Cornelia Hancock papers  1862-1937 (bulk 1862-1865)
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Cornelia Hancock papers consist primarily of the Civil War correspondence of Cornelia Hancock (1840-1927), who served as a nurse for the Union Army from 1863 to 1865. Other items within the collection include photographs, accounts of Hancock's experiences during the war, and several items of ephemera.

The Correspondence series includes 168 dated letters, 15 undated letters and fragments, 2 military passes, and 1 fragment of cloth. The dated letters cover the period from July 31, 1862-January 12, 1866, with the undated fragments most likely from the Civil War period. Two additional letters, dated August 27, 1890, and April 25, 1892, are also included in the collection.

The great bulk of the correspondence was written by Cornelia Hancock to her mother Rachel, her sister Ellen, and her niece Sarah, during Cornelia's time serving as a nurse in Pennsylvania and Virginia; her mother and sister occasionally returned letters giving news of the family in New Jersey. Other correspondents represented in the collection include Cornelia's brother, William N. Hancock; Caroline Dod, the mother of a soldier who died during the war; and several soldiers who expressed gratitude for Hancock's work. In her letters, Cornelia discussed in some detail her work as a nurse during the war, including several accounts of specific wounds and illnesses. Slavery and the social and economic conditions of freedmen are focal points of the letters written during Hancock's time at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. Though most of the letters concentrate on wounded soldiers and military hospitals and treatments, Hancock and others often expressed political opinions, reported on developments in the war, and shared news of loved ones in the field or back home.

An early series of letters documents Hancock's experiences at the Camp Letterman Hospital after the Battle of Gettysburg, when she first noted "There are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed today…" (July 7, 1863). A few months later, in October 1863, Hancock left for Washington, D.C., where her letters document her time working with African American refugees at the Contraband Hospital. Twice, she related encounters with President Lincoln. Robert Owen, a former United States ambassador to Italy, once "read to us a speech that he read to the President one Sunday…The subject was the Pardoning power vested in the President. He said that Abraham listened with all his attention then asked him if he would give it to him and also had him promise he would not have it published for the present, said he would read and consider it well. [Lincoln] Complimented Mr. Owen, told him he had been of much service to him in many ways" (October 25, 1863). On another occasion, Hancock recounted a personal glimpse of Abraham Lincoln: "Little Meenah Breed and I went to the White House, and I told you I would encounter the President- sure enough there he stood talking to some poor woman. I did not stop him because he was in a hurry but I know him now and I shall. It is a much easier matter to see him than Stanton" (October 29, 1863). Other letters from this period pertain to the state of escaped slaves (November 15, 1863) and the state of the anti-slavery movement: "Where are the people who have been professing such strong abolition proclivity for the last 30 years[?] Certainly not in Washington laboring with these people whom they have been clamoring to have freed" [January 1864].

In February 1864, Hancock moved again to work with the 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps at Brandy Station, Virginia. Hancock was here during the Battle of the Wilderness, the aftermath of which is represented in Hancock's accounts and in a letter of Henry Child to his wife, Ellen (née Hancock), wherein he warns, "You will hear of another terrible battle yesterday" (May 12, 1864). Soon after the Battle of the Wilderness, Hancock accompanied the Union Army during their march through Virginia. Items from this period include a description of a "rebel house…The house was visited by our Cavalry guard and found deserted, also that the the [sic] gentleman owning the house was a chief of Guerillas, consequently the house was burned to the ground" (May 3, 1864, author unknown). In June 1864, Hancock spent a few days at White House, Virginia, before eventually stopping at City Point, Virginia, where she remained until the end of the war. During this period, she reflected on what had become normal experiences in the time she spent with the army: "A shell explodes every little while, not far away. About as much account is made of it as the dropping of a pin at home. Habit is a wonderfull [sic] matter" (June 7, 1864).

At City Point, Hancock continued to work with the ill and wounded soldiers of the Union army, and in many of her letters, she described specific soldiers or wounds she treated. Among these soldiers was Charlie Dod, a New Jersey native who served with Cornelia's friend Henry Smith. Dod's August 17, 1864, letter is included in the collection, as well as two notes by Cornelia relating that "Capt. Dod is now dying in my bed" (August 27, 1864) and "Capt. Dod of Henry's company died in my bed today. His mother arrived in time to see him just one day and night…The scene was very affecting and I shall never forget it" (August 27, 1864). Charlie's mother, Caroline Dod, became an occasional correspondent after this time and continued to hold Cornelia in high regard throughout the rest of her life. Another notable item from this period is an official Union army pass allowing Cornelia to travel to and from Washington, D.C.; this is enclosed in a letter from Rachel Hancock dated October 20, 1864.

