August 1861: "Such quantities of medicine as I pour down their throats, Heaven forgive me for inflicting upon their poor stomachs..."By Liz Francis, Intern
Letter from Hannah Stevenson to family and friends, 8 August 1861
In this four-page letter Hannah Stevenson writes to her family about her work as a nurse at Columbia College Hospital in Washington during the early months of the Civil War. She describes the suffering of the young soldiers in her care and “how ignorantly careless of their health their commanders have been.” Hannah laments the hazards many of the soldiers encounter in the hospitals, including disease, mistreatment by superiors, hunger, and homesickness, while celebrating the soldiers' dedication to the Union cause and the endless work of her fellow nurses “whose muscles never surrender” to the demands of the work.
Born on 16 July 1807, Boston abolitionist Hannah Stevenson was fifty-three years old when she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the war. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to do so, and would serve in multiple Union hospitals between 1861 and 1863. Hannah already had a lifetime of service experiences behind her. She had worked for thirty years at the Home for Destitute Children and had established a school with her sister Margarett in the years before she joined the war effort. Like most of the more than 20,000 women who served as nurses during the war, Hannah had no formal medical training. As she illustrates in this letter, her male counterparts were often no better qualified, as the male nurses were usually convalescent soldiers unable to return to their regiments.
Throughout the letter Hannah highlights the difficult relationship between the military surgeons and female nurses. Many male surgeons resented the presence of civilian women in military hospitals. In June 1861 the federal government named Boston’s Dorothea Dix Superintendent of Female Nurses in hopes that “Miss Dix” (as Hannah refers to her) could ease tensions between nurses and the hospitals’ surgeons. She could not. Hannah illustrates the awkwardness of the relationship stating, “I cannot get over the surprise of being ordered about by these surgeons as they order the privates; they recognize nothing of the peculiarity of the position.”
The letter also offers some insight into Hannah’s own interactions with patients in her care. On page two of the letter she relates a series of touching stories about a homesick lumberer from Maine suffering from the mumps, a sensitive eighteen-year-old everyone calls her “baby”, and a young man who does not want to be left behind by his regiment. According to family legend, Hannah was well-known for composing impressive love letters on behalf of young soldiers. An observer recalled “all who could limped up to hear the reading, applauding it with merry shouts of laughter, and only wished Miss Stevenson would write their love letters for them, she said it all so much better than they could.”
At the close of the war in 1865, she traveled to Richmond on behalf of the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping to establish schools for former slaves. Her work assisted this new government agency in enrolling 90,000 former slaves in public schools by the end of the year. Hannah Stevenson died on 5 June 1887, after a long life as a tireless reformer and dedicated abolitionist.
Sources for Further Reading
This letter is from the Curtis-Stevenson Family Papers 1775-1920, a collection that includes six folders of Hannah Stevenson’s Civil War correspondence. The letters were kept by Hannah’s sister Margarett Stevenson Curtis as a memento of her Civil War service. The collection includes a letter from local author Louisa May Alcott, who also served as a nurse during the war.
Additional Hannah Stevenson Civil War correspondence can be found in the Curtis Family Papers, 1797-1991 collection at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.
Curtis, Isabella P. “Memoirs and Anecdotes of the Curtis and Stevenson Families.” Photocopy of a scrapbook (location of original unknown), Massachusetts Historical Society.
Harper, Judith E. Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Holland, Mary Gardener. Our Army Nurses: Stories from Women in the Civil War. Roseville, Minnesota: Edinborough Press, 2002.
Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.