Cornelia Hancock: Civil War Nurse, Reformer, Muse

As the official superintendent of the Union Army’s newly minted nursing corps, Dorothea Dix had a clear vision of what her nurses should look like. Only women between the ages of thirty or thirty-five and fifty would be accepted. “Neatness, order, sobriety and industry” were required; “matronly persons of experience, good conduct or superior education” were preferred.

Dix turned away many able applicants because she thought they were too young, attractive, or frivolous. Twenty-three- year-old Cornelia Hancock, for instance, was preparing to board the train to Gettysburg with a number of women many years older than she was when Dix appeared on the scene to inspect the prospective nurses. She pronounced all of the nurses suitable except for Hancock, whom she objected to on the grounds of her “youth and rosy cheeks.” Hancock simply boarded the train while her companions argued with Dix. When she reached Gettysburg, three days after the battle, the need for nurses was so great that no one worried about her age or appearance. Too inexperienced to help with the physical needs of the soldiers, she went from wounded soldier to wounded soldier, paper, pencil and stamps in hand, and spent the first night writing farewell letters from soldiers to their families and friends. When wagons of provisions began to arrive, Hancock helped herself to bread and jelly, then divided loaves into portions that could be swallowed by weak and wounded men.

Enlarged from a tiny detail in a photo at the Library of Congress

Enlarged from a tiny detail in a photo at the Library of Congress

She quickly became accustomed to the realities of the battlefield, telling a cousin in a letter written on her second day in the field “I do not mind the sight of blood, have seen limbs taken off and was not sick at all.” In fact, she proved to be such a dedicated nurse that the wounded soldiers of Third Division Second Army Corps presented her with a silver medal inscribed Testimonial of regard for ministrations of mercy to the wounded soldiers at Gettysburg, Pa. -—July 1863. (She also had a dance tune named after her, the Hancock Gallop–a tribute that I suspect none of Dix’s middle-aged matrons received from the soldiers under their care.)

Hancock worked as a nurse for the rest of the war, tending the wounded after the battle of the Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Port Royal, White House Landing, City Point and Petersburg. She was one of the first Union nurses to arrive in Richmond after its capture on April 3, 1865.

After the war, Hancock helped found a freedman’s school in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where she taught ex-slaves for a decade. (At one point those who objected to the concept of education for black children riddled the schoolhouse with fifty bullets.) When she moved back north to Philadelphia, she helped found the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania.

Hancock became a posthumous best-selling author in 1937, when her charming and insightful letters from the battlefield were published under the title South After Gettysburg. They are now available under the title Letters of a Civil War Nurse–well worth the read if you are interested in Civil War nurses or daily life in a Union army camp behind the lines.


  1. Jane on March 19, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    What a great story against prejudice!

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