By the spring of 1865, the Union army was closing in on Richmond, and Cornelia Hancock was near the Confederate capital when it fell. On April 3, 1865, she reported, "This morning we could see the flames of Petersburg lighting the skies[. I] suppose the rebels are compelled to evacuate the place. Our troops can enter now at any time…Gen Weitzel entered Richmond this morning at 8 A.M. There is great rejoicing here of course." Even better was the feeling of release that accompanied the end of the fighting: "The situation is splendid the air so fresh and altogether it seems like getting out of prison to get away from C[ity] P[oint] we were there so long" (May 13, 1865).

The undated papers and fragments appear at the end of the collection and include eight letters and fragments written by Hancock as well as five letters from Caroline Dod. These appear to date from the Civil War period. One fragment was written on the reverse side of a table of contents from the 8th volume of Connop Thirlwall's History of Greece.

Other postwar material in the series includes the following three items:

  • A January 3, 1866, letter of reference from Robert Dale Owen, a friend of Dr. Henry Child, stating that the "bearer of this, Miss Cornelia Hancock…is about to visit the South, there to aid in the education of the children of freedmen," and giving a glowing account of Hancock's merits.
  • An August 27, 1890, letter from Caroline B. Dod, in which she reflected on the death of her son and expressed continuing gratitude for Hancock's sympathy during his final hours. The letter is accompanied by its original envelope, which was used by a later owner of the material to house Robert Owen's letter of reference for Cornelia Hancock (January 3, 1866) and an undated Swarthmore Library ticket with manuscript biographical notes on Owen.
  • An April 25, 1892, letter from S. B. Dod to Cornelia Hancock, in which he explained that his mother had left Hancock a legacy in her will as a token of "her appreciation of your great kindness to my brother Charlie."

The series includes three additional items, interfiled chronologically. These include:

  • January 8, 1864: A pass authorizing Ellen Child and one friend to travel "over Chain and Aqueduct Bridges and Alexandria Ferry, within the lines of the Fortifications"
  • January 12, 1864: A pass authorizing "Miss C. Hancock team, driver, and Contrabands to Arlington Va and return."
  • "A piece of the ornaments upon the flag of the 116th Pa. Vol." Verso: "Capt. Shoener's Regt." (Undated)

The Reminiscences and Other Writings series series includes several items:

  • A 10-page typescript with unattributed manuscript annotations. Topics include the personality of Hancock's father and an account of her time at Gettysburg, told in the first person. This text is the basis for some of the biographical information included in published editions of Hancock's letters.
  • A 10-page incomplete typescript written well after the war, with unattributed manuscript annotations. The text is a first-person account of Hancock's war experiences near the end of the war. Of particular interest is a recollection that "April 8th Abraham Lincoln visited our hospital." The typescript is the basis for much of the biographical information included in published editions of Hancock's letters.
  • A first-person manuscript fragment, written in the style of a diary and with a note on the reverse that the author, likely Cornelia Hancock, "would like this sent to mother and have her copy it." The note also says that "Soldiering now days is hard work."
  • An incomplete third-person account of Cornelia Hancock, covering the very beginning with her journey to Gettysburg "with Mrs. Elizabeth W. Farnham, who was an eminent writer," in July 1863.
  • An 8-page manuscript account of Cornelia Hancock's departure for the theater of war. The manuscript includes two slightly different copies of the same material, and a lapse into the first person suggests that Cornelia Hancock is the author.

The Cornelia Hancock Obituary is a small newspaper obituary published on January 1, [1928], entitled "Civil War Nurse Dies, Closing Busy Career." The item was not part of the original accession and was discovered in a book in the Clements Library in 1985.

The Ephemera series includes eight items:

  • A 4" x 6" photograph on card stock showing a party of women and military men gathered in front of several tents. The photograph is labeled "Cornelia Hancock." [1860s]
  • A newspaper clipping "Queen of Field Nurses at Ninety in Feeble Health," recounting the decline of Florence Nightingale. [1910]
  • Five identical sheets of paper bearing the letterhead of the Association of Army Nurses of the Civil War. The letterhead includes a list of officers of the organization. One sheet is marked, "To Cornelia," and is slightly torn.
  • A book jacket from the 1937 edition of South after Gettysburg; letters of Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1868.

Four card photographs from the collection are currently housed in the graphics division.

These include the following portraits:

  • "Rosa, A Slave Girl from New Orleans." Portrait of Rosina Downs, by Charles Paxson, New York, 1864.
  • "Rebecca, Augusta, and Rosa, Emancipated Slaves, from New Orleans." Portrait of Rosina Downs, Rebecca, Huger, and Augusta Broujey, by [Myron H.] Kimball, New York, 1863.
  • "Capt. Charles Dod[,] A. A. Gen. in Gen. Hancocks staff. 2nd Corps[,] A.P." Portrait of Charles Dod, by [Frederick August] Wenderoth & [William Curtis] Taylor, Philadelphia, ca. 1864.
  • "Wilson Chinn, a Branded Slave from Louisiana, Also exhibiting Instruments of Torture used to punish Slaves." Portrait, by Myron H. Kimball, 1863.
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