From Civil War nurse to a lifelong career in medicine

Illustration By Eleanor Taylor

Volunteering as a nurse during the Civil War was only the beginning of 1859 alumna Nancy Hill’s lifelong career in medicine

In early May of 1864, soldiers injured in the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness made it to Washington, D.C. Carried on stretchers, in horse-drawn ambulances, or limping along, about 250 wounded men sought help at the Armory Square Hospital. Without the proper paperwork they were suspected as deserters and were denied entry. But one nurse, Nancy M. Hill, witnessed their suffering and refused to send them away. Instead she swung open the hospital gates and asked the guards to turn a blind eye. Then Hill, class of 1859, set about to heal or comfort as best she could. When the soldiers’ validating documents arrived the next day she was lauded for her bravery and decency.

By that time Hill had been at Armory Square (on the present-day site of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum) for more than a year. It was an unusual place for a middle-class woman to find herself in the mid-19th century, but Hill had role models for gumption. She was born in 1833 in the area that is now Arlington and Belmont, Massachusetts, where her family had been since 1630. All four of her great-grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War, in the Battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington. One great-uncle took part in the Boston Tea Party (a tea chest lid he acquired was later a cradle for Hill’s doll). Foreshadowing Hill’s own work was that of her great-grandmother Swan, who had nursed both Patriot and British troops. George Washington visited the family home in 1780 to thank her personally.

Training for war

Hill went to public school in Cambridge until October 1856, when she arrived at Mount Holyoke. She adored life at the College but had to leave due to ill health during her third year. Hill later told a classmate that not graduating was a lifelong disappointment and that she owed her success to the College. “I have great affection for dear old Holyoke, and if my life has amounted to anything, I thank Holyoke,” Hill wrote. She recovered at home as the nation slid toward the Civil War. In April 1863 the desire to do something to aid the Union’s effort stirred Hill, then 29, to leave her comfortable, middle-class life in Boston to volunteer as a nurse. Before leaving home she had gone to medical lectures and had training on cleaning and bandaging wounds. But little could have prepared her for what she would experience.

Armory Square was the facility nearest the steamboat landing on the Potomac River and a railroad depot, which meant the worst of the war-wounded generally landed there. The men arrived covered in blood and dust and suffering, and the nurses washed them, dressed wounds, fed them and dispensed what few medications were available. Gunshot and stab wounds, crude amputations and gangrene were everyday sights, and, sometimes, soldiers only arrived in time to die. Harriet Foote Hawley (wife of the governor of Connecticut) served as a nurse at Armory Square at the same time as Hill. She wrote of the wounded from the Battle of the Wilderness, “The scenes presented were enough to appal [sic] the stoutest nerves.”

Disease actually killed more soldiers than combat in the Civil War, and nurses like Hill, working in confined spaces, were exposed to the blood, breath and waste of soldiers. Smallpox, scarlet fever, measles and typhoid fever, among other infectious diseases, spread rapidly through hospitals. Many nurses were sickened (“Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott lasted approximately six weeks as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital before heading home to recover from typhoid). Many others died.

Legions of wounded

Hill ran Ward F, one of a dozen white clapboard buildings constructed on the National Mall at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln. In the 150-foot-long wards there were sometimes 1,000 patients in all. Each ward had a surgeon, a “lady nurse” and a ward master with 12 assistant nurses who were all recovering male soldiers. The hospital wasn’t far from the White House, and Lincoln was a frequent visitor, taking long strides down the packed wards, shaking hands with shattered men and thanking them. After the war, Hill’s friend and fellow nurse Amanda Akin Stearns wrote an account of her time at Armory Square. She said Lincoln appeared often and “always with a kind word, when his eyes had a sad, far-away look, and he often paused before those suffering most intensely to utter a warm ‘God Bless you.’”

