Nurse Nancy Hill’s reputation for sound judgment and bravery began in the chaotic days immediately following the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864. Two hundred fifty wounded soldiers were transported by way of Aquia Creek to Alexandria, Va., on May 8 and made their way to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. Because their papers had not been forwarded to medical officers, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton refused them admission to the hospital, perhaps thinking they were deserters. Dr. D. Willard Bliss, head surgeon of Armory Square, bowed to Stanton’s orders and reportedly went home to avoid seeing the men suffering in the streets.
Hill, who presided over Ward F, came to the aid of the wounded soldiers. She opened the gates and convinced the guards to turn their backs so they would not be party to her actions. She escorted the wounded soldiers into the hospital, where their wounds were dressed and they received care and comfort. The following day their credentials arrived, and Hill’s actions were validated. Deeds such as those ultimately allowed Hill to become a candidate for medical school, enabling her to become one of the country’s first female doctors.
Nancy Maria Hill was born in West Cambridge, Mass., on November 17, 1833. Her ancestors had emigrated from Lincolnshire, England, and crossed the Atlantic in 1630. Her family was among the Puritan aristocracy of New England. Hill’s social pedigree was enhanced by the fact that all four of her great-grandfathers fought in the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. Furthermore, her great-uncle participated in the Boston Tea Party and brought home a lacquered lid from a tea chest, which he crafted into a doll cradle that was handed down to Nancy. During the Revolutionary War, the self-sacrificing actions of Hill’s great-grandmother Swan foreshadowed Hill’s own heroic work some 80 years later. Her great-grandmother left home and nursed both Patriots and British troops. She received personal thanks from George Washington when he visited the family at Cambridge in the 1780s.
Young Nancy was first educated in the public schools of her West Cambridge neighborhood. In October 1856, she entered Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley, Mass., but was forced to withdraw in her third year due to ill health. Hill later confided to Anna Edwards, a fellow classmate, that the greatest disappointment of her life was that she did not graduate. In spite of her sense of loss, Hill wrote in 1916, “I have great affection for dear old Holyoke, and if my life has amounted to anything, I thank Holyoke.”
In April 1863, just before the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hill, then 29, decided to leave home to join the volunteer army nurses at Armory Square, one of the capital’s largest Civil War hospitals, located on the National Mall. Constructed in 1862, the 1,000-bed complex, with 12 pavilions and overflow tents, sprawled across the Mall and included quarters for officers, service facilities and a chapel. Its location put it near the southwest Washington steamboat landing and rail road tracks. Consequently, Armory Square received the most seriously wounded from the Virginia battlefields
On her first day at work, Hill met Dorothea Dix, the Union’s superintendent of female nurses, who considered her unqualified and ordered her to go home. Luckily, Dr. Bliss intervened to keep her and the other volunteer nurses at their posts. Hill assumed the position of lady nurse of Ward F and quickly proved her worth.
On May 15, 1863, about 250 wounded men from Chancellorsville arrived in ambulances. On June 13-14, 200 more casualties made their way to Armory Square. The hospital was thronged with visitors. Secretaries of relief societies were looking for men who came from the different states. Mothers were looking for their sons, sisters for their brothers. On June 28, President Abraham Lincoln made one of his frequent visits and went from bed to bed, shaking hands with the wounded.
Evergreens trimmed the wards during Christmas 1863, and the nurses and patients who were well enough made wreaths. Hill sang in a choir of nurses and soldiers.
Poet Walt Whitman, who had become a daily visitor, spent the holiday at the hospital. Some nurses liked him and offered him tea. Others pointedly avoided him and thought him an “odd-looking genius.” Whitman devoted himself to Armory Square because it contained, he said, “by far the worst cases and most repulsive wounds.”
As early as April 22, 1864, the hospital anticipated, as Hill put it, “a renewal of terrible warfare.” The nurses expected their caseloads to equal the numbers following Chancellorsville. Although the staff arranged to receive 1,000 wounded, only 250 slightly injured men appeared after the Battle of the Wilderness. Hill absorbed most of the caseload.
The most severely wounded were unable to escape the Rebels in the densely thicketed woodland near Fredericksburg, so on May 12 Hill received a pass to the front. She left two days later to attend to the wounded in the field. In two weeks of fighting the Confederates from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, 38,000 of Grant’s 118,000 men were either dead, wounded or missing.
Hill continued to nurse casualties at Armory Square until September 1865, five months after the end of the war. Dr. Bliss was so impressed with her skills that he encouraged her to begin studies in medicine. Upon her return to Massachusetts, she started reading intensively in preparation for formal studies. She attended medical school in Boston from November 1871 to March 1872 and completed an internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston.
In 1874 Hill received her medical degree from the University of Michigan, one of the first schools to graduate women in medicine. She then moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and opened a practice specializing in obstetrics. In the aftermath of rapid industrialization and unstable social conditions in Dubuque during the 1890s, Dr. Hill became concerned about young unmarried mothers and their offspring who were not receiving proper care—and were generally shunned by society. She called together a group of women in the community, forming The Women’s Rescue Society of Dubuque on February 26, 1896.
