Diver (Divers, Deaver, Deavers, Devens, Devins, Devan), Bridget (‘Irish Biddy’, ‘Michigan Bridget’) (fl. 1861–4), vivandière and ‘daughter’ of the First Michigan Cavalry regiment, was born in Ireland sometime before 1840. It has been suggested that the ‘Michigan Bridget’ legend conflates a number of women of Irish origin, but that interpretation is contradicted by several independent eyewitnesses, who all testified as to Diver’s existence. The few details of her early life that can be gleaned from surviving records nevertheless require some untangling.
Although her origins and eventual fate remain largely unknown, there have been numerous attempts to establish Diver’s background; most notably by Washington historian James Hannum, who travelled to Ireland in 1994 to appeal for information regarding her ancestry. According to Hannum, Diver left Londonderry aboard the Afton, which arrived at Philadelphia on 14 July 1849. The ship’s register lists eleven-year-old ‘Biddy Diver’ (her year of birth is estimated as 1839), and she appears to have been travelling without any obvious family members. The girl’s place of birth is listed only as Ireland, but given the surname Diver is most often associated with Co. Donegal, and that county’s proximity to Derry, it is not unreasonable to assume she came from there. Diver’s age and the date she was travelling also suggest that she was escaping the famine, perhaps with family waiting in Philadelphia. The 1860 census for the east division 10th ward of Philadelphia city records a twenty-one-year-old Bridget Diver living in the same dwelling as Mary Diver, aged twenty-five; this Bridget Diver’s age again corresponds with Hannum’s timeline for Diver’s arrival in America. Both Bridget and Mary Diver were registered as born in Ireland. Further evidence that this is the correct Bridget Diver comes from the memoir of Charlotte E. McKay, a Union nurse during the American civil war. In Stories of hospital and camp (1876), McKay described meeting Bridget Deavers in 1864, ‘an Irish woman [who] has been in the country sixteen years and is now twenty-six years of age’ (McKay, 125). On 11 July 1863 a report was filed by ‘Mrs Deavers, attached to the First Michigan Cavalry’, accusing a man named Shaw, who lived in Washington DC, of saying he would ‘kill and poison every man, woman and child belonging to the Yankees’ if it helped the southern cause; the report bears her mark rather than a signature (Shiels, 2012). Although several other Bridget Divers came from Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century and settled in Philadelphia, none appear to fit the timeline outlined above: a Bridget Diver aboard the Shenandoah, which landed at Philadelphia in 1850, was born c.1812, which would make her too old; while a Biddy Diver who sailed on the Uensaela from Londonderry to Philadelphia in 1854 was born c.1834, again making her too old for McKay’s ‘Bridget Deavers’.
Diver’s fame derives from her time with the First Michigan Cavalry, formed at Detroit, Michigan, on 16 August 1861 and which entered federal service on 13 September. They fought in most of the major battles of the civil war including Gettysburg (1–3 July 1863), the Battle of Cold Harbour (31 May–12 June 1864) and the Third Battle of Winchester (19 September 1864). They were also famed as part of General George Custer’s Michigan Brigade, known as the Wolverines. Diver appears to have been with the regiment from the outset of the war. She joined as a vivandière or ‘daughter’ of the regiment – a woman who moved with the camp working as cook, laundress, seamstress and nurse. Diver appears to have gone further in her role, however. Her knowledge of the men in her care was detailed and regimental commanders often consulted with her to identify the wounded and fallen. J. R. Miller, a former field agent for the United States Christian Commission, said that when inquiries about men in her regiment came to the various wartime relief commissions, Diver was always the first to be contacted as she could give ‘all the desired information’. On occasion, he said, she even acted as chaplain, and no day was too stormy or cold for her (Leonard, 123, 125). She also appears to have served in a military capacity. Mary Livermore recounted how Diver would take the place of a fallen soldier and fight on in his stead. She rallied retreating troops and brought the wounded from the field, ‘always fearless and daring, always doing good service as a soldier’ (Livermore, 116). According to McKay, Diver had probably seen more danger and hardship than any other woman during the war, riding with the cavalry at all times, joining them on cavalry raids and often taking men from the field who might otherwise have been left to die: ‘fearless of shell or bullet [she was] among the last to leave’ (McKay, 125). In another (possibly apocryphal) story, Diver was presented with a purse of $300 that had been collected to thank her – according to all accounts she spent all of it on the men of the First Michigan, keeping nothing for herself. Apocryphal or not, its constant re-telling points to the affection and esteem in which Diver was held.
