The American Civil War produced many outstanding figures. One of those was the nurse Hannah Anderson Ropes. Ropes had an intriguing life before the Civil War, and fought to improve the conditions of soldiers during the war. Joshua V. Chanin explains.

The book  Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes  by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here:  Amazon US  |  Amazon UK . Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

The book Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes by Hannah Ropes and edited by John R. Brumgardt is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK. Image shown above from the Amazon page at those links.

I currently work at Texas A&M University-Commerce, where the university is expecting to christen a state-of-the-art nursing facility in the fall. I have known several nursing students during my undergraduate and graduate studies, who have told me that their major is one of the toughest offered at the university due to the lab classes after school hours and the numerous reports they have to write—I agree (sometimes they look like they do not decently sleep). To celebrate the tough, rewarding, and sometimes overlooked work of nurses, I have decided to write about Hannah Anderson Ropes, a nurse during the Civil War who was dedicated to improving her craft.

 

Early Life

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. As her parents were prominent state lawyers, young Hannah was privately educated and raised in a wealthy household that championed Christianity. Hannah’s religious faith grew stronger as she aged, coinciding with her developing opposition to slavery. Although she was more vocal than many other women—a displeasure to the patriarchy—Hannah attracted the attention of William Ropes, an educator who believed the sexes were equal. The couple married in January 1834 and had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. 

The marriage was fruitful until in 1847, citing health concerns, William abruptly moved to warmer temperatures of Florida, leaving his wife and children behind. Abandoned by her spouse, Ropes moved to the Kansas Territory with her children. Ropes, along with her daughter, played a major role in spurring support for the 1856 abolitionist movement in the region, cooperating with male abolitionist leaders in local meetings. As she became more involved in the growing fight against slavery, Ropes strengthened the close bond she had with her children. Amidst the violence of ‘Bleeding Kansas,’—where pro-slavery raiders from Missouri were a threat to anti-slavery families—Ropes always went the extra mile to protect her children as she kept “loaded pistols and a bowie knife upon my table at night, [and] three sharp’s rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” Ropes did not let the disappearance of her husband upset her. Hannah Ropes became a liberal-feminist, a woman who vocally championed for the elimination of slavery while dutifully (and passionately) attending the household needs.

 

An Interest in Nursing

Hannah Ropes—who described the Kansas fighting as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”—moved back to Massachusetts in 1857, where she knew her family would be safe. It was in New England when Ropes became an author. Her unique writing talent led to the publication of her first book, Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady, which compiled a collection of letters Ropes wrote to her ailing mother while she lived in the mid-west. Ropes would later write a popular paperback of prairie life, Cranston House: A Novel, in 1859. Still active in political movements, Ropes desired an opportunity to help people. Her interest in nursing stemmed from reading literature by English nurse, Florence Nightingale. After Ropes’s nephew gave her a copy of Nightingale’s 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, which depicted the English’s nurse’s account of the Crimean War, Ropes’s career trajectory changed, foreshadowing the professional role the New England woman would play in the next stage of her life.   

 

A New Position at the Union Hotel Hospital

At the start of the Civil War in spring 1861, the Union Hotel in Washington D.C.—which had been built in 1796 and hosted many prominent citizens including Robert Fulton and George Washington—was seized by the government and converted into a Union Army hospital. After Edward enlisted as a private in May 1862, Ropes quickly offered her services to the Office of United States Army Nurses, and was subsequentially placed at the former capital tavern. During this era, the nursing occupation was linked with a negative stigma—woman nurses were associated with prostitutes or ‘fallen women.’ However, as blood was shed as a result of several major Confederate victories, nurses became heroes of the Union Army. ‘Women of good conduct’ were speedily recruited to care for the sick and wounded. Ropes rose through the ranks because of job dedication, and in the autumn she was named the head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital. Her job responsibilities included training the hospital’s nurses and monitoring the general operations of the institution.