The society in turn established an industrial training school and adoption service. It secured a 12-room house on four acres and opened a home for unmarried mothers. The Industrial Training School was intended to educate young women so that they could find work in the community and reenter society.
Hill stayed actively involved with the home until 1909, when her advancing age and a lack of funds led to its closing. The project was revived four years later and renamed The Deaconess Home and Baby Fold, which was renamed Hillcrest Baby Fold in Hill’s honor in 1924. It eventually developed into Hillcrest Family Services, which today offers more than 20 different programs throughout Iowa, as well as a family planning clinic
Hill participated in many medical and civic organizations, including Dubuque County, Cedar Valley and Iowa state medical societies, the Shiloh Circle, Ladies of the G.A.R. and Ladies of the D.A.R. In recognition of her service during the Civil War, Congress in 1892 allotted her and other volunteer nurses a $12 per month pension. In 1904 at the 38th Encampment of the G.A.R. in Boston, Hill and the other Civil War nurses each received an engraved bronze badge in appreciation of their service.
Hill retired in 1910. In the last nine years of her life, she lived in Dubuque, and also for a period in Chicago. Near the end of her life she reflected: “My interests were temperance, rescue work among fallen women, and any cases that came into the life of a doctor. I never made a fortune. I never was married, never was a mother but brought about 1,000 children into this world. I have never written a book, have never lectured. I have worked in a humble way. I have done my part doing what was required of me, taking my place among my brother medics.”
In December 1913, Hill penned instructions to be followed at her death. She specified in what garments she would like to be buried as well as details for her funeral, requesting that fellow physicians act as pallbearers. She died at Finley Hospital in Dubuque on January 8, 1919, at the age of 86 from complications of the flu. In 1989 Hill was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
Thirty years after the end of the Civil War, Hill wrote the following History of the Volunteer Nurses of the War of the Rebellion, a memoir of her experience at Armory Square Hospital:
In the winter of 1863 two ladies left Massachusetts for Washington D.C. [They were] Anna Lowell, a niece of the poet Lowell and Sarah Lowe, a cousin of Senator Hale of New Hampshire. They had taken lessons in bandaging and dressing wounds and attended lectures at the Massachusetts General Hospital under the auspices of the Sanitary Commission. It was thought best that all ladies going to the front should have some hospital experience at home first so they could go to work without any delay whenever needed. [The Sanitary Commission was founded in 1861 to promote clean and healthy conditions in the Union Army camps.]
President Lincoln gave Miss Dorothy [sic, Dorothea] Dix the rank and pay of major [and] charge over all the women nurses with headquarters at Washington. These ladies [Lowell and Lowe] were acquainted with Miss Dix and what was their surprise and dismay, when they reported to her, to hear her say, I have no vacancy or place for either one of you. You could never do the hard work required of an army nurse, you both are too young, and have no experience. They told her of the training they had received at the hospital in Boston. They felt they were qualified, ready, and willing to do all the work that the government required of the women nurses. But she would not listen to them and told them to go home and let others who were older and more competent take the places. [She said] there were plenty of poor women who needed the money which the government allowed the nurses and they did not.
[Dorothea Dix, 1802-1887, besides overseeing Union female nurses during the Civil War, was noted for her work to reform prisons and improve the conditions of the mentally ill.]
Before they returned home they decided to stop a few weeks and visit the army hospitals. They went regularly to one of the hospitals as day visitors. They saw at once there was a great need for experienced and educated women with good judgement who would be faithful in their work. They noticed the sick and wounded men whom they had watched over during the day time, whom they had left improving towards night—were worse next morning.
They would not go back north now, for they saw a work to do and felt they must do it. So they went to the office of Dr. [D. Willard] Bliss, surgeon in charge of Armory Square Hospital (the hospital was the nearest one to their boarding house) and asked for situations as nurses [and told him] Miss Dix would not employ them.
Dr. Bliss replied he had vacancies but was going to send to Montreal for Sisters of Charity and discharge most of his nurses, for they did not give satisfaction. Some were good, but some were not. Miss Dix was inclined to hire the most needy women, and sometimes they were not qualified for the position.
Nurses at this time were scarce. Miss Dix could not supply the demand. After talking a while with these ladies and seeing how earnest they were he decided to give them a trial. Still how could he do it without Miss Dix’s consent? Sarah Lowe, coming from a family of lawyers, was the first to think if they were especially appointed by the Surgeon General (who outranked Miss Dix), could she then send them home?
Dr. Bliss caught the idea. Within forty-eight hours they were both appointed as volunteer nurses by the Surgeon General. Their pay was to go into a hospital fund for the Armory Square Hospital to buy any extras for the soldiers that the government did not supply. Regular army rations were to be furnished the lady nurses by the government
Armory Square Hospital was in barracks, one story buildings, eleven of them in a row. Each building was about one hundred and fifty feet long, twenty-two feet wide and connected by covered walks between the sides. They were perhaps thirty feet apart and were named by letters as the companies in a regiment. The central barrack was used as officers headquarters. The kitchens, wash houses, and tents for the convalescent were in the rear.