The president was just one of the well-known people Hill crossed paths with during that time. Poet Walt Whitman had come from New York looking for his wounded brother in December 1862. His brother had only suffered minor injuries, but Whitman was so moved by the legions of wounded that he stayed on for years as a self-described “missionary.” Whitman read and wrote letters for — and played games like Twenty Questions with — the hospitalized soldiers. He was morbidly fascinated by Armory Square because it had, he wrote, “by far the worst cases and most repulsive wounds.” (The female nurses were reportedly split on Whitman’s visits; some despised him openly while others brought him tea.) Later he recalled the long wards of Armory Square this way: “The clank of crutches on the pavements of the floors of Washington … tempests of life and death … and looking over all, in my remembrance, that tall form of President Lincoln, with his face of deep-cut lines, with the large, canny eyes, the complexion of dark brown and the tinge of weird melancholy saturating all.” Whitman later described suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder because of what he’d seen in the war.

Hill also met Dorothea Dix, the Union’s superintendent of female nurses, during her first day on the job. The two did not hit it off initially. Dix had created the nurse corps and had strict standards for those who would join their ranks: women between the ages of 30 and 50, plain-looking and plain-dressed (no colors, bows, jewelry or hoop skirts). “Sober, earnest, self-sacrificing and self-sustained; who can bear the presence of suffering and never lose self control; who can be calm, gentle, quiet, active and steadfast in duty,” read the job description. The position required a minimum three-month commitment, and the pay was 40 cents per day (though middle-class women like Hill donated their pay to the hospital fund). Hill was 29 when she landed in D.C. — not meeting the age requirement — and Dix rejected her outright. “My dear, don’t unpack your trunk. I shall send you home tomorrow,” Dix told her. But, in a surprising show of support from on high, Dr. Willard Bliss, superintendent of Armory Square Hospital, allowed Hill to stay.

Despite the rocky beginning, Hill earned Dix’s respect early on. Just a few days into Hill’s service, while everyone was still in bed, a bugle announced the arrival of 18 badly wounded soldiers. Hill dressed quickly and rushed to the ward to find some men on stretchers, others lying on the floor, all cold and weak. As the sun came up, she worked on getting hot fluids into them, when the shadow of Dix fell over her. “My dear, do you get up as early as this?” Dix asked. “Yes, when my patients need me,” Hill replied. Dix shuffled off without another word, but Hill had made an impression.

Hospital services

Hill spent roughly two-and-a-half years at the Armory Square Hospital. In addition to their medical duties, nurses like Hill tried to make their wards as pleasant as possible. They read and wrote letters between soldiers and their families. And, wrote Hill, “I kept them well supplied with books and saw they were kept busy.” Armory Square had its own newspaper and choir, which Hill sang in. At Christmastime the nurses hung evergreen from the rafters and made wreaths, and in the spring they planted flower beds between the wards for “tired eyes and weary hearts.” Hill wrote that every ward was like a family. The men often called the so-called lady nurses “Mother” despite many of them being younger than the soldiers. “We represented home to these wounded men. We took the place of mother and sister and cared for them as they would have done,” wrote Hill. “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.”

In addition to the education, work ethic and grit Hill brought to Ward F, she took full advantage of her connections at home for the benefit of the hospital. She often wrote letters to family and community imploring them to send supplies. On one Sunday during the Battle of the Wilderness, Hill’s mother read her letter to four churches. The congregations were dismissed only to reconvene later at town hall with all of their cotton and linen tablecloths and sheets — even their finest — to be cut and rolled as bandages. In her memoir, Hill’s colleague Amanda Akin Stearns wrote, “The New England ladies here are constantly receiving valuable boxes of good and useful things, which are dispensed liberally. Miss Hill has furnished Miss [Platt] and me with all the condensed milk, wine, etc. we need at present.”

On the battlefields

Admitting the injured soldiers without credentials to Armory Square had been an extraordinary act, but Hill didn’t stop turning heads. Hearing that the worst cases in the Battle of the Wilderness remained in the tangled copses along the banks of Virginia’s Rapidan River, she applied for a pass to the battle front. Two days later she left the relative safety of Washington to attend to the wounded in the field. Over the course of that one battle (the first skirmish in which General Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee faced off) there were nearly 30,000 casualties in total. Later that summer, when Hill returned to her ward, she recorded 40 amputees in one day. On another record-breaking day, 48 men died at Armory Square.

Even as the sheer volume of wounded soldiers during the Civil War demanded that women be allowed to treat them, it was not an easy transition. Before the war only men had been nurses, and though women were used to caring for sick family members, their domain was the home. Hill grew up and went to Mount Holyoke during the era of “True Womanhood,” as it was called. It was marked by piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, and women’s power and happiness was believed to be rooted in those attributes. Noble women were ones who devoted their lives to creating a nurturing and comfortable home for their husbands and children; it was believed that a stable society depended on fulfilling these predetermined roles.

