150 years ago this week, the voice of a trailblazer for patient safety, women's rights and the abolition of slavery was forever silenced when Union Hospital Matron Hannah Ropes quietly succumbed on January 20, 1863 to typhoid pneumonia in a drafty hospital ward in Georgetown, D.C. in the middle of the Civil War.
The seemingly indefatigable 54-year-old military hospital nurse had become a casualty of the war while she was engaged in a very different, yet life-saving battle of her own at Union Hotel Hospital. For Hannah had pledged to prevent the wounded and sick soldiers under her care from dying unnecessarily from infections or illnesses caused by the unsanitary conditions found in the hospitals of the era. Hannah Ropes may have been buried with a small ceremony in the family plot in New Gloucester's Lower Corner Cemetery in Maine, but her once famous name and deeds are now cloaked in obscurity.
The current observance of 150th Anniversary of the Civil War presents the perfect opportunity to bring attention to her significant contributions to the history of American nursing, and to other heroic "Angels of the Battlefield" like the fifteen veteran women nurses who moved with their families to Oregon after the war. All are buried (some without headstones) in our pioneer cemeteries and their stories need to be preserved and presented to another generation of Oregonians. Focusing renewed attention on the life of Hannah Ropes, and recognizing her many accomplishments in the field of nursing will help Oregonians to learn about the wartime challenges that faced fifteen Oregon veteran nurses as they also worked to save lives during the Civil War.
For over six months in 1862 and leading up to Hannah Ropes' tragic death in January 1863, the Cumberland County, Maine native had taken on the daunting responsibilities of ensuring that wounded and desperately sick soldiers entering her hospital were given every possible chance to recover from their wounds or illnesses. Hannah and her Georgetown hospital nursing staff supplied the necessary aftercare for the patients surviving the surgeon's knife through the "hands-on" application of Florence Nightingale's published sanitary practices, and the dispensing of liberal doses of rest and recuperation, proper nutrition, mental and physical support. After the military doctors operated on the wounded, the nurses became the next line of defense against the rising tide of the post-battle death count, because deaths on the battlefield counted for only one third of the total number of dead and wounded for the entire war. The remainder came from diseases or infections.
Before the arrival of the nurses and the overview of the sanitary commissions the odds of the fallen soldiers surviving their wounds was very low indeed. Approximately 2-3,000 of the nurses were enlisted, and thousands more were volunteer nurses, like Alice Ropes, Hannah's daughter who took care of her mother just before she died. Oregon is the final resting place for fifteen of these "Angels of the Battlefield" who saw service in the military hospitals as hospital matrons or nurses or as regimental nurses-- wives who sometimes accompanied their husbands on the battlefields like Oregon's Mandana Thorp.
The workload of the average military hospital nurse in the 1860s was heavy and the hectic pace, unrelenting. Before the creation of our modern day "hospice care", Civil War nurses provided an early form of palliative care, working to relieve the pain, symptoms and stress of patients with serious illnesses and mortal wounds. In addition to bathing and feeding the patients and disinfecting the wards, nurses would also write letters home that were dictated to them by the patients. In circumstances where the families were not able to arrive in time to comfort their loved ones in their dying moments, the nurses would also compose a few lines of comfort that would be sent to the families.
In a time when a woman's sphere of influence was severely restricted to the home and nursery, workplace pioneers like Hanna Ropes insisted on order and professionalism for the nurses on the staff, to fend off preconceived social opinions that nurses were women of low and vulgar origins, no better than streetwalkers.
On December 13, 1862, Matron Ropes made a special entry in her diary about a new trainee who had just reported for duty: "We are cheered by the arrival of Miss Alcott from Concord—the prospect of a really good nurse, a gentlewoman who can do more than merely keep the patients from falling out of bed." Louisa May Alcott, the future author of "Little Women" had traveled over 500 miles to offer her services to the Union cause.
