Cornelia Hancock, Angel of Mercy

Here is another excerpt from Letters of a Civil War Nurse, by Cornelia Hancock, who arrived in Gettysburg three days after the battle. She is seeking the hospital of the 12th New Jersey regiment in which her brother is serving:

“As we made our way to a little woods in which we were told was the Field Hospital we were seeking, 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 there to die and I hoped that they were indeed too near to death to have some consciousness. Yet many a groan came from them, and their limbs tossed and twitched.

“The few surgeons who were left in charge of the battlefield after the Union Army had started in pursuit of Lee had begun their paralyzing task by sorting the dead from the dying, and the dying from from those whose lives might be saved; hence the groups of prostrate, bleeding men laid together according to their wounds.

“There was hardly a tent to be seen. Earth was the only available bed during those first hours after the battle.”

Historians seem to take off with the Union Army in pursuit of Lee, a worthy endeavor, to be sure. You don’t hear much in the history books about the mountains of carnage left behind. But it’s lucky for humanity that there are heros like Cornelia Hancock to come in and deal with them.

“Our party separated quickly, each intent on carrying out her own scheme of usefulness. No one paid the slightest attention to us, unusual as was the presence of half a dozen women on such fields; nor did anyone have time to give us orders or answer questions.

“Wagons of bread and provisions were arriving and I helped myself to their stores. I sat down with a loaf in one hand and a jar of jelly in another; it was not hospital diet, but it was food, and a dozen poor fellows lying near me turned their eyes in piteous entreaty, anxiously watching my efforts to prepare a meal.

“There was not a spoon, knife, fork, or plate to be had that day, and it seemed as if there was no more serious problem under Heaven than the task of dividing that too well-baked loaf into portions that could be swallowed by weak and dying men.

“I succeeded, however, in breaking it into small pieces and spreading jelly over each with a stick. A shingle board made an excellent tray, and it was handed from one to another. I had the joy of seeing every morsel swallowed by greedily by those whom I had prayed day and night I might be permitted to serve.”

And that’s just the beginning. Here’s where she becomes a true angel of mercy:

“An hour or so later, in another wagon, I found boxes of condensed milk and bottles of whiskey and brandy. It was an easy task to mix milk punches and to serve them from bottles and tin cans…”