Rare Front Line Woman Nurse Describes Battlefield Hospital

July 26, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 30 (146 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Gettysburg’s Dead Were Unburied

At the end of July, three weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, David Wills, a local banker and civic leader, wrote Pennsylvania’s governor, Andrew Curtain, and described what he saw when he visited the battlefield. He wrote, “Our dead are lying on the fields unburied (that is no grave being dug), with small portions of earth dug up alongside of the body and thrown over it. In many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and my attention has been directed to several places where hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them.”


Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, 1992, p. 21.


Civilians at Gettysburg, National Park Service

The David Wills House

Rare Front Line Woman Nurse Describes Gettysburg Field Hospitals

On July 26, 1863 twenty-three year-old Cornelia Hancock wrote to her mother in New Jersey from the field hospital five miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“My Dear Mother,

Cornelia Hancock

Cornelia Hancock

. . . It is now about five o’clock in the morning. Our hospital has been moved and our stores have given out. [The field hospitals were closed at the end of July, and the wounded men who were still too critical to be evacuated, were transferred to the general hospital established in Gettysburg.] There is nothing to cook with, . . . we have to see our wounded men fed with dry bread and poor coffee; and I can tell you it is hard to witness some cursing for food, some praying for it. . . . I would give anything to have a barrel of butter, and some dried rusk [a hard biscuit or twice-baked bread] that I have seen in our parlor. . . .

“I have eight wall tents full 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 impression on me now as the reading of this letter will on you. . . .You will think it is a short time for me to get used to things, but it seems to me as if all my past life is a myth, and as if I had been away from home seventeen years. What I do here one would think would kill at home, but I am well and comfortable. . . .

From thy affectionate daughter, C. Hancock”

Although Cornelia was too young to qualify as a nurse under Army regulations, she was able to circumvent the rules by accompanying her brother-in-law, Dr. Henry Child, to Gettysburg in the aftermath of the three-day battle. They served in a field hospital some five miles outside of Gettysburg, where she indicates there were hardly any tents in the first hours after battle and no buildings to house the wounded. Formerly a school teacher, Cornelia had no training as a nurse; her only qualification was “a fervent desire” to help. She is one of the rare women who lived and worked near the front lines; most female nurses worked in general hospitals toward the rear or cities in the North. She served at Gettysburg, and then at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., the Army’s winter camp at Brandy Station, Belle Plain, Fredericksburg, White House Landing, and City Point, more or less continually from July 1863 until May 1865.

Cornelia Hancock in hoop skirt at far right at Brandy Station, Virginia. Field hospital of the 3rd Division, 2d Corps, courtesy Library of Congress.

Cornelia Hancock in hoop skirt at far right at Brandy Station, Virginia. Field hospital of the 3rd Division, 2d Corps, courtesy Library of Congress.

Detail from image above showing Cornelia Hancock at Brandy Station, Virginia Field Hospital.

Detail from image above showing Cornelia Hancock at Brandy Station, Virginia Field Hospital.

– Submitted by Georgiann Baldino


South After Gettysburg: Letters of Cornelia Hancock, 1956, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, pp.17-19


Cornelia Hancock Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Battle that begins Dances with Wolves is Fictitious but Powerfully Portrays Gore of Civil War Medicine

The beginning scenes in the movie Dances with Wolves portray a fictional battle that was supposed to have happened in the summer of 1863. There was no such battle as St. David’s Field, in Tennessee, but the movie does convey a reasonably accurate sense of what medical treatment was like on a Civil War battlefield. Amputation was the usual treatment for a wound on an extremity. Death was the usual outcome of a wound on the body.

Lincoln Threatens Reprisals for Every Captured Black Union Soldier Murdered or Enslaved

Historian James M. McPherson writes, “On July 30, 1863, Lincoln issued an order stating that for every Union prisoner killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier would be similarly executed. For every Union soldier enslaved or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier would be placed at hard labor on the public works. . . .[T]he South[ refused] to exchange Negro prisoners, contributing to the prisoner-exchange breakdown which caused overcrowding in both Union and Confederate prisons.”


James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, pp. 335-6.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of the entry about Cornelia Hancock, all entries were submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863

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