According to Dr. Alfred Jay Bollet, author of the acclaimed 2002 book "Civil War Medicine - Challenges and Triumphs", hospital patients, both Confederate and Union, were susceptible to many ailments and maladies including chickenpox, whooping cough, typhoid pneumonia, diphtheria, chronic diarrhea, measles, mumps, typhus, meningitis, dysentery, jaundice, smallpox, yellow fever, chronic rheumatism, scarlet fever and more. The approximately 650,000 men (and some women) who were serving in the Union Army in 1864, could at one time or another find themselves in a military hospital during their tour of duty. Dr. Bollet, described the grim outcomes for some of the stricken as he outlined the following statistics: • 11.1 percent were in a hospital being treated for some disease, as opposed to battlefield injuries. • 59.6 percent of those hospitalized for typhoid fever died • 67.1 percent of those hospitalized with pneumonia died • 42.7 percent with smallpox also perished.
In addition to the uncleanliness of the operating rooms and morgues, the unsanitary conditions of the hospital buildings greatly contributed to the rising death rates. The Union Hotel Hospital where Hanna Ropes reported for duty in July of 1862 was far from being a luxurious establishment. The Georgetown Hospital was described as a converted tavern hastily converted to usage as a military hospital after the original area hospitals could no longer handle the ever increasing casualties from the Civil War's bloodiest battles. The dilapidated building was poorly lit with few windows, and outfitted with antiquated plumbing supplying water to the kitchen and the adjacent toilets. Louisa May Alcott described the squalid surroundings in her journals. "It was well-ventilated for five panes of glass had compound fractures...," she wrote. "Poke up the fire...for a more perfect pestilence box than this house I never saw...cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, wash-rooms & stables."
It was hard work improving the living conditions of her patients and staff, but Hannah was up to the challenge when she first set eyes on Union Hospital. Over a decade before er husband had walked away from Hannah and their two small children to live in another state. Hannah learned to be self-reliant as she raised two children on her own and secured a divorce from her absent husband on the grounds of "abandonment".
The enlistment of Hannah's only son with the 2nd Massachusetts regiment motivated her to offer her nursing skills to the Union. In one of her 1862 letters to her mother Hannah confessed that her work in the hospital wards was maternally inspired, as her patients reminded her of her son, Edward, "...and it seemed as though these patients were he, in fifty duplicates."
Wisely, Hannah forbade her daughter, Alice from visiting or working with her at Union Hospital to protect her against lice and other dangers. In a letter to her brother, Edward, Alice reflected her pride in her mother's work: "Dear Edward, if you should be sick or wounded, makes them carry you to mother's hospital "The Union" in Georgetown. I wrote to you all about her going...She likes the work very much and am doing a great deal of good."
Matron Ropes was a passionate reformer, who had fearlessly reported on incompetent surgeons, uncaring ward physicians and bullying orderlies. She even turned in a hospital steward who was pilfering the money budgeted for the hospital's laundry soap. The hospital matron's high professional standards and diligence earned her the admiration of Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who reviewed her written exposes of unfair practices at the hospitals.
To prevent her from suffering retaliation at the hands of the hospital's administrators, Stanton even sent an Official Order for the head surgeon not to remove Hannah from her place in the hospital. Hannah was grateful for his intercession, as she wrote to her mother in the fall of 1862: "I can't go back (home) unless you need me more than the soldiers do... I have given myself up to this work, not for salary and laziness, but for love of country." While Hannah was busy instructing her nurse trainees, Ohio native Thirsa Gossett was working as a nurse in Evansville, Indiana in her desire to be near her husband Ward and her three brothers who were mustered in the 77th Ohio infantry. Thirsa had been assigned to work at the 702-bed United States General Military hospital in Evansville, Indiana, where she spent two years rolling bandages, nursing the sick and wounded, changing dressings and washing clothes. When her husband received his medical discharge on November 4, 1862 for severe injuries he had received at the Battle of Shiloh, Thirsa accompanied him home to their farm to help with his recuperation. Thirty years later, the Gossett family became newly minted Oregonians living in Eugene, setting down roots in the community where both are buried in adjoining plots in the pioneer cemetery.
