Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cornelia Hancock, born February 8, 1840

Cornelia Hancock was born February 8, 1840 at Hancock's Bridge, Salem County, New Jersey to Thomas Yorke and Rachel (Nicholson) Hancock; she was the fourth child and third daughter in this Quaker abolitionist family. 

Hancock was 21 years old when the Civil War began; she became a nurse two years later.

Cornelia Hancock
"I was the first woman who reached the Second Corps after the three days fight of Gettysburg. I was in that corps all day not another woman within 1/2 mile... women are needed very badly. There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today. The men lie on the ground; their clothes have been cut off them to dress their wounds. They are half naked, have nothing but hard tack [very dense crackers] to eat only as the Sanitary Commissions, Christian Association, and so forth give them.I gave to every man that had a leg or arm off a gill of wine, to every wounded in Third Division, one glass of lemonade, some bread and preserves and tobacco. They need it very much, they are so exhausted. I would get on first rate if they would not ask me to write to their wives; that I cannot do without crying. "

~ Cornelia Hancock, July 7, 1863

Volunteering as a nurse, Hancock found that Dorothea Dix (Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union) had stated that "No woman under thirty need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain looking. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts."  Hancock was turned away, on account of her "youth and rosy cheeks". But, with subtle ingenuity, she bypassed Dix's orders and became one of the youngest nurses to enter service. Cornelia Hancock was only 23 years old when she began her career at Gettysburg. 

Hancock's opportunity came when her brother-in-law Dr. Henry Child asked for her help in the summer of 1863. Cornelia arrived at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the third day of the enormous battle that was fought there. She quickly gained the respect and affection of the soldiers and the medical staff. 

The sheer magnitude of the battle's aftermath was incredible. The day after Pickett's Charge, the last desperate attempt by the Confederates to salvage something from that engagement, a huge area of ground was littered with the dead and wounded of both sides. The field hospitals were already overworked.

Over 5000 Confederate wounded were left behind when General Robert E. Lee, retreated. Some surgeons were left to care for these men, but they had few supplies. Union doctors had more than twice that many of its own wounded to care for. Right after the battle, the supply of doctors and ambulances were adequate, but when General George Meade was ordered to pursue the Rebels, he took many of those with him.

Hancock wrote long expressive letters to her relatives about her experiences as a nurse at Gettysburg, and the field hospital where she worked. After only a few days, she wrote to her sister, "I feel assured I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter."
Hancock tended to thousands of men and assisted surgeons in positively horrific conditions. In letters, she describes in detail the primitive encampments, lack of supplies, makeshift tents, crude surgical tools and techniques, and conditions that tried the mettle of even the toughest of men. Steadfast in her duties and dedication, she weathered the storm to see service in various duties for virtually the rest of the war. 
A diligent writer, Hancock penned to her family over 175 matter-of-fact letters that survive today. Selected correspondences were captured in a compilation of Henrietta Stratton Jacquette in 1937 entitled, "South After Gettysburg: Letters of Cornelia Hancock from the Army of the Potomac 1863-1865." When an extended version of the book was republished in 1956, Bruce Catton wrote in the forward, "Few memoirs of Civil War days have more appeal or more significance than those of Cornelia Hancock ... It is a document that deserves a permanent place on the shelf of authentic Civil War source material." Her letters are an invaluable primary source, enabling us to see her perspective behind the lines and operations of the famous Second Corps. 
After the war, Hancock never married and focused on serving the needs of the poor. She started schools for Black citizens who were disenfranchised by the war, and continued this work through the rest of her life. When she died, she left a tremendous legacy in the lives she enlightened through the schools that she created. 

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