Did you know… Hannah Ropes?

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Chronicle of a Civil War Nurse, Hannah Ropes

Hannah Anderson Chandler was born on June 13, 1809, in New Gloucester, Maine. Hannah’s father was a wealthy attorney. She received an unusually good education for the times and learned from her parents that women were the equals of men. She tended to be outspoken and well read, two characteristics frowned upon for women in the nineteenth century. She attracted the attention of a teacher, William Ropes, who held similar views concerning the equality of the sexes. They married in 1834 in Waltham, Ma., and the union produced four children, two surviving to adulthood.

William tried to manage a farm, teaching, and his family but was not up to the task. For reasons unknown, though there were rumored health difficulties, in 1847 he abruptly left, moved to Florida. He had no further contact with his family. There was no formal divorce, but the separation was complete and final.

Hannah was left to fend for herself, embracing her new role as head of household with energy and equanimity. She received some support from her parents and picked up odd jobs. She became vocal in the abolition movement. Opportunity in New England society for a single mother was limited, and in 1856, Hannah decided to embark on an adventure. Her eldest son Edward, having reached eighteen, went to Kansas and claimed a homestead. Hannah followed with daughter Alice to Kansas Territory, convinced of the necessity of bringing that state into the Union as a free state. Traveling by train, steamboat, and covered wagon, she arrived in Lawrence, Kansas. She chafed at the restrictions society placed upon women and longed to take a more active part in the political arena. “Why have You given this hen the wings of an eagle?” she said, addressing God, “for behold, they flap heavily against her sides for want of use.”

Her son gave Hannah a copy of Florence Nightingale’s recently published “Notes on Nursing”, which began a lifelong passion for healing the sick. During this period, Hannah also wrote and published a novel, Cranston House.

The 1850s began a violent period of conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas”, and Hannah found herself in the middle of it. She arrived in Lawrence Sept 23, 1855, but left just before the “Sack of Lawrence” by Quantrill. Exempt from actual physical attack due to her gender during her time there, she nonetheless found herself a target for her outspoken support of abolition. There was constant fear that she and her children, especially her son, would be harmed. Her tenure in Kansas was brief, therefore, and she wrote of her experiences in a book, “Six Months in Kansas, By A Lady”. For those six months, she tended to sick people in Lawrence “with a loaded pistol and a Bowie knife on my table at night, and three Sharps rifles, loaded, standing in the room.” She moved back to Massachusetts for the safety of her family. Her son likely would have been killed in the Quantrill attack. She described the Kansas violence as “the most unmitigated calamity Heaven ever suffered upon the earth”.

When the attack on Ft. Sumter happened, Edward volunteered for the Union and Hannah as a nurse. She was assigned to Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she worked