In January 1863, Thirsa was helping to raise crops and a family in Ohio. However at the same time the already immense work load for the Union Hospital nursing staff in Georgetown had increased five-fold in December with the influx of over 9600 wounded soldiers from the bloody four day Battle of Fredericksburg that overwhelmed the staff and strained the resources of the area hospitals. The unrelenting stress, bitter winter temperatures and unhealthy living conditions finally took its toll on the Union Hospital nursing staff. On January 9, 1863, Hannah wrote in her last letter to her son, briefly mentioning that she and Miss Alcott had "worked together over four dying men and saved all but one...we both took cold...and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly."
Despite her sickness, Hannah took the time to write out a telegram to send to Bronson Alcott, to urge him to come down to Georgetown to take a critically ill Louisa back home where she would have a better chance of recuperating. Louisa was unaware of the communique to her father, and she described her view of the dire situation:"Ordered to keep to my room being threatened with pneumonia. Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever & dizziness...try to talk and keep merry but fail decidedly as day after day goes & I feel no better. Dream awfully & wake unrefreshed, think of home & wonder if I am to die here as Mrs. Ropes the matron is likely to do. Feel too miserable to care much what becomes of me...Nurses fussy, & anxious, matron dying, & everything very gloomy. They want me to go home but I wont yet..."
Suddenly, the prognosis turned grim at the Georgetown hospital, where most of the nursing staff including Louisa May Alcott became ill, and Matron Ropes was deep in the throes of the most deadly of the so-called "Swamp Fevers." Without Hannah Ropes around to keep the Union Hospital on a steady path, the situation became a little chaotic.
On January 16, Louisa described her conflicting feelings of "amazement and anger to see my father enter the room that evening, having been telegraphed to by order of Mrs. Roper without asking leave. I was very angry at first, though glad to see him, because I knew I should have to go..." However, the doctors determined at that time that Louisa was too weak to travel the distance to her home, and she was confined to her sick bed.
Soon after this, Hannah's daughter Alice was summoned to come to Union Hospital to care for her dying mother. Alice sent a dismal update from the hospital on January 19, 1863 to Edward, who had also been struggling to recuperate from his own illnesses. "Mother had been ill for some weeks and indeed nearly all the nurses ill, so they sent for me to help a little, Alice wrote" Less than twenty four hours later, Hanna Anderson Ropes became another casualty of the Civil War. The news raced throughout the wards, and frightened the hospital staff as they mourned the passing of Matron Ropes.
Louisa May Alcott noted in her journal that "On the 21st I suddenly decided to go home, feeling very strangely & dreading to be worse," she wrote. "Mrs. Ropes died & that frightened the Doctors about me for my trouble was the same typhoid pneumonia. Father, Miss Kendal and Lizzie Thurber went with me. Miss Dix brought a basket full of bottles of wine, tea, medicine & cologne, beside a little blanket & pillow, a fan & a Testament..." Alcott was finally taken home from Union Hospital on a journey that started on January 21, 1863 and ended with her arrival at home on January 24. During this time she suffered from hallucinations, fever and troubling dreams of "tending millions of sick men who never died or got well..." In February Louisa finally rallied to beat the odds and survived her bout with typhoid. Alcott slowly recovered; but the crude medical treatment which she had received permanently impaired her health as the trained doctors gave her a prescribed mixture of mercury and chalk.
Louisa used her brief wartime experience as a basis for her second published book, "Hospital Sketches." As Hannah Ropes had based her earlier publication of the book "Six Months in Kansas" on her letters sent home, Louisa used the letters she sent to Concord. Nurse and Anti-Slavery advocate Hannah Ropes would have heartily approved of its debut, as "Hospital Sketches" was initially published in installments in an abolitionist magazine only four months after Hannah's own untimely death, with the series starting on May 22, 1863, to later end up in book form.
