Bridget Diver: Custer’s Female Wolverine

Previous posts on the site have explored the stories of remarkable Irish women such as Jennie Hodgers, who served as Albert D.J. Cashier in the 95th Illinois Infantry, and Mary Sophia Hill, who accompanied her brother to the front and became known as the ‘Florence Nightingale of the Confederacy.’ Another such woman was Bridget Diver*, whose exploits during the war earned her the nicknames ‘Irish Biddy’ and ‘Michigan Bridget.’

Little is known about Bridget’s life in the years leading up to the Civil War, other than that she was born in Ireland and followed her husband to the front when he enlisted in the 1st Michigan Cavalry. The 1st Michigan would become famed as part of George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade, which were known as the Wolverines. It has become difficult to unpick the reality of Michigan Bridget from the myth; one of the most dramatic accounts of her time at the front is attributed to the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862:

Suddenly the Union line gave way and retreated in part, leaving the wounded exposed to merciless fire. One soldier, prone upon the ground with a shattered leg, raised his hand after the retreating troops. From the horde of fugitives dashed “Irish Biddy,” soiled by the bullets that had swept through her clothing. On her head rested a regulation Army cap, fastened with the necessary feminine hatpin. Her hair had escaped from its confinement and was whipping about her face, that was begrimed as her clothing. “Irish Biddy” reached the side of the wounded soldier- who was her husband. He was too feeble to help himself. The woman raised him to his feet and… she half dragged and half carried him across the battlefield. [Returning to the regiment] “Irish Biddy” stood and looked at them. Her eyes were blazing with scorn. Pulling her battered cap from her head, and waving it high as she could reach, she shouted: “Arrah, go in, boys, and bate the bloody spalpeens, and revinge me husband! Go in, and God be with ye!”. Three thundering cheers for “Irish Biddy” rang through their regiment as it plunged into the maelstrom of death. (1)

Although a superb story, it seems unlikely that the woman referred to in this account could actually have been Bridget Diver, as the 1st Michigan Cavalry were not engaged at Fair Oaks. It is possible that it refers to the actions of another Irish woman, as a number of accounts do survive which suggest at least some took an active part in the 1862 campaigns (see for example previous posts here and here).

'Michigan Bridget' as she was portrayed in post war illustrations (Livermore)

‘Michigan Bridget’, Bridget Diver, as she was portrayed in post war illustrations (From Livermore 1889)

Despite the doubts cast over her presence at Fair Oaks, other accounts bear testament to how universally loved she was not only in her own unit but in Custer’s entire brigade. She became a ‘vivandiere’ or daughter of the regiment, and accompanied the 1st Michigan wherever it went. Her roles were many and varied, ranging from cooking and washing to acting as a sanitary commission agent, nurse, hospital steward and ward master. She is even said to have looked after the men’s spiritual well-being, seeking papers and books from the Christian Commission on their behalf. (2)

As well as performing her other roles, Bridget was also not averse to picking up a musket when the opportunity presented itself. Mary Livermore, who worked for the United States Sanitary Commission during the war and afterwards was a well-known advocate of women’s rights, said of the Irishwoman that: ‘Sometimes when a soldier fell she took his place, fighting in his stead with unquailing courage. Sometimes she rallied retreating troops- sometimes she brought off the wounded from the field- always fearless and daring, always doing good service as a soldier.’ (3)

Some of those who came into direct contact with Bridget have left a record of their impressions. Charlotte E. McKay, a Civil War nurse, recorded meeting Bridget at City Point, Virginia on 28th March, 1865:

‘Bridget- or as the men call her, Biddy- has probably seen more of hardship and danger than any other woman during the war. She has been with the cavalry all the time, going out with them on their cavalry raids- always ready to succor the wounded on the field- often getting men off who, but for her, would be left to die, and, fearless of shell or bullet, among the last to leave. Protected by officers and respected by privates, with her little sunburnt face, she makes her home in the saddle or the shelter-tent; often, indeed sleeping in the open air without a tent, and by her courage and devotion “winning golden opinions from all sorts of people.” She is an Irish woman, has been in the country sixteen years, and is now twenty-six years of age.’

Charlotte went on to describe a conversation she had with Bridget regarding the whereabouts of a little horse that she had seen in her possession the previous year, which amply illustrates the risks that Biddy took: ‘”Where is the nice little horse you had with you at the hospital last summer, Bridget?” “Oh, Moseby captured that from me. He came in while I was lying asleep on the ground, and took my horse and orderly. I jumped up and ran away.”‘ (4)

Another woman who met Bridget was Rebecca Usher; she recorded the story in a letter home on 7th April 1865. It illustrates not only why Bridget was so beloved by the men of the regiment, but also indicates that she had made friends in high places:

