Women in the War

Nurses of the Wilderness – Hill, Hancock, and Barlow

With the massive influx of casualties in the Wilderness, doctors and nurses were working double-time to tend to the wounded in both blue and gray.

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated doctors like Jonathon Letterman, the wounded of the Overland Campaign were in a better situation to be efficiently treated than those of previous campaigns. At least, at the beginning they did. The war was in its third year and the medical field had learned from their mistakes. A new system of triage and logistics had finally been ironed out, which would save the lives of countless soldiers.

BattleOfTheWildernessAmbulances stationed 400 yards behind the battle lines would take the wounded from stretcher bearers running back and forth from the heat of things. Then, they would be transported to the field hospitals where surgeons were waiting, well stocked and prepared for the flood. These field hospitals were located behind each of the Union corps, dedicated to tending the patients and prisoners that came directly from their fronts.

Location of field hospitals, Wilderness

Dr. Thomas McParlin replaced Jonathon Letterman as the Army of the Potomac’s medical director. In his official report, he said, “It was a series of fierce attacks and repulses on either side, and the hostile lines swayed back and forth over a strip of ground from 200 yards to a mile in width on which the severely wounded of both sides were scattered. This strip of woods was on fire in many places, and some wounded, unable to escape, were thus either suffocated or burned to death… The stretcher bearers of the Ambulance Corps followed the line of battle closely, and displayed great gallantry in their efforts to bring off the wounded lying between the lines, but with very little success, it being almost impossible to find wounded men lying scattered through the dense thickets, and the enemy firing at every moving light, or even at the slightest noise.”

Wounded of Wilderness

Most of the soldiers sustained bullet wounds as opposed to artillery or shrapnel injuries, and many more suffered from burns from the brushfires that spread through the undergrowth in the Wilderness. Thousands of soldiers (approximately 9,000) were patched up and treated in the Wilderness.

On May 7th, General George Gordon Meade ordered that the wounded be moved to Rappahannock Station to then catch a transport to Washington for further care. About 960 soldiers, however, would stay behind due to their critical condition. 660 Union and 90 Confederates in Second Corps hospitals, 200 Union and 4 Confederates in the Fifth Corps hospitals and 100 Union in the Sixth Corps hospitals.

General Ulysses S. Grant, now in charge of all Union forces, had given an order prior to the Overland Campaign that all civilians – including nurses – should leave the army. This restricted many well-meaning women from serving in the field hospitals as they had done in the past. Below are a few accounts of the nurses that defied Grant’s orders and helped the wounded anyway.

Nurses of Armory Square (Nancy Hill at bottom)

In Washington, as the city became swamped with the wounded from the battlefront, one lady by the name of Nancy Hill at Armory Square Hospital, advocated for the men who were almost turned away and labeled deserters since they had come without passes. Hill ushered them in and tended their wounds a day early before official notice came that the wounded were to be brought in. Hill had been on the hospital scene since 1863 and had come from a line of women who sacrificed their time and energy to help the army. Her great-grandmother had been a nurse for the Revolutionary War. When Hill had come to Washington looking to aid the cause, Dorothea Dix had turned her away due to the fact that the young lady (age 29) did not meet all of her staunch requirements (between the ages of 30 and 50, plain-looking and plain-dressed). Hill would have been sent away if it hadn’t been for Dr. Willard Bliss, superintendent of Armory Square Hospital, who allowed her to stay on.

Armory Square was the facility nearest the steamboat landing on the Potomac River and a railroad depot, meaning the hospital there would receive the first wave of wounded from the Wilderness. Though the nurses there would have seen just about every sort of wound and sickness imaginable by the spring of 1864, one nurse remarked, “The scenes presented were enough to appal [sic] the stoutest nerves.” Hill worked in Ward F, one of a dozen white clapboard buildings constructed on the National Mall, very close to the White House. Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the hospitals, visiting the 1,000 or so men in each of the wards. Walt Whitman was also a person of notoriety to lend his help as a volunteer at this hospital.

At the beginning of the war, female nurses were not always welcome in hospitals since they had no proper medical training and it was believed that their feminine dispositions couldn’t handle the stress of a hospital scene. The ladies on both sides quickly proved the doctors wrong, and showed that their gentle hands and equally gentle manners were needed to make the soldiers feel at home in some of their darkest hours. Tasks like bathing, dressing and redressing wounds, assisting doctors during surgery, cooking, and tending laundry were just some of the many tasks given to the nurses of the Civil War.

Ward at Armory Square Hospital

When the wounded from the Wilderness came to Armory Hospital, Hill set to work alongside the ward master and the dozen or so other nurses and volunteers. When she found out how devastating the battle had been, she petitioned for a pass to go to Virginia to offer her help. It was granted to her, and during her time in Washington, her letters home would inspire communities to send much needed supplies to the hospitals.

On May 8th, Meade redirected the flow of the wounded from Washington to Fredericksburg as the army moved further south toward Richmond. Brandy Station had been the ideal location over Fredericksburg, but the idea was to avoid impeding the supply lines that would feed into the Army of the Potomac as it made its way to Spotsylvania Courthouse and beyond. It would also mean that the wounded, would have farther to travel than if they had been moved to Brandy Station instead. This sent McParlin scrambling. The town that had been totally upended since 1862 would once more see the casualties of war swamp its streets. It would need all the help it could get.

Cornelia Hancock

One nurse answered the call. Cornelia Hancock, a Quaker from New Jersey was no stranger to the horrors of war. Like Nancy Hill, Cornelia was at first denied access to the armies by Dorothea Dix due to her age (23). But with the help of her brother-in-law, Dr. Henry T. Child, Cornelia soon found herself at Gettysburg just a couple of days after Lee had retreated from the field. She would attach herself to Hancock’s II Corps hospital at Camp Letterman and soon earned a reputation for resourcefulness and resilience amongst the invalids she treated. Many sent letters to her throughout the war, saying how much they appreciated her tender care during their convalescence. She earned the respect of the doctors and other nurses, making friends and valuable connections along the way. Like the other civilians, however, she was forced out of the army when Grant took over.

