Letters of a Civil War Nurse

I went up to Montague last Saturday for some flea markets and an auction. There was a bookstore there with books three for a dollar. I had the feeling that if they didn’t go for that price they might be… disposed of. So I went through them carefully.

I picked Ordeal by Slander by Owen Lattimore, The Gladiators by Arthur Koestler and Letters of a Civil War Nurse by Cornelia Hancock, edited by Henrietta Stratton Jaquette.

These are all great finds, but the latter is one of those books that shows why all that rummaging is worthwhile.

Cornelia Hancock is a courageous Quaker woman from New Jersey who, by hook or by crook, finds her way to the battlefield at Gettysburg three days after the battle.

“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 laid out on boards stretched across the high-backed pews… Thus elevated , these poor sufferers faces, white and drawn, 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….

“Too inexperienced to nurse, I went from one pallet to another, with paper, pencil, and stamps in hand, and spent the rest of that night 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 to become the ‘beloved dead.'”

But the wounded in the town were a tiny fraction of the men wounded in the battle. The rest were spread out over many acres in so-called hospitals that didn’t even have tents.

Cornelia asked to be taken to the hospital of the Twelfth Regiment of New Jersey, in which her brother was serving.

“As we drew near our destination… a sickening , overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead, on which the July sun was mercilessly shining, and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler, until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife.”

Maybe it’s hard to see why I relish this kind of thing. I guess it’s because I get a perspective you’re not likely to find in most history books. I’ll have a bunch more selections from this courageous woman, who was also an excellent writer.