Union Civil War Nurse
When her husband abandoned her, Hannah Ropes blossomed in her new-found self-reliance. She volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War and soon used her prominent social position to obtain enormous amounts of supplies and other necessities for the wounded.
Hannah Anderson was born June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine, the daughter and sister of prominent Maine lawyers. Hannah demonstrated her radical beliefs early in life. Her religious convictions were very strong, and she was passionately opposed to slavery. She married educator William Ropes at the age of twenty five; they lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, and had four children, two who lived to adulthood.
When her husband abandoned her, Hannah Ropes was left to raise her children alone, and she blossomed in her new-found self-reliance. In 1855, her son turned 18 and became a homesteader in the Kansas Territory. Increasingly interested in the abolition movement and westward expansion, Hannah and her daughter also moved to Kansas.
But the political turmoil over the slavery issue prompted Hannah's return to Massachusetts. During this period Hannah became politically active and well connected. She also began to develop her writing talent. In 1856, she published Six Months in Kansas by a Lady, a collection of letters written to her mother during the six months she spent in the Kansas Territory. She also wrote a novel, Cranston House, which was published in 1859.
The Civil War
A nephew sent her a copy of Notes on Nursing, published by Florence Nightingale in 1859, and Hannah must have been deeply influenced by the book. Women nurses had been held in a class with prostitutes only a decade earlier, but because of Nightingale's book, the Union Army began accepting women "of good conduct" to help cope with the slaughter.
Hannah volunteered as a nurse in 1862, and was soon made head matron of the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, a neighborhood of Washington, DC. She had gained prewar recognition as a reformer and abolitionist and was acquainted with many New England political leaders, and she used her prominent social position to obtain enormous amounts of supplies and other necessities for the wounded.
In Hannah's diary, kept during the time she served as a nurse in the Civil War, she wrote often of her particular regard for the enlisted man. In October 1862, she wrote, "The poor privates are my special children of the present," and described "the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves."
Hannah actively criticized the appalling conditions at the hospital - both the lack of sanitation and the indifference and even cruel treatment of the soldiers. She believed that every soldier deserved healthy surroundings, good food and humanitarian treatment, and she never hesitated to go to the top to obtain such creature comforts.
She was pro-active in making change, which meant butting heads with the military and physicians who resented the presence of women in the hospitals, but Hannah was a well-spoken woman and was not afraid to stand up to her male supervisors.
The head matron was apalled by the conduct of some of the doctors, and the surgeons seemed to only want to help only those who appeared likely to survive, but nurses like Hannah Ropes wanted to save them all.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally took action against officers and stewards Hannah found to be slovenly and incompetent. In December 1862, Hannah had a surgeon at Union Hotel Hospital arrested for graft - selling food and clothing meant for hospital patients on the side for a profit.
Budding author Louisa May Alcott arrived at the hospital to work as a nurse soon after her 30th birthday. She was just in time to meet the wounded pouring in from the Battle of Fredricksburg (December 13, 1862).
In Hannah's final diary entry in December 1862, writing in the third person, she described the passing of one of these men: "'Thank you, madam, I must be marching on.' So said Lewie as he passed away. Sitting on one side of him was his nurse, Miss Alcott, on the other side the matron [Hannah]... There was in the man such a calm consciousness of life, such repose in its secure strength... The matron is left alone when the breath ceases."
Georgetown's Union Hotel Hospital was the setting for Alcott's Hospital Sketches, published in 1863. The book is a compilation of four sketches based on letters Alcott sent home during the six weeks she spent as a volunteer nurse in Georgetown. The pieces received great critical and popular acclaim, making Alcott an overnight success.
In her book, Hospital Sketches, Louisa May Alcott described Hannah Ropes' actions [the matron] as casualties arrived from the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862):
In they came, some on stretchers, some in men's arms, some feebly staggering along propped on rude crutches, and one lay stark and still with covered face, as a comrade gave his name to be recorded before they carried him away to the dead house.
All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till duly ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on; the sound of many feet and voices made that usually quiet hour as noisy as noon; and, in the midst of it all, the matron's motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.
The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings... The merciful magic of ether was not [used today]. It's all very well to talk of the patience of woman, but the endurance of these men... their fortitude seemed contagious, though I often longed to groan for them, while the bed shook with the irrepressible tremor of their tortured bodies. Forty beds were prepared, many already tenanted by tired men who fell down anywhere, and drowsed till the smell of food roused them.
Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw–ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat, more plainly than any telegram of the [General Ambrose] Burnside blunder. I pitied them so much, I dared not speak to them, though, remembering all they had been through since the route at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all.
And later in the day:
At five o'clock a great bell rang... The new comers woke at the sound; and I presently discovered that it took a very bad wound to incapacitate the defenders of the faith for the consumption of their rations; the amount that some of them sequestered was amazing; but when I suggested the probability of a famine hereafter, to the matron, that motherly lady cried out: 'Bless their hearts, why shouldn't they eat? It's their only amusement; so fill every one, and, if there's not enough ready to-night, I'll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.'
And, whipping up her coffee-pot and plate of toast, she gladdened the eyes and stomachs of two or three dissatisfied heroes, by serving them with a liberal hand; and I haven't the slightest doubt that, having cast her bread upon the waters, it came back buttered, as another large-hearted old lady was wont to say.
In January 1863, Hannah Ropes and Louisa May Alcott contracted typhoid pneumonia - the major killer of wounded soldiers. Alcott hovered between life and death, and watched as Hannah Ropes died of the disease on January 20, 1863, at the age of 53. The day after Hannah died, Alcott returned home to Concord, Massachusetts, where she suffered a long recovery.