Wednesday, July 03, 2013

`That I Cannot Do Without Crying'

“There are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed today. The men lie on the ground; their clothes have been cut off them to dress their wounds; they are half naked, have nothing but hard-tack to eat as only Sanitary Commissions, Christian Associations, and so forth give them.” 

Cornelia Hancock was a Quaker born in Hancock’s Bridge, N.J., in 1840. She had no formal medical training when, at age twenty-three, she arrived in Gettysburg on the evening of July 6, 1863, three days after the conclusion of the battle. She had volunteered to serve but Dorothea Dix, superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union, had rejected her, saying, “No woman under thirty need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain looking. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts.” Hancock ignored the ruling and made her way to Gettysburg with her brother-in-law, Dr. Henry T. Child: 

“After my brother and every male relative and friend that we possessed had gone to the war, I deliberately came to the conclusion that I, too, would go and serve my country.” 

Hancock wrote more than 175 letters to her family during the war, collected in Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). On July 7, 1863, she writes to her cousin: 

“I feel very thankful that this was a successful battle; the spirit of the men is so high that many of the poor fellows said today, `What is an arm or a leg to whipping Lee out of Penn.’ I would get on first rate if they would not ask me to write to their wives; that I cannot do without crying, which is not pleasant to either party. I do not mind the sight of blood, have seen limbs taken off and was not sick at all.” 

In a letter to her sister written on July 8, Hancock describes the routine she established – riding in ambulances or army buggies, searching the surrounding fields and woods, starting at 6 o’clock each morning and returning around 6 p.m. She laments the paucity of surgeons and medical supplies, and writes: “I feel assured I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter.” 

Hancock remained a military nurse through the end of the war while also volunteering at the Contraband Hospital for escaped slaves in Washington, D.C. In 1866, she founded the Laing School for freed slaves in Pleasantville, S.C. Settled in Philadelphia, he helped found the Philadelphia Society for organizing charitable relief in 1878 and the Children’s Aid Society of Philadelphia in 1882. She retired to Atlantic City in 1914 and died on New Year’s Eve 1927. 

Scholars have meticulously tallied the battle’s grim statistics. By conservative estimates, Confederate forces suffered 23,231 casualties – killed, wounded and missing. The Union lost 23,055, for a total of 46,286 Americans in three days of fighting. Almost one-third of the soldiers at Gettysburg became casualties. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac lost twenty-eight percent of its forces. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sustained a more than thirty-seven-percent casualty rate.

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