Americans were hungry for any information about the war, and Hospital Sketches caught the public attention, and garnered Alcott her much deserved critical acclaim. Louisa was astute in not waiting like many other Civil War nurses who delayed printing their memoirs until after the war. This allowed the general public and many nursing colleagues like Amanda Akin to read passages from the book to their patients. In her memoirs, The December 1863 entry for "The Lady Nurse of Ward E," mentions where Nurse Akins "read aloud a chapter from Miss Alcott's "Hospital Sketches," which seemed to entertain a number very much, particularly my sensible John . . "
Arrangements were made to send Hannah Ropes remains back to New Gloucester in Cumberland County, Maine, for interment in the family plot in Lower Corner Cemetery. The inscription on her headstone simply reads as follows:
"HANNAH A. ROPES Born at New Gloucester. June 13, 1809. Died at Georgetown, D.C. Jan. 20, 1863."
Ropes' good friend and supporter, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts eulogized Hannah's life and contributions in a letter: "Mrs. Ropes was a remarkable character, noble and beautiful and I doubt if she has ever appeared more so than when she has been here in Washington, nursing soldiers." In the meantime, Hannah's son Edward finally received his emergency pass and found himself in Washington on January 28, a week after his mother passed away. "God has taken our mother to himself," he mournfully informed his sister, "and I am here only too late..." Edward continued to serve with the army, first in New York to support the draft and later in the west with Sherman and the Army of the Cumberland. He survived the war and was mustered out on June 9, 1865. He and his sister Alice mourned the assassination of President Lincoln and the fact that their mother who had predicted in one of her letters from Union Hospital that "there is to be NO PEACE till Freedom for all" was not around to see the promise of full emancipation and reconstruction.
Oregonians shouldn't allow the memory of the deeds of these "Angels of the Battlefield" to fade away again. Several organizations in Oregon are currently working to ensure that the contributions of the fifteen Civil War veteran nurses to our nation's history during a most perilous time are never forgotten. In 2013, the Oregon Sons of Union Veterans is planning to hold a dedication ceremony for the new headstone they have purchased to place on the unmarked gravesite of Union Army nurse veteran Mandana C. Thorp who died in Portland, Oregon on July 7, 1916 at the age of 74. The ceremony (which will be free and open to the public) will take place at Portland's picturesque Riverview Cemetery sometime in the spring of 2013.
The remains of Mandana and her husband, General Thomas Jones Thorp,were temporarily separated by time and distance as she had been buried in 1916 in an unmarked grave at Riverview Cemetery in Southwest Portland, and the General had been originally laid to rest with honors at Crystal Lake Cemetery, in Corvallis in July 1915. It was assumed that the General's remains were still interred at Crystal Lake, but in 2007, the Sons of Union Veterans, Edward Baker Camp discovered that Gen. Thorp's remains had already been relocated to River View Cemetery in Portland in 1916 to be buried next to his wife.
The 2013 Mandana Thorp headstone dedication ceremony will bring added attention to this military couple who were inseparable in life, even on the battlefield and beyond. A singular honor was accorded to Mrs. Thorp at the Union Army's Grand Review held in Washington D.C. after the end of the Civil War. According to the Oregonian: "Leading the 1st New York Dragoons was Thomas J. Thorp, riding under a banner emblazoned with the single star of a brigadier general. Riding at the general's side under her own banner decorated with a full eagle, was a woman so beloved by the regiment she was granted that place of honor: The Angel of the Battlefield, Mandana Major Thorp."
In addition to the Oregon SUV's headstone dedication, the Oregon Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is planning several special events and programs honoring the nation's Civil War Nurses and our own fifteen Oregon Civil War veteran nurses throughout the remaining years of the Oregon Civil War 150th commemoration. This will be a continuation of the Commission's focus on Civil War Nurses that started with participation in the Louisa May Alcott series of programs presented by the Multnomah County Library in November of 2011.
For more information, please check out the Oregon Sons of Union Veterans website at www.suvoregon.org/, or the website for the Oregon Civil War Sesquicentennial located at www.oregoncivilwarsesquicentennialcommission.com/