Cornelia Hancock’s Rosy Cheeks

I’m learning a lot from Cornelia Hancock, the 23-year-old New Jersey woman who arrived at Gettysburg three days after the battle. [Letter of a Civil War Nurse] She almost didn’t get there. In Baltimore her party met Dorothea Dix, superintendent of Army nurses.

“She looked the nurses over and pronounced them all suitable except me. She immediately objected to my going farther on the score of my youth and rosy cheeks… In those days it was indecorous for angels of mercy to appear otherwise than gray-haired and bespectacled.”

Miss Hancock settled the issue by getting on the train, and apparently it was decided that it would be too indecorous to drag her off it by main force, especially considering there were acres and acres of dead and dying men to be attended to.

So we get a sense of who Cornelia Hancock is before she arrives, and I think that’s important because then, when she describes what she sees and hears and smells, it’s like you’re hearing it from someone you know.

And her account — in letters to her mother and sisters that she never intended to publish — is exactly the kind of thing that keeps me foraging in old book bins. This book is a resource for anyone who wants to understand war and its human cost, and, for that matter, anyone who wants to find insights into the human spirit.

She tells us about heroism in its true form — gravely wounded men urging her to tend to a comrade in greater need. And she notes that the regiments that played the most heroic part in the battle suffered the most casualties.

She finds a town denuded of food, clothing and everything else necessary to life. She sits with dying men and writes their letters home.

It’s a walking tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg, one of the greatest fields of carnage in human history. When Lincoln gave his famous address there five months later, arms and legs were still sticking up out of the ground.

By the way, Dorothea Dix’s concerns about Cornelia Hancock were entirely unfounded. She was as safe as she might have been at home, and there is documentary evidence to show that the wounded men of the 12th New Jersey Regiment had no objection whatsoever to her youth or her rosy cheeks.