Through extant documents we can trace some of Diver’s movements during the civil war period. She was in Washington DC on 11 July 1863 when she filed the case against Shaw, with an address at ‘D Street, between 6th and 7th’ where she was boarding with a ‘Mrs Sutton’ (Shiels, 2012). In 1864 the commander of the Union army, General Ulysses S. Grant, banished women from military operations and Diver retreated to City Point hospital in Virginia, where she worked for the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) caring for wounded soldiers. While there she shared a tent with Cornelia Hancock, a famous quaker hospital worker for the Union cause. While researching the role of women in the civil war shortly after its conclusion, Frank Moore contacted Rebecca Usher who had nursed at City Point. One of the accounts she provided related to Bridget Diver. According to Usher, the First Michigan took part in a raid under General Philip Sheridan’s command, during which their colonel was wounded and the captain killed. Diver tended to the colonel on the battlefield, and then brought him back by train to the hospital at City Point. She briefly rested before returning to the front to collect the fallen captain’s body from the battlefield. According to Usher, she took her horse fifteen miles into enemy territory to recover the body, which she then slung over her horse and rode back to City Point. She next procured a coffin and sent him home. When Usher asked her about the order banning women from the front lines, Diver allegedly retorted ‘they can’t hinder me. Sheridan won’t let them’ (Moore, 462). Military records support Usher’s account, revealing that Captain George C. Whitney of Lapeer County, Michigan, was severely wounded at the Battle of Five Forks near Virginia on 1 April 1865, and died en route to the City Point Hospital on 4 April.
After the war ended with the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomattox courthouse on 9 April 1865, the First Michigan Cavalry took part in the grand review in Washington DC on 23 May. Assigned first to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and then Utah, the regiment was mustered out of service on 10 March 1866. In all, the regiment lost fourteen officers and 150 enlisted men. A further six officers and 244 enlisted men were killed by disease during the war. The regiment is among those of Custer’s Wolverine Brigade honoured with a monument at Gettysburg. However, there is no further mention of Diver in any official records and most sources speculate that she remained with the regiment until they were mustered out, before travelling over the Rockies for service on the western frontier. Moore, much given to flowery language, says that she had become ‘attached to the free and spirited life of the cavalry soldier … preferring camp life with its hardships and adventures, to the comfort and tameness of villages’ (Moore, 212).
It is possible that Diver was married; though Charlotte McKay refers to her as ‘Miss Bridget Deavers’, the 1863 report records her name ‘Mrs Deavers’. A 1963 compilation by the Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission noted that ‘Deavers’ was said to have gone to war with her husband but that no one of that name was enlisted in any Michigan regiment, nor could evidence of Diver ever being resident in Michigan be found. During the Battle of Fair Oaks (31 May/1 June 1862), Diver allegedly rallied the men of the First Michigan with a cry of ‘Avinge [sic] me husband’ (Hall, 28). However, as the regiment did not take part in fighting at Fair Oaks the story is most probably apocryphal, and is the only one to allude to a husband.
McKay, who met Diver on 28 March 1864 at City Point hospital, described her as having ‘a little sunburnt face. She makes her home in the saddle or the shelter-tent; often indeed sleeping in the open air without a tent’ (McKay, Stories, 125). Moore, whose account of women in the civil war was published in 1867, observed that ‘her personal appearance is not prepossessing or attractive. Sleeping on the ground like a soldier and enduring hardships like the rest her face has become browned by exposure, and her figure grown athletic by constant exercise and life in the open air. But the heart that beats under the plain cassock is as full of womanly tenderness as that of any princess in purple velvet’ (Moore, 109). Nurse, journalist and suffragist Mary Livermore’s 1887 memoir of the civil war included an illustration of Diver carrying the American flag into the middle of battle, while an 1892 article described her as 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 of humour’ (Washington DC Evening Star, 21 Sept. 1892).