Upon taking the managerial post, she actively criticized the appalling conditions of the building and the former management—the complaints included lack of sanitation in the wards, the building’s decay, an absence of necessary supplies, and the cruel treatment of soldiers. Ropes strongly believed that every man in uniform (of every rank) deserved healthy surroundings, good food, and humanitarian treatment. This belief is evident by a diary entry she wrote in the first week of her new appointment in October 1862: “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Rather than ignoring the problems at hand—as elected officials did at first—Ropes swiftly picked up the mantle, restructured the hospital’s management style, and brought real change to the depleted building. The head matron selected women who were eager to enter the nursing field, and trained them to treat all their patients with compassion. Moreover, the nurses were taught to ignore long hours of work (often without decent pay) because the soldiers were first priority and a nurse could not leave the building until their patients were comfortable. Discipline among the staff was introduced by the new management, as Ropes was not afraid to terminate nurses if they failed to address the needs of the wounded soldiers.

 

Strong Leadership 

Head Matron Ropes quickly found out that most of the male staff at the D.C. hospital, including the surgeons, wanted to only help those who would survive—some argued that they did not have enough supplies for all the wounded soldiers. Ropes took disagreement with this belief as she wanted to save all the soldiers—she cited the laziness of men. Thus, she personally took extensive actions against staff who were cruel to the patients. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!” Subsequentially, Stanton wrote an order forbidding anyone from removing the head matron from her post. As she pressed on with her progressive nursing agenda, breaking down gender barriers, Hannah Ropes constructed an identity that emulated masculine traits—she was professional and dutiful in the toughest times. Although military generals often resented the sight of strongly opinionated women in hospitals, Ropes constantly butted heads with male colleagues, and held her ground with the best interests of the wounded soldiers at heart.

 

Comfort Among Chaos

In her position, Ropes worked longer hours than her colleagues—writing reports, ordering supplies, tirelessly advocating for hospital infrastructure improvements, and keeping a daily activity log. It was not uncommon to see Ropes tending to soldiers in the late hours of the night, only then to see her again at the hospital at the crack of dawn. Moreover, the head matron took an interest in writing letters to elected officials, politely asking them to either send extra blankets and supplies to the hospital or coaxing them to try and advocate politicians to pass funding stipends for the hospital. Ropes was in contact with a powerful figure in Congress. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—the elected official who is famous for being nearly caned to death by South Carolinian politician Andrew Butler in 1856—was an established supporter of Ropes’s hospital reforms, and continuously tried to push parts of the head matron’s agenda on to the Senate floor.

Hannah Ropes’ passion for nursing and devotion in monitoring the wounded (day and night) are evident from several diary entries written by nurse Louisa May Alcott, who joined the staff at the hospital on December 13, 1862, shortly after her 30thbirthday. At this time, the Union Army was heavily engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, which resulted in over 10,000 wounded soldiers. The hospital’s staff was overwhelmed during the five days of conflict as nurses dispensed food and medication, changed smeared dressings, bathed patients, wrote letters to loved ones for soldiers, and held the hands of those who were dying. Although chaos occurred in the wards and bloody carnage littered the hospital’s floors, the steady hand Ropes provided her staff and the patients brought some assurance to those who were stressed. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till dully ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on…and in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.” Alcott also recalls a time when she suggested the idea of drastically rationing the wounded’s meals after food was in short supply—Ropes, a selfless patriot, thought otherwise: “When I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: ‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one [bowl], and, if there’s not enough ready tonight, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.”

 

Sudden Illness and A Life Remembered 

During the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. Ropes’s health continued to fade. On January 19, Ropes’s daughter, Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital to her brother: “Mother has been ill for some weeks and indeed all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little.” The next day, January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old. Family and colleagues mourned. The Union Hotel Hospital was draped in black and a moment of silence took place among the wounded soldiers. Senator Sumner eulogized the matron’s life in a letter addressed to the family: “Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers.”

In an era where women were expected to master the roles of domesticity, keep their mouths closed, refrain from accepting educational or employment opportunities outside of the home, and sexually satisfy their spouses, Hannah Ropes convincedly (and tirelessly) blended the two spheres of a woman’s life together—nurturing and protecting her household while progressively crafting the nineteenth-century nursing field.

 

What do you think of Hannah Anderson Ropes’ life? Let us know below.

 

Finally, you can read about US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here).

References

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. New York: Applewood Books; Reissue edition, 1991. 