Belle Plain, VA

But when word of the devastating battle in the Wilderness reached her in Philadelphia, Cornelia knew she couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore. She managed to get a pass as Dr. Child’s assistant and set off with him onboard the Wawasset down the Potomac River. Loaded with supplies, they landed at Belle Plain on May 11th. Confederate guerillas had cut off the more adequate port facility at Aquia Landing, leaving the single-dock Belle Plain to become the go-to for transporting the wounded out of Virginia. Cornelia and Henry would help get the wounded onto the boats that were bound for Washington. Thousands were shipped out and it took hours to coordinate the endeavor. Child wrote in a letter to his wife, Ellen, about the condition of the soldiers, that many were burned as a result of the forest fires. “It has been and is the most fearful battle of modern times and perhaps of any time.” He also recalls that Cornelia was “the first and only woman there”. More aid from the Sanitary Commission arrived in the following days. She spent her time distributing rations as they came in and brewing coffee for the men at Belle Plain, all before traveling to Fredericksburg with Dr. Detmold and Dr. Vanderpool.

Hospital, Fredericksburg

In a letter written to her sister, Cornelia talks how the “eminent surgeons of New York” were “paralyzed by what they saw” upon arriving to the beleaguered city that had turned into one massive hospital overnight. Cornelia, however, had the advantage of being a seasoned nurse and said “My Gettysburg experience enabled me to take hold.” They commandeered a Methodist church, whose roof was so “bullet-riddled” that the heavy rains that were dumping on the men at Spotsylvania Courthouse were nearly drowning the wounded men lying on the floor in the sanctuary. Cornelia wrote about the “pools of water made bloody by their seriously wounded condition.” The pews were torn apart to make into beds and operating tables so the men who couldn’t help themselves would be out of the collecting rainwater.

Through the month of May, Cornelia struggled with scant supplies, threats of “Secesh” guerillas outside of town, and the continual bad news from the front. “There is no end to the wounded, they arrive any time, night or day.” She writes to her mother that “The publick[sic] must know that Fredericksburg is one vast hospital requiring all the muscle and supplies the North can send. The groans go up from every building.” Not only that, but Cornelia heard the names of the fallen, names she recognized, as the fighting continued further south.

Nurses of Fredericksburg (Arabella Barlow far left)

Alongside Cornelia in Fredericksburg was another resourceful nurse, Arabella Barlow. Also the wife of General Francis Barlow, she had followed her husband with the Army of the Potomac since the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 as a volunteer with the Sanitary Commission. Doctors and nurses praised Arabella for her determination and positivity. Below is a sketch of her work in Fredericksburg after the battle of the Wilderness.

“At Belle Plain, at Fredericksburg, and at White House, she was to be found as ever actively working for the sick and wounded. A friend and fellow-laborer describes her work as peculiar, and fitting admirably into the more exclusive hospital work of the majority of the women who had devoted themselves to the care of the soldiers. Her great activity and inexhaustible energy showed themselves in a sort of roving work, in seizing upon and gathering up such things as her quick eye saw were needed. “We called her ‘the Raider,’” says this friend, who was also a warm admirer. “At Fredericksburg she had in some way gained possession of a wretched-looking pony, and a small cart or farmer’s wagon, with which she was continually on the move, driving about town or country in search of such provisions or other articles as were needed for the sick and wounded. The surgeon in charge had on one occasion assigned her the task of preparing a building, which had been taken for a hospital, for a large number of wounded who were expected almost immediately. I went with my daughter to the building. It was empty, containing not the slightest furniture or preparation for the sufferers, save a large number of bed-sacks, without straw or other material to fill them. “On requisition a quantity of straw was obtained, but not nearly enough for the expected need, and we were standing in a kind of mute despair, considering if it were indeed possible to secure any comfort for the poor fellows expected, when Mrs. Barlow came in. “I’ll find some more straw,’ was her cheerful reply, and in another moment she was urging her tired beast toward another part of the town where she remembered having seen a bale of the desired article earlier in the day. Half an hour afterward the straw had been confiscated, loaded upon the little wagon by willing hands, and brought to the hospital.”

II Corps Field Hospital

While Nancy Hill and Cornelia Hancock would continue their work as nurses through the rest of the war, Arabella Barlow would not see the “dawn of peace”, as the song puts it. She, like countless doctors and nurses before her, would fall victim to the very thing she had worked so hard to prevent. She would succumb to a relapse of typhoid fever she contracted in the summer of 1864 and passed away July 27th.

Due to the complications in transporting the wounded, the patients from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania began to meld together into a mass of suffering humanity. Ambulances that were still caught up with Wilderness casualties ended up neglecting to transport those wounded from fresh combat to safety in Fredericksburg. The final extraction of Wilderness wounded wasn’t until early June, a month after the hostilities began. Cornelia Hancock’s frustration with medical disorganization and the way Grant initiated this new campaign season is clear when she writes, “I do not see Grant has accomplished much, yet he fights right straight ahead whether he gets any advantage or not.”

What she couldn’t know was that Grant’s strategy was working and his war of attrition would be the first steps toward finally ending the war.


From Civil War nurse to a lifelong career in medicine

Woman’s Work in the Civil War, A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience – Linus Pierpont Brockett, Mary C. Vaughan, 1867.

“Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863 – 1865”

“Swearing and Praying” – Medical Care After the Wilderness

“Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs” by Alfred Jay Bollet, M.D.

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