Truxton Doctor Treated Mary Todd Lincoln during the Civil War

by Richard Palmer

On a cold Nov. 11, 1861, a 37-year-old Truxton physician, Dr. Judson C. Nelson, was mustered in as surgeon of the 76th Regiment, New York Volunteers. At the time, the regiment was being assembled at the old Cortland Fairgrounds . One of his first duties was to deal with a measles epidemic that was running rampant through Camp Campbell. While those still well enough to move marched around with broomsticks and farm implements that substituted for musket, Nelson treated the sick as best as he could. But in those days there's little one could do for the measles except rest and keep warm.

Nelson officially received his commission on Jan. 17, 1862 while the unit was enroute to Washington, D.C. He was in the field with the unit in Virginia when he became so ill he had to resign his position and return home. However, he partially recovered his health, returning to Washington in January, 1863, by special contract with the Surgeon General of the United States. His skills as a surgeon being in great demand, Dr.Nelson was assigned as a medical officer at the United States General Hospital Department in Washington until his term of service expired in November, 1864. When Confederate General Jubal Early made his attack on the defenses of Washington, Nelson was called out to the front lines to treat the wounded of the Sixth Corps.

Years later Dr. Nelson liked to relate his Civil War experiences to his family. One was in connection with duties in Washington.

Most of the horses and mules in Washington had been requisitioned by the Army of the Potomac and there were none in the city, even for officers and their orderlies. They had to "hoof it." Only one pair of coach horses had been spared - the carriage team of President Abraham Lincoln's wife. This is the only way Mary Todd Lincoln could get around town to make her social calls and visit the hospitals.

One day the horses took fright near Dr. Nelson's hospital and ran away. Mrs. Lincoln and her coachman were thrown out. She was taken into the hospital and was treated by Nelson. His examination showed no serious injury other than fright and nervous shock, and an orderly was dispatched to inform the President.

It was a considerable distance to the White House, so that it was some time later that Dr. Nelson saw a grocer's cart with white canvas cover coming up the avenue. As it slowly drew near he saw that it was drawn by an aged mule, blind and knock-kneed. One of the men on the seat hung his long legs over the front and rested his feet on the shafts.

The cart stopped at the hospital entrance and President Lincoln himself descended. After learning that Mrs. Lincoln was not seriously hurt, and with Dr. Nelson's assurance that she could be moved without injurious results, the President announced that he would take her home. Indeed, the doctor said, a train load of wounded soldiers might arrive at any time and she should not see them in her nervous condition.

"The horses are gone. How can I go home?" she asked.

"Dr. Nelson will lend me a cot and I will take you in the cart," her husband answered.

Mrs. Lincoln's protests were of no avail. She had come out with the finest (and at the time the only) pair of horses in Washington, but she returned to the White House, resting on a soldier's cot in a grocery cart, drawn by the most miserable mule in the city, but with the great President sitting on the driver's seat, dangling his long legs in the front of the vehicle, his feet on the crisps of the shafts -- as if he was still a backwoods country lawyer in Illinois!

Later, President Lincoln wrote to Dr. Nelson, thanking him for his courtesies and care of Mrs. Lincoln. The long-treasured letter, unfortunately was lost over the years.

Image from the Collection of the Cortland County Historical Society

Nelson was born in the town of Danby, Tompkins County, on June 3, 1824, the son of the Rev. Caleb Nelson, a Baptist minister of moderate circumstances. Later the family lived in Spencer and Candor, and the boy received his early education in the rural schools. Ultimately he was trained as a doctor at Geneva Medical College, being a private pupil of Dr. Thomas Spencer. He set up his medical practice in Truxton in January, 1848 after graduating from medical college. That November he married Miss Henrietta S. Walter of Newark. They had two children, Arthur B. Nelson and Isabel Nelson Tillinghast, who served on the faculty at Vassar College. When the Civil War broke out he stood by Union and was one of the first of about a dozen recruits to the 76th Regiment from the town of Truxton. He became surgeon after being passed by the State Military Examining Board at Albany.

After the death of his first wife, he married Miss Florence-Irwin Snyder of Middleburgh, Schoharie Co. on June 20, 1883. Dr. Nelson was considered an excellent physician and enjoyed an extensive practice. He had a palatial home on the site of Truxton School. He was frequently called into counsel in difficult medical cases far from his home and his opinion on medical questions always carried great weight with his medical colleagues. Dr. Nelson was a permanent member of the New York State Medical Association, the Central New York Medical Association and the Cortland County Medical Society.

Outside his profession he served on the county Board of Supervisors about 15 years and was elected to the state Assembly in 1875 and 1882 on the Democratic ticket. It was said he was "a Democrat of the old school," and took great pride in the victories gained by his party. His political opinions were on the conservative side. He was one of the founders and most active members of the Truxton Coaching Club.

While visiting his in-laws in Middleburgh one day he stumbled upon an old-time Concord stagecoach, which had not been used in years. He purchased it and brought it back home and had it restored. For years, before the coming of automobiles, he, his wife and other Truxton residents, often went on week-long trips on the coach, traveling through the Finger Lakes and as far away as the Thousand Islands.

Dr. Nelson died unexpectedly on July 11, 1895. At the time the Coaching Club was planning another trip. He did some errands and went to the local barbershop. While there he was seized with a dizzy feeling and faintness. As he seemed to be growing worse he was taken home in a carriage, and Dr. Higgins of Cortland was telephoned . He promptly got on his bicycle and headed for Truxton, knowing that Dr. Nelson had a heart condition. When Dr. Higgins arrived it appeared that Nelson was recovering, so he returned to Cortland. The following evening he received another phone message that Dr. Nelson was much worse and he went down to the depot to catch the train. But when he arrived, he was met by a messenger from the telephone office saying that Dr.. Nelson was dead and he needn't come. Dr. Nelson was 71 years old, and is buried in Truxton Cemetery.

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- Last updated June 22, 2020