just to one Illinois regiment.
Before the war, the Ovington had been the finest hotel in Memphis. But during the war, it was a hospital run by six Roman Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross and six Protestant nurses. Aunt Lizzie was in charge of Ward A with one hundred sick and wounded men. Both armies lost more men to disease and delayed treatment of wounds than to direct enemy fire.
One day she received a note that six hundred sick and wounded had arrived at the Jefferson Hospital in the city and that number included her brother Bertrand so she rushed to find him. She did not recognize him but heard a voice say, "Oh Lizzie, how much you look like Mother." She still did not recognize him because his appearance had changed so much over the years. Lizzie took a leave to take her brother Bertrand Atherton to St. Louis to give him to her other brother Ward Atherton who in turn took him home to Hoyleton, Illinois in Washington County near Centralia.
In February 1864 an invasion force of fifteen thousand calvary soldiers from the north left Memphis to a march on Mississippi. The force was led by Lizzie's old regiment, the Sixth Illinois. Soldiers came by the hospital by the hundreds to see her and to ask her to stay in Memphis in case they might be wounded so that she could care for them later. But her own health was declining and she was sent to another hospital. Through all her own struggles and all her work during the war, she never forgot a promise she made to her grandfather as he was dying many years before to always trust in God.
In June 1865 after the war was over, Mother Sturgis helped Lizzie get back to Peoria. Later that year she went to Chicago to stay with a friend and recuperate. She needed a living so applied for various jobs including at a newspaper. For a year or so she worked at a Refuge for men set up by the YMCA. While one editor turned her down for a job, he referred her to the wife of a Baptish pastor who steered Lizzie back to missionary work. Baptists were a very active church in Chicago in the late 1800s and took on the job of raising money and setting up a board for the University of Chicago in 1892.
Lizzie became a missionary at the Second Baptist Church of Chicago in 1867 and made as many as 12,000 visits to sick people in 12 years. She remained with the Second Baptist Church for the rest of her life and died 38 years later in Chicago on January 16, 1906 at the age of 88. Her career in Chicago was almost as well known as her exploits during the Civil War.
There were many other tributes to Lizzie's life and work from the press in 1906 and this one came from a newspaper called The Christian Herald:
"There died recently, in the City of Chicago, a woman whose career was so remarkable for its' heroic self sacrifice and dauntless courage, that she could be ranked as high as the bravest soldier who does battle for his country. Her name was, Mrs. Eliza N. Aiken, but perhaps this would have an unfamiliar sound to the grizzled veterans; but say, 'Aunt Lizzie' the angel of the hospitals of Memphis and Paducah, and they would raise their hands to the salute, out of respect and love to America' s Florence Nightingale."Free PDF book "The Story of Aunt Lizzie Aiken" published in 1880, in my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®.