By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
In October 2012 Facebook announced with great fanfare that its social network had exceeded one billion people. That is certainly very impressive, but Civil War nurse Cornelia Hancock was head of a social network that included a functionality that Mark Zuckerberg probably never contemplated when he developed Facebook. Cornelia Hancock’s social network extended into the afterlife, and she described it in a letter to her family from a military hospital near Gettysburg.
“Every barn, church, and building of any size in Gettysburg had been converted into a temporary hospital. We went the same evening to one of the churches, where I saw for the first time what war meant. Hundreds of desperately wounded men were stretched out on boards laid across the high-backed pews as closely as they could be packed together. The boards were covered with straw. Thus elevated, these poor sufferers’ faces, white and drawn with pain, were almost on a level with my own. I seemed to stand breast-high in a sea of anguish.
“The townspeople of Gettysburg were in devoted attendance, and there were many from other villages and towns. The wounds of all had been dressed at least once, and some systematic care was already established. Too inexperienced to nurse, I went from one pallet to another with pencil, paper, and stamps in hand, and spent the rest of that night in writing letters from the soldiers to their families and friends. To many mothers, sisters, and wives I penned the last message of those who were soon to become the ‘beloved dead.'” In other words, the letters that Hancock wrote for those dying soldiers became the last words of those men to their families.
Cornelia Hancock was born on February 6, 1840 in New Jersey to a Quaker family that had lived in that state since before the American Revolution. After Hancock’s only brother became a member of the Union army, her abolitionist views motivated her to do service to the Union cause. On July 5, 1863, at the age of 23, she boarded a train for Gettysburg with a number of physicians and nurses. However, Hancock almost did not have the chance to become a Civil War nurse and had to overcome a nearly impenetrable obstacle to do so. During a stop in Baltimore, the group encountered Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Army Nurses. Dix approved all of the women on the train as nurses except for Hancock, because Dix felt that Hancock was too young and attractive. In Hancock’s words, “She looked us all over and pronounced all suitable save me. She immediately objected to my going farther on the score of my youth and rosy cheeks.” Nevertheless, Hancock refused to accept this decision and, in her words, “I settled the question myself by getting on the car and staying in my seat until the train pulled out of the city of Baltimore.”
July 7 was Hancock’s first day treating the wounded at Gettysburg. She wrote in a letter, “The first sight that met our eyes was a collection of semi-conscious but still living human forms, all of whom had been shot through the head, and were considered hopeless. They were laid to die and I hoped that they were indeed too near death to have consciousness. Yet many a groan came from them, and their limbs tossed and twitched.” She also wrote of the enormity of the task that confronted the medical personnel at Gettysburg. “There was a long table in the woods that was the operating table, and for seven days it literally ran blood. A wagon stood nearby rapidly filling with amputated arms and legs. So appalling was the number of the wounded as yet unsuccoured, so helpless seemed the few who were battling against tremendous odds to save life, and so overwhelming was the demand for any kind of aid that could be given quickly that one’s senses were benumbed by the awful responsibility that fell to the living.” Because Hancock had no real experience as a nurse, she wrote letters home for the wounded soldiers and thus began her social network. Her caring and compassion endeared her to the soldiers, some of whom showed their gratitude by crafting a silver medallion engraved with words that read in part, “Testimonial of regard for ministrations of mercy to the wounded soldiers at Gettysburg.”
Hancock continued to serve as a nurse with the Army of the Potomac through the Overland Campaign. She expressed her opinion of Ulysses Grant’s tactics during this campaign when she wrote, “The idea of making a business of maiming men is not worthy of a civilization.” Hancock is reputed to be one of the first Union women to enter Richmond after the fall of the Confederate capital. Her thoughts about her experiences as a Civil War nurse are best summarized by two of her quotes. In a letter from Gettysburg to her sister, Hancock wrote, “I feel assured I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter.” But during this same time Hancock also claimed, “I am as…dirty as a pig and as well as I ever was in my life.”
After the war, Hancock continued to help those in need by establishing a school in South Carolina for freed black children and working there for ten years until she left for health reasons. After a short rest, Hancock returned to social work and helped form a charity in Philadelphia. Hancock never married and expressed to her mother in a letter shortly after the end of the Civil War, “Men, as the generality of them appear in public life have few charms for me, and if thee have any lingering hopes for me yet in my advancing years committing matrimony, thee must keep thy anticipation in good check.” In 1913 Hancock returned to the place where she launched her social network when she attended the 50th Anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. On December 27, 1927, at the age of 87, Cornelia Hancock left this life and joined the soldiers for whom she had written letters.
Swiss author Madame de Staël conveyed a truism about death in her quote, “We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.” In looking at the tabulations of Civil War casualties, it is easy to become so overwhelmed by the numbers that we lose sight of the reality that each and every number was a person whose loved ones mourned that loss. Soldiers mourned the loss of comrades, mothers and fathers mourned the loss of sons, and wives and children mourned the loss of husbands and fathers. Often that loss happened far from home, and family members had no way of seeing their son or husband or father one last time. In the 19th century, the concept of a good death was extremely important. One component of a good death was some final words by the dying person that calmed and comforted loved ones. The letters that Cornelia Hancock sent to family members of a dead soldier fulfilled this aspiration and gave those family members the opportunity to hear the final words of the dearly departed after his death, as though he had written to them from the hereafter. In this way, Cornelia Hancock gave a number of people one final moment in which a dead family member was alive with them for a parting embrace.