Brumgardt, John R., ed. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. First edition was written by Hannah Ropes.

Granstra, Pat. “Hannah Ropes: The Other Woman Behind ‘Little Women.’” Civil War Primer. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.civilwarprimer.com/2012/03/hannah-ropes-the-other-woman-behind-little-women/

MacLean, Maggie. “Hannah Ropes: Head Matron at Union Hotel Hospital.” Civil War Women. Accessed January 19, 2019. https://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/hannah-ropes/.

New England Historical Society. “Hannah Ropes Spends Six Months in Kansas with Loaded Pistols and Bowie Knife.” Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/hannah-ropes-spends-6-months-in-kansas-with-loaded-pistols-and-bowie-knife/

Nightingale, Florence. Notes On Nursing: What it is and What it is Not. London: Harrison, 1859.  

Ropes, Hannah Anderson. Six Months in Kansas: By a Lady. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1856. 

Legendary American Civil War-era nurse Clara Barton was extraordinary in many ways. Not only was she an important nurse in the US Civil War, she also played a key role in bringing the Red Cross to America. Here, Matt Goolsby follows his first ‘nurses in war’ article on Cornelia Hancock (available here) and tells us about the life of Clara Barton.

An engraving of Clara Barton from 1867. Engraving by John Sartain.

An engraving of Clara Barton from 1867. Engraving by John Sartain.

Humble Beginnings

The United States was a very agrarian based nation in the early part of the 19th century. Travel and communication were typically slow and arduous.

By the time of the Civil War, the northeast region of the U.S. was experiencing the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution that had started in England in the 1700s. Railroad lines were expanding at an exponential rate as the demand for goods transversed the entire region of the rapidly growing country.

Communication was also becoming a transcontinental medium to rapidly transmit information from one region to another through the use of telegraph lines. Newspapers began publishing stories next day instead of relying on couriers delivering accounts that took days if not weeks to send and receive.

One would assume that the rapidly expanding use of technology and industry would have affected how the medical profession cared for the sick, wounded, and dying soldiers who were the casualties of the Civil War during this time. In reality, it exposed the glaring weaknesses and woeful practices utilized in treatment that spawned a desire for improvement of those who were most vulnerable. Against this backdrop, a formidable leader and role model emerged.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts to Captain Stephen Barton and his wife Sarah Stone. She was the youngest of five children: Dorothy - 17, Stephen - 15, David - 13, and Sally – 10 at the time.

Coming from very unpretentious beginnings, Clara as she was fondly known by, was a timid and shy child. Her elder brother David spent much time with Clara riding horses and enjoying the outdoors which helped to relieve some of the timidity she first felt.

The Barton home where Clara was born still exists to this day in its original location and is a museum to her life and testament to the simple yet solid foundations her family was known for.

The Barton family, whose beginnings can be traced back to 11thcentury England in the Domesday book, otherwise known as: ‘A great survey’ commissioned by William the Conqueror, shows that the family was awarded land due to their loyalty to king and country.

The Barton family in America first appears in 1640 in Salem, Massachusetts after Edward Barton emigrated from England as one of the early colonists. After several moves throughout New England, the Barton family finally settled in North Oxford, Massachusetts and took up daily living with their Universalist religious background.

Of particular note are the facts that Clara’s family established the first Universalist church in Oxford and ordained its first Pastor: Hosea Ballou who is considered one of the fathers of American Universalism. As described in the story of Clara’s life by Percy H. Elper: “Yet her father and mother, however liberal in their creed, never relaxed from the deepest habits of all that was best in Pilgrim and Puritan. No matter how snowy, no matter how the winds hurtled over the hilltops — the Barton family not only drove five miles to church every Sunday, but maintained, during the other six days of the week, the deeper fundamentals of conscience and honor peculiar to their forefathers' faith.”

 

Foundational Nurse Training

In 1832 Clara and her family experienced a significant medical crisis that helped form her future nursing skills and made clear the talent she innately possessed.

Her brother David was severely injured while working on a barn-raising when one of the boards he was standing on at the peak collapsed under him. He fell to the ground sustaining a severe head injury that laid him up in bed for nearly two years. 