Each ward had fifty-two beds. There was a surgeon, lady nurse, and wardmaster with twelve assistant nurses who were all convalescent soldiers. Each nurse wore a badge with the name of the ward and his number. Number two was the dresser of the wounds who helped the doctor. Number six was the orderly who assisted the lady nurse.
This hospital was nearest to the boat landing and the Virginia railroad depot and consequently received the worst wounded cases. They were often brought all the way from the levee (a mile or so away) on stretchers when they could not bear the jar of the ambulance.
I went to Washington in April 1863. The first day I reported for duty in Ward “F” Miss Dix called upon me and said, “My dear, don’t unpack your trunk. I shall send you home tomorrow. I intend to remove everyone of the volunteer nurses soon as the vacancies can be filled.” I did not know who was talking to me. She supposed I did.
After she left I went to Dr. Bliss’ office and told him about this strange lady and what she had said. “Describe her, please,” he said. So, I began, “[She was] a tall and stately lady over fifty years of age, rather plain looking, [with] a kind face. [She was] elegantly dressed in black silk with lovely white lace around the neck and sleeves and pretty kid gloves.” He laughed and said, “Why, that is Miss Dix. We are ahead of her again. Your appointment has just been returned signed by the Surgeon General.”
A few mornings after the Chancellorsville Battle [April 30-May 5, 1863] the bugle blew before the reveille. My roommate said, “That is the Wardmaster’s call. The wounded have come.” We dressed quickly and went to our wards, found eighteen badly wounded men in Ward “F” lying on the floor. Some were on stretchers.
They needed hot drink before they would be moved to their clean beds for they were chilly, weak and faint from the hard journey. There was plenty of work for us all to do. I was feeding one of the wounded men with hot coffee. The sun was just up. A shadow fell over me and there stood Miss Dix.
“My dear,” she said, “Do you get up as early as this?” “Yes,” I replied, “When my patients need me.” And she passed on. She found every volunteer nurse at her post, but she found her two “experienced” nurses fast asleep in their beds. She woke them up and reproved them, telling them two hundred severely wounded men had come.
At the time of the battles of the Wilderness [May 5-6, 1864] all hospital supplies and sanitary stores had been sent to the front, and we had none in Washington to draw from. I wrote my mother a stirring letter about it. She received the letter on Saturday and had the letter read in the four churches of our town [West Cambridge, Mass.] on Sunday morning. Immediately the churches were dismissed, and all went home and brought cotton and linen sheets and tablecloths, the best they had, to the town hall.
The ladies worked all the rest of the day, rolling bandages and picking lint. The gentlemen helped too. By nine o’clock that night, two large boxes, each the size of an upright piano, were on their way by Adam’s express. More followed in a few days.
When the wounded men came from the field of battle, our hospital was supplied from the generous relatives and friends at home. We were able to make our patients comfortable.
Gen. Grant was now in command of the Army of the Potomac. He followed up the foe so fast it was blow on blow. Our hospitals were filled with wounded men, not sick men. They had no time to be sick. Every day the wounded came and every day men who were able to be moved were sent north by easy stages either to Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York to make room for the new arrivals. That summer one day I counted forty amputees cases looking up and down my ward.
In my ward I was always fortunate and had some ex school teachers among my patients. As they were getting better, they were delighted to hear classes. The arithmetic classes were the most popular, while the spelling classes were not. Still we did have lots of fun and had merry times laughing over our mistakes.
Some of our men had never had school advantages and were eager to spend their time in improving their minds. I kept them well supplied with books and saw they were kept busy. Consequently, the men being pleasantly occupied had no time for cards or gambling in Ward “F.”
We gave all the medicine as directed by the physician, read the letters to our sickest men and answered them, read daily papers and books to them. Whenever we had the time, we went on errands. We overlooked our nurses. Convalescent soldiers were our nurses. They made excellent nurses, most of them, caring for the sickest men as if they were babies, lifting them tenderly and rejoicing when they saw the patients recovery, and grieving as they saw their brave comrades passing away, going through the valley of death. Although the soldier was far away from home and kindred, we had learned to love them, and tears would fall as we thought of the dear ones at home who could not be with them to bid them goodbye.
Every ward was like a family. We gave all our time to the care of “our boys” and were glad and happy to do so. We felt it a privilege to wait upon the men who had gone in defense of our country. Every man was a hero to his lady nurse.
We represented home to these wounded men. We took the place of mother and sister and cared for them as they would have done. They felt it and called us “Mother” although we were in many cases younger than they.
We were treated with a chivalry never to be forgotten. Even our southern men wrote back to their friends, “This hospital is like a beautiful home….Every want is supplied. We have been deceived. The people of the north are kind, and the ladies are like our own.”
We received pleasant personal letters from the relatives from the north and south thanking us for the care of their sick and wounded dear ones.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.