William S. and Arabella “Belle” Reynolds had been married only a year when the Civil War began. After the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, William, a druggist from Peoria, Illinois, immediately enlisted with the United States Army and, sadly, left his bride behind. After a few months, Belle travelled to Missouri to join her husband. Remaining with him during, Belle was subjected to the hardships of a soldier’s life, embarking on long marches, sleeping on the ground, and weathering harsh elements. William’s regiment, the Seventeenth Illinois, served in many notable early battles, including Fort Donelson and Shiloh in Tennessee. Belle served as a nurse, both on and off the battlefield. When artillery rounds began flying over the camp, Belle and another nurse were ordered to withdraw to the safety of a boat. Along their retreat route, the women encountered surgeons attending to the wounded. Selflessly and with great courage, the women stopped and assisted the surgeons under the raining shrapnel of ceaseless artillery until orders came to move the wounded to the river. At the river, while shell-shocked Federal soldiers attempted to control the boats, officers and an armed Belle maintained order. Belle spent the night tending to the wounded that filled the boat. The following morning, Belle and two other nurses navigated the fields of dead soldiers to Shiloh church where roughly 50 wounded men sought treatment. Surgeons were busy with amputations, and Belle and the women assisted in any way they could despite not knowing what became of their own husbands during the fight. For “meritorious conduct on the bloody battlefield of Pittsburg Landing [Shiloh],” Illinois Governor Richard Yates conveyed upon Belle the honorary status of Daughter of the Regiment for the Seventeenth Illinois as well as a commission of major in the US Army. With that decree, Belle became the only woman to hold a commission in the U. S. Army. She remained with her husband’s unit until it was mustered out of service in 1864. After the war, Belle sought an education in surgery and practiced medicine for many years in Illinois and California.
- Traveled with her husband's regiment to Fort Donelson and Shiloh
- Served under fire as field nurse
- Only woman to hold a commission in the U.S. Army, commissioned as a major