Sitha Jane Burns Sholley preferred to go by Jane — an ordinary name for a woman who was born as an ordinary person in pre-Civil War Adair County. She would go on to serve as a Civil War nurse without any formal training, healing soldiers on battlefields across Missouri, and was eventually recognized as a U.S. veteran nearly a century after her death.
During Women’s History Month, the Daily Express is highlighting the stories of significant women in the history of Adair County.
Sholley was born in 1834 in Kentucky, but her family soon moved to Shibley’s Point, a small community west of Novinger. In 1857, she married a local man named James Harrison Sholley and two years later gave birth to twins, William and Martha. When the children were 3 years old, their father enlisted to fight in the Civil War.
Not long after, Sholley’s home was confiscated and turned into a makeshift hospital for soldiers. Sholley and her children moved to a home on the Kirksville square, located at the current location of Bank Midwest.
Blytha Ellis, president of the Adair County Historical Society, said that is when Sholley’s life took a turn. Ellis wrote a pamphlet about Sholley entitled “Adair County’s Civil War Nurse.” But Sholley did not become a nurse in the usual way.
“She got a notice from the commander of her husband’s troop. They were in Cape Girardeau, and he had fallen ill,” Ellis said. “They wanted her to come down there and nurse him back to health.”
It was unusual, Ellis said, but in those days there was no easy way of transporting soldiers who were sick or injured back home to their families. Sholley left her 3-year-old daughter with her mother, but put her 3-year-old son on the back of a horse with her and rode to Cape Girardeau to nurse her husband back to health.
“She did such a good job that the captain of the outfit asked her if she’d stay on and be a nurse for them,” Ellis said. “This was in the day when you didn’t have to have training to be a nurse, you just did the best you could. And so she did.”
For three years, three months and 13 days, Sholley travelled with Company M of the Second Missouri Cavalry. She took her son with her all the way. Sholley later spoke about her experiences in the war in a 1920 interview with the Kirksville Daily Express.
“Out of all this time she was only sick three days,” the Daily Express wrote. “The longest she went without anything to eat was from Saturday night to Monday night. The child, who sometimes rode behind his mother and sometimes behind his father, was so hungry that when one of the men gave him a piece of raw army bacon he ate it ravenous.”
The paper reported that Sholley had a “souvenir of the war,” a scar on her finger she had received during a battle.
“She wasn’t worried so much for herself as for her little boy,” Ellis said. “But again, back in the day, they didn’t have all those rules and regulations like, ‘You can’t bring your kid into a war.’”
In her interview with the Daily Express, Sholley compared her service during the war to a Biblical account of Saul arriving on the island of Malta and collecting sticks to make a fire for his hosts.
“They were tired and hungry, I gathered sticks and bark to make a fire and get them something to eat,” she said. “I was doing as Saul did. I would like to take that man by the hand.”
After returning from war, Sholley and her husband, Jacob, managed the Central Hotel, located at the site that is now the DuKum Inn, and several other boarding houses.
At the age of 63, both of her other children now age 40, Sholley and her husband adopted a son who they named Dale Sholley.
Jacob Sholley died in Kirksville in 1914. Their son William ran a bookstore in Kirksville before taking a job on the railroad in Des Moines, Iowa, and their daughter Martha married a local carpenter. Eventually, both moved to Los Angeles and their elderly mother moved to join them at age 88.
Sholley was proud of her service as a wartime nurse and patriotic about the mission of the Union army.
“If they had not conquered the enemy, where would Kirksville have been today? I thank God for what the boys in blue did for Kirksville. May God bless every one of Kirksville’s people is the prayer and wish of an old Army nurse,” Sholley told the Daily Express.
Sholley died in California in 1923, but her body was returned to Kirksville and buried alongside her husband’s in Forest-Llewellyn Cemetery.
In 2013, a local group of the Sons of Union Veterans established military service records and procured government-issued headstones for 13 veterans buried in Kirksville and conducted a military-style ceremony with volleys of rifle fire. Among them were both Jane and Jacob Sholley.
“God bless the old comrades,” Sholley said of the Civil War soldiers of Company M. “Soon they will answer to the last roll call. They will fall in line and march through the long, glorious paved streets with our loved ones that have gone over and are waiting to welcome us home."