‘A few days ago I saw Bridget, who came out with the First Michigan Cavalry, and has been with the regiment ever since. She had just come in with the body of a captain who was killed in a cavalry skirmish. She had the body lashed to her horse, and carried him fifteen miles, where she procured a coffin, and sent him home. She says this is the hardest battle they have had, and the ground was covered with the wounded. She had not slept for forty-eight hours, having worked incessantly with the wounded. She is brave, heroic, and a perfect enthusiast in her work. Bridget said to me, in her earnest way, “Why don’t you ladies go up there, and take care of those wounded men? Why, its the worst sight you ever saw. the ground is covered with them.” “We should like to go,” I said, “but they won’t let us.” “Well, they can’t hinder me,”  she said; “Sheridan won’t let them.”‘ (5)

Although she was adored by the Wolverines, there was certainly one man who was not pleased to make Bridget’s acquaintance during the war. A fascinating record of the incident survives in a report Bridget made on 11th July 1863, while based in Washington D.C., and which demonstrates how seriously she took the cause of Union:

Washington D.C. July 11th 1863

Mrs. Deavers, attached to the 1st Michn Cavalry.

States at a house on D Street between 6th and 7th, a man named Shaw, said if the Yankee soldiers should enter Richmond, he hopes every one of them would be sunk in the lower pits of Hell, and all he wanted was to get across the lines, to take up arms, and he would kill and poison every man, woman and child, belonging to the Yankees, that he would come across. I told him he ought to be struck dumm in the morning on the side walk, he said if I did not hold my tongue he would strike me. He said his heart and soul was for the south, and he wanted to go there. He was requested by a Captain and a Paymaster (boarding in the same house) to come to Provost Marshals, He said there was no Yankee he would take an oath for. Shaw was arrested yesterday by a citizen, he said there was nothing done to him. Mrs. Deavers boards with Mrs. Sutton on E Street one door from 6th St. West. (6)

The report of Bridget Deavers (Diver) regarding Shaw's Souther Sympathies (Click to enlarge). Note her mark in the bottom right corner (Fold 3)

The report of Bridget Deavers (Diver) regarding Shaw’s Southern sympathies. Note her mark in the bottom right corner (Fold 3)

Aside from revealing her patriotism, this document also provides another piece of information about Bridget; she was unable to write. The bottom right of the report bears her mark, indicating she could not sign her name. Her fate after the war remains obscure, although it is thought that she followed her husband (and the army) west to continue her service attached to the military. Other than this no further details are known about her later life.

Despite the sketchy knowledge we have of Bridget, it is clear that she left a lasting impression on all those she encountered during the war, particularly the men of the 1st Michigan and Custer’s Wolverines. For half a century after the war’s conclusion newspaper reports and publications on women during the Civil War regularly carried Bridget’s story, telling of different aspects of her wartime career, such as her narrow escape from the clutches of the enemy at the Battle of Cedar Creek, how she rallied a wagon train of retreating soldiers, and her decision to spend a purse of $300 given for her comfort on the men of her regiment. An 1892 article described ‘Michigan Bridget’ to their readers: ‘She was Irish, with all the Irish characteristics as to features and form, and though she had a temper as warm as her hair was red, she was jolly and full humor, which made her a most acceptable companion at all times.’ So little is known of Bridget’s life that it remains a mystery if this is an accurate description of her appearance. What is certain is that she was one of the most notable Irish women to serve at the front during the course of the American Civil War. (7)

* Bridget’s name is also variously given as Divers, Deaver(s) and Devens

(1) Oregonian 4th June 1911; (2) Hall 1993: 28, Moore 1867:109; (3) Livermore 1889:116-119; (4) McKay 1876:125; (5) Moore 1867: 461-462; (6) Union Citizen Files; (7) Moore 1867: 109-112, Washington Evening Star 21st September 1892;

References

Oregonian 4th June 1911. Heroic Women at the Cannons Mouth in the Civil War

Washington D.C. Evening Star 21st September 1892. Irish Biddy

Hall, Richard. 1993. Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War

Livermore, Mary A. 1889. My Story of the War: A Woman’s Narrative 

McKay, Charlotte E. 1876. Stories of Hospital and Camp 

Moore, Frank. 1867. Women of the War

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Categories: Donegal, Women

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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4 Comments on “Bridget Diver: Custer’s Female Wolverine”

  1. October 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    Hi Damien,

    My name is Chris and I’m from Belfast. I share the surname with this girl,and after looking up our family history for a while I found out many of family went from Donegal and ended up in New York and Michigan. I wonder if this lady is related to my own family? The name ‘Diver’ isn’t very common over here in Ireland. Especially not here in Belfast, but there could be a connection. I don’t think I’ll ever know, but it was fascinating to read, thank you very much.

    • October 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      Hi Chris,

      Good to hear from you! My family are actually from Donegal so I was wondering may she have been from the North-West- it would seem a good likelihood as the name is much less common elsewhere. It would be great to find out more about her origins but we may never know- it is somethign I hope to look into more in the future though! Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. October 6, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    lots of DIVERS in ARDARA CO DONEGAL

    • October 6, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Hi Con,

      Indeed there are- I think there must be a very strong chance she was from Donegal.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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