I’ve been reading Letters of a Civil War Nurse by Cornelia Hancock, and it’s really absorbing to walk with her around the battlefield at Gettysburg after the Union Army had moved on, a scene of unimaginable carnage where 300 surgeons worked for five days performing amputations, filling wagon after wagon with severed limbs.
It was the kind of situation where people show what they are made of and Cornelia, a strong-willed Quaker lass from Pennsylvania, certainly does that.
In one letter she admits guiltily that the soldiers in her tent hospital chipped in and bought her a silver medal worth twenty dollars. These men had nothing; they hadn’t been paid in months.
“Miss Cornelia Hancock,” read the inscription, “presented by the wounded soldiers of the 3d Division, 2d Army Corps. Testimonial of regard for ministrations of mercy to the wounded soldiers at Gettysburg, Pa. — July 1863.”
To her mother she writes, “I know what thee will say, that the money could have better laid out. It was very complimentary, though.” When you think about it, she couldn’t possibly have refused it.
One of her patients later wrote to her at the tent hospital, “You will never be forgotten by us for we often think of your kind acts and remember them with pleasure. Please excuse a soldier for taking the liberty to write to you, for although we are Soldiers we know how to appreciate a kind act.”
“It seems to me as if all my past life was a myth,” she wrote to her mother, “and as if I had been away from home seventeen years.”
But, she reports, “I am black as an Indian, dirty as a pig and as well as I’ve ever been in my life… There is all in getting to do what you want to do, and I am doing that.”
This reminded me of a passage by Ernie Pyle, in his book This Is Your War, about a hospital from North Carolina that was transported lock stock and barrel to North Africa during the American invasion in WWII, where the doctors and nurses described the same kind of exhilaration at living in primitive conditions and giving help to those in dire need.
So I picked up that book again and got completely absorbed — again. I’ll post some excerpts in my next entry.