Clara, perhaps from the closeness she felt to her brother while riding horseback in the woods, spent the entire recovery time caring for David. She also was the one who applied the prescribed treatments of the time for him that consisted of: Leeches, setons (stitches to relieve infection), counter-irritating blisters, and blood-letting to relieve his fever. She is quoted as saying: “For two years I only left his bedside for one half day. I almost forgot that there was an outside to the house.”

After David had finally recovered from his injuries, (when the new treatment of steam baths came into use), Clara had to sequester herself for recovery time from the care she had provided. At the tender age of 11, it was a portent of things to come.

 

Civil War Service

After spending 18 years teaching and then another 5 years living and working in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Department of the Interior and Patent Office, Clara saw firsthand what many of the men who were involved in the Civil War would experience through its long, arduous journey.

In April of 1861, the Massachusetts 6thregiment heeded the call of Abraham Lincoln for 75,000 troops and proceeded to make its way down to the nation’s capital. On their way they passed through Baltimore, Maryland where a crowd of 10,000 opponents of the beginning conflict assaulted them. This left four dead and 30 wounded.

They fought their way through the crowd and arrived in Washington the following day: April 16, 1861. Clara witnessed the regiment as they arrived by train and was there to greet them. 

This was the first time she had worked as a ‘Volunteer Nurse’ and experienced what would become her life’s mission to apply healing to those wounded in conflict. In her own words she testifies: "Among the soldiers, I recognized my own early associates. We bound their wounds, and fed them." There were many from Worcester, Massachusetts including Sergeant J. Stewart Brown and Joseph M. Dyson who she knew by name.

As the war progressed, Clara became acutely aware of the need for frontline care for the wounded and dying. Her desire to care for them put her in mortal danger numerous times. She writes of her time with the soldiers at Antietam in September of 1862: "We were in a slight hollow and all shell which did not break our guns in front, came directly among or over us, bursting above our heads or burying themselves in the hills beyond. A man lying upon the ground asked for a drink, I stopped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding him. Just at this moment a bullet sped its free and easy way between us, tearing a hole in my sleeve and found its way into his body. He fell back dead. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”

These experiences as gleaned from her writings, demonstrate the conviction of purpose and character that she had developed since her time caring for her brother’s injuries.

There are several key traits of Clara’s personality that are apparent in both her writings and of those who knew her.

The first is that she was never interested in money, only in solving humanities ill fortunes. This is best described later as she would later become the founder of the American Red Cross and would petition the U.S. Government to have its purpose expanded as a humanitarian relief organization for natural disasters as well as their charter to aid the wounded, sick, and dying in war. 

The second trait that also is very apparent is her love for her fellow man and the ability to rise to the occasion when events merit it. I’m reminded fondly of Mother Teresa and her ministering to the poor, sick, and weak ‘untouchables’ of India who she cared for during most of her adult life.

Towards the end of the war Clara was recognized for her gallant service by being named the Superintendent of the Department of Nurses under Surgeon McCormack who was Chief Director of the Army of the James stationed at City Point, Virginia.

As was always the case with Clara, she never settled for comfort in the ‘safe’ zones, but wanted to be attending to the infirm on the frontlines. 

Her oldest brother Stephen would also become a victim of the war and perhaps one of her greatest motivations to fulfill her duty as a nurse.

Stephen Barton had been mistakenly identified as a Confederate by the Union due to his living in North Carolina and had been neglected for a long period until Clara got word of him being hospitalized in Washington D.C. By this time, his health had deteriorated beyond hope.

Not long before he passed away in 1865, she wrote of hearing one of his final, moving prayers: "Oh God, whose children we all are, look down with thine eye of justice and mercy upon this terrible conflict, and weaken the wrong, and strengthen the right till this unequal contest close. Oh God, save my country. Bless Abraham and his armies.” She also painted a vivid portrait of what the conditions of where he passed were: "And there under the guns of Richmond, amid the groans of the dying, in the shadows of the smoky rafters of an old negro hut, by the rude chimney where the dusky form of the bondsman had crouched for years, and on the ground, trodden hard by the foot of the slave, I knelt beside that rough couch of boards, and, to the patriot prayer that rose above, sobbed 'Amen.'”