While the so-called “lady nurses” were proving their mettle in hospitals and on the battlefield, nurses like Hill still endured skepticism and, sometimes, outright hostility. Demanding, tireless Dorothea earned the nickname “Dragon Dix” from doctors in Washington, D.C., and beyond. One male doctor in Illinois characterized female nurses as “old hags … surrounding a bewildered Army surgeon, each one clamoring for her little wants.” The Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR), which organized relief efforts of northern women, noted at the time, “Women working in army hospitals are objects of continual evil speaking among coarse subordinates, are looked at with a doubtful eye by all but the most enlightened surgeons and have a very uncertain, semi-legal position, with poor wages and little sympathy.” Fortunately, the surgeon in charge of Armory Square was one such enlightened doctor. Dr. Willard Bliss (who Whitman called “one of the best surgeon’s [sic] in the Army”) was impressed by Hill and encouraged her drive to learn more and do more during her time at the hospital. He also suggested she study medicine after the war.

At Armory Square, Hill and her colleagues would have weathered the shocking assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865, perhaps even witnessed the solemn procession when his body was brought back to the White House. An Armory Square Hospital Gazette article at the time attempted to put into words the public shock. “The crime was so new to our politics, and was so abhorrent to all our ideas and feelings, that its commission came upon the public mind like a thunderbolt from a clear sky,” it said. The Civil War ended less than a month later, and Hill stayed on at Armory Square for several months more. Both the troops and the nation’s “other army” of resourceful women then returned to their various corners of the country to rebuild their lives.

Becoming a doctor

Women of all social classes had carved out roles for themselves as nurses, matrons and hospital administrators during the war. They had played a more visible role during that four-year period than ever before and, for the first time, had been engaged in meaningful work outside the home. They proved that they could both handle it and excel at it. Clara Barton, the famous battlefront nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, later said that at the end of the war “woman was at least 50 years in advance of the normal position which continued-peace would have assigned her.”

However, women didn’t break glass ceilings right away. Many actually returned home feeling dejected, with no future in their chosen professions. (Female Civil War nurses received no official recognition or pension until 1892, and, even then, they were slow to be paid.) But women had started pressing against boundaries. Roughly 3,000 middle-class white women like Nancy Hill had been Civil War nurses. Six went on to medical school, and Hill was one of them. After the war, she returned home to Massachusetts and hit the books in preparation for a return to school. Hill studied medicine in Boston from late 1871 into early 1872 and interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The facility had been created by pioneer doctor Marie Zakrzewska to give women a place to practice hands-on medicine, and Zakrzewska became Hill’s mentor.

In 1872 Hill moved on from Boston to the University of Michigan Medical School, which had begun admitting women just one year earlier. She received her medical degree two years later. Hill then moved to Dubuque, Iowa, and opened her own practice, specializing in obstetrics. In addition to a gender shift, America was also undergoing cultural changes in regard to race, ethnicity and class. (Hill would have been on the leading edge at Armory Square, where she’d interacted with people from all walks of life.) In her medical practice Hill became concerned particularly with young, unmarried women and their children, who as social outcasts generally received poor care.

In 1896 Hill formed the Women’s Rescue Society of Dubuque, which ultimately served tens of thousands of women and children. (It continues today as Hillcrest Family Services.) After being a tireless advocate for women and babies for nearly four decades, Hill retired in 1910. She died nine years later, from complications of the flu, at age 86. Near the end of her life she had reflected: “I never made a fortune. I never was married, never was a mother but brought about 1,000 children into this world. … 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.”

Heather Baukney Hansen ’94 is an independent journalist. In the spring 2018 Alumnae Quarterly she wrote about Nancy Hill’s Mount Holyoke classmate Helen Pitts Douglass. Her most recent book is “Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8.”

This article appeared as “Nurse and Physician Nancy M. Hill” in the fall 2018 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly. 

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One response to “From Civil War nurse to a lifelong career in medicine”

  1. Barbara G Howick Fant, class of 1966 says:

    So interesting! Thank you!

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