 

American Red Cross Founder

For four years following the Civil War, Clara Barton helped find those men who were missing in action from the official records of the war’s dead. While still living in Washington D.C., she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers to identify those who were killed or missing in action to try to relieve the suffering of family and friends.

During this time, she met and befriended Susan B. Anthony as well as Frederick Douglas. These relationships would leave a lasting impression on her as she championed women’s suffrage and civil rights for the rest of her life.

The years of Civil War work for others had taken their toll on Clara. After seeing her doctor and following his orders to get rest and recuperation from her many travails, she decided to visit Europe in 1869. Her first visit was to Liverpool, England and then on to Paris. Her final stop was to be where her life’s calling was forever changed.

Arriving in Geneva, Switzerland for the end of her vacation period, she was visited by the president and members of the “International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded in the War”, which would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Since Clara had such an outstanding reputation even with the international community, she was asked why America didn’t honor the recently signed ‘Geneva Convention’ and why after such a conflict as theirs, they wouldn’t be interested in it? Her answer was simple: “I listened in silent wonder to all this recital, and when I did reply it was to say that I had never heard of the Convention of Geneva nor of the treaty, and was sure that as a country America did not know she had declined.”

Not long after she had arrived in Geneva, the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Clara was able to see first-hand how the Red Cross in Europe was operating and how it contrasted with her experiences in the Civil War: "As I journeyed on and saw the work of these Red Cross societies in the field, accomplishing in four months under their systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years without it — no mistakes, no needless suffering, no starving, no lack of care, no waste, no confusion, but order, plenty, cleanliness and comfort wherever that little flag made its way — a whole continent marshaled under the banner of the Red Cross — as I saw all this, and joined and worked in it, you will not wonder that I said to myself 'if I live to return to my country I will try to make my people understand the Red Cross and that treaty.' But I did more than resolve, I promised other nations I would do it, and other reasons pressed me to remember my promise.”

One is struck with the irony of Clara’s timing in situations where war breaks out. It seems that she was called for just a time as these.

In early 1871 the Franco-Prussian war ended, but the battles continued throughout both Germany and France until the late summer of the same year. Clara stayed through this entire time ministering to the sick, treating the wounded, establishing clothiers who would fashion garments for the poorest, and soliciting funds from aristocratic donors who included Grand Duchess Louise of Baden, Kingdom of Prussia. Her willingness to befriend any class of person is another testament to her savviness and skill.

By 1874 Clara was worn out from her time in Europe and lack of recuperation. She was no stranger to loss having found out that her sister Sally had died before she could see her one final time in Worcester. Her only remaining relative in her family circle was her brother David whom she had nursed back to health as a child.

She spent several more years convalescing and writing friends, family, and officials of her intentions to establish the American Red Cross. With great perseverance, she was finally successful in 1881 with President James Garfield’s administration and it was established. An assassin’s bullet struck down the President and delayed the formal establishment of the association while the nation mourned for 80 days. 

Finally, in 1882, the Red Cross was formally established with ratification by Congress and the signing of the Geneva Convention by President Chester Arthur. Its role had expanded from not just treating the wounded and dying from war, but also those who experienced natural disasters.

At a convention of the International Red Cross in Geneva during 1882, the President of the International organization gave Clara the credit for the new American branch: "Its whole history is associated with a name already known to you — that of Miss Clara Barton; without the energy and perseverance of this remarkable woman, we should not for a long time have had the pleasure of seeing the Red Cross received into the United States."

Clara would serve as the President of the American Red Cross until June, 1904. Her tasks of running the organization along with doing fieldwork are unheard of in this day and age. 

As the years went by, Clara would write her autobiography titled: ‘The Story of My Childhood’. But the Clara Barton that I read about was gleaned from the book titled: ‘The Life of Clara Barton’, by Percy Elper who was the only authorized biographer of her life by the family. He used her unpublished war diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and conversations to write a truly compelling picture of this unique lady. 

Clara died in her home in 1912 at the age of 90. Her stature and legacy on American society have had a tremendous impact on so many people. We have much to learn from her compassionate and caring nature for those in need.

 

What do you think of Clara Barton? Let us know below.

References

Percy H. Epler, “The Life of Clara Barton”, The Macmillan Company, New York, July 1915.

 “Evolution of the Railroad”, https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/videos/evolution-of-railroads

“Nursing History – Clara Barton”, 

https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/enterprise-assets/about-us/history/history-clara-barton-v3.pdf

“Biography of Mother Teresa”, https://www.biography.com/people/mother-teresa-9504160

“The Domesday Book”, http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/

“Clara Barton – Library of Congress”, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018651854/

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Cornelia Hancock was born in 1840, and by 1863 she was ready to help look after the sick in the US Civil War. Here, Matt Goolsby explains how Cornelia broke boundaries and helped many people during the Civil War and after.

20180812 Cornelia_Hancock_civil_war_nurse.jpg

From Quaker to Volunteer Nurse

Life in mid-nineteenth century America was vastly different to today. The news was relayed either by messenger via horseback, by train, or over telegraph wires. The northern states had more than 90% of the established infrastructure of the day versus the paltry facilities of the South.

Unsurprisingly, there was a heightened interest in news of the Civil War and especially of the battle of Gettysburg since the nation’s sons were involved.

Pennsylvania took center stage in July of 1863.

Driven by a desire to fulfill her life’s purpose, Cornelia Hancock knew that she needed to be involved.

Cornelia Hancock came from a very unassuming Quaker family. She had been born on February 8, 1840, at Hancock’s Bridge in Salem, New Jersey. Many Quakers had fled England due to religious persecution and had wanted only to live a quiet life and practice their religion. Their unique lifestyle even caused persecution to occur in early New England history, but had subsided with the Tolerance Act of 1689.

The Hancock family had abolitionist leanings due to their Quaker principles and believed that the nationwide conflict was just. Personally affected, Cornelia’s brother had enlisted in the Union Army, which motivated her to help in some significant way.

Cornelia’s older sister had been employed at the US mint in Philadelphia and later married a Quaker doctor named, Henry T. Child, also from Philadelphia, who felt strongly about caring for wounded soldiers.

Dr. Child knew of Cornelia’s desire to get involved and so requested she travel to Gettysburg to help relieve some of the pain the wounded and dying were going through.

Her arrival in Gettysburg established her role as a ‘Volunteer’ nurse as most of the nurses or assistants of the day had no formal medical training. Nurses of the day were called ‘Volunteer’ and were recruited as plain women over the age of thirty-five who were required to wear unassuming and non-adorning apparel. They were also instructed to wear nothing in their hair and forego jewelry so as not to be a distraction and to also not become a victim of men’s advances. This had been outlined by Dorothea Dix, the Army Superintendent of Nurses. Cornelia spurned these requirements being only 23 at the time and proceeded with grim determination. She made it to the battle site on July 6, 1863 to ghastly conditions.

Most of the dead had remained on the battlefield in the blistering summer sun for three days after the battle ended. This caused the bodies to quickly decompose, which created an unbearable stench that hang heavy in the air.

After losing the battle, Robert E Lee had fled the Union Army with his forces leaving 5000 of his Confederate troops behind. This only added to the misery experienced after the conflict ended.

Upon entering 3rd Division, 2nd Corps Field Hospital on July 7, 1863, Cornelia wrote that the wounded had been separated into differing levels of triage: those who had severe head wounds and were deemed ‘hopeless’, those who had a slim chance of survival, and those who were recovering. Her first official duties were to write down last requests to family members from those too weak to do it themselves who would soon become the ‘beloved dead’.

 

From Volunteer Nurse to Caregiver

As Cornelia quickly matured in her work at the Field Hospitals, she became a strong advocate for the men in her care. There were severe shortages of basic supplies, especially bedding and bandages. Her writings reflect the desire to meet these basic needs as she solicited family and friends for funds to procure what was essential for the care of the wounded.

The amazing aspect of Cornelia’s personality that comes out in her writings is that she was truly moved by the misery surrounding her and yet the sadness of the situation never seemed to paralyze her to the needs of others. These experiences would refine as well as clarify what her future life’s work would become.

As the war progressed and the suffering continued, she would jokingly refer to the ‘Copperheads’ as being worthy of death because of the lack of support they gave to the Union cause. This coming from a nurse who saw the best and worst in humanity shows the paradox of the experience of war and life itself. 

‘Copperhead’ was the term given to a group of Union Democrat politicians who were vociferous in their criticism of the war and wanted an immediate truce with the Confederates of the Southern United States. It was given to them by Republicans who likened them to a snake of the same name. Not an endearing term or moniker.

Another aspect of Cornelia’s personality that comes out is the love of her family and yet, in the resistance to become what they would have preferred. She had been raised with loving but strict Quaker principles. Her family would have preferred she take a more ‘prudent’ direction with her life. However, she chose to care for those who she felt needed her most. This is very evident in her letters.

One such letter shows the depth of compassion she has for both the wounded and their families and friends: “I have eight wall tents of amputated men. The tents of the wounded I look right out on - it is a melancholy sight, but you have no idea how soon one gets used to it. Their screams of agony do not make as much an impression on me now as the reading of this letter will on you. The most painful task we have here, is entertaining the friends who come from home and see their friends all mangled up”, written Sunday, July 26th, 1863 at 3rd Division-2nd Army Corp Hospital, Gettysburg, PA.

Cornelia had the innate ability to see the greater purpose in her service to others. Her desire to provide for the physical needs of the men as well as their emotional comfort is on plain display in many of her letters. When she speaks of men who are about to die from mortal wounds to those who would cry because they were being transferred to another hospital away from her care, you can hear her compassion and empathy for them.

 

From Caregiver to Lifelong Advocate

In the final two years of the Civil War, Cornelia spent her time moving to different locations as the need arose. During the latter part of October, 1863, she moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to care for the ‘Contraband’.

The escaped slaves or those who sided with the Union Army during the Civil War were referred to as ‘Contrabands’. Cornelia also used the term in her letters to describe the families of those who had also escaped with them.

Conditions for those termed ‘Contraband’, were dismal at best. It was after witnessing the effects of slavery and poverty that she felt strongly that something had to be done to improve their lives.

Her first efforts were to solicit family for funds to purchase clothing for those who were the poorest of the poor. She also witnessed firsthand the brutal effects of what many a slaveowner had wielded on their slaves.

One such situation occurred when she described two slaves to her mother in a letter dated, November 15th, 1863, Contraband Hospital, Washington D.C.: “There were two very fine looking slaves arrived here from Louisiana, one of them had his master’s name branded on his forehead, and with him he brought all the instruments of torture that he wore at different times during 39 years of very hard slavery.” 

She goes on to describe the heinous instruments used to keep slaves from comfort and freedom. These experiences along with her witnessing what the ‘Contraband’ had for food and clothing only solidified her resolve to do what she could for the least of these, her brethren.

As the war continued, Cornelia would transfer to several different locations. They included: Brandy Station and Fredericksburg, Virginia, White House Landing, City Point, Virginia, and finally to where the war ended: Richmond, Virginia.

After the war ended, Cornelia spent the next ten years in which she established the Laing School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina whose mission was to educate former slaves and to inspire them to become good citizens through high ideals.

The remainder of Cornelia’s life was spent working on behalf of the poor and ministering to those who had no advocate. Her strength of character and purpose is demonstrated in the many letters written to family that document her experiences at Gettysburg and throughout the American experience during the Civil War. She was and continues to be a national treasure.

 

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Finally, the next article in the series is on Clara Barton, another US Civil War-era nurse. Clara Barton also played a key role in the formation of the American Red Cross - article available here.

References

Henrietta Stratton Jaquette - Editor, “Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock 1863-1865”, University of Nebraska Press, 1998, Foreword and 1-32.

“News and the Civil War”, http://americanantiquarian.org/earlyamericannewsmedia/exhibits/show/news-and-the-civil-war

“Cornelia Hancock – National Park Service”, https://www.nps.gov/people/cornelia-hancock.htm

“Definition of Copperhead (Politician)”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copperhead_(politics)

“Definition of Contraband (American Civil War)”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contraband_(American_Civil_War)

“Definition of Quakers”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers

“Laing School – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina”, http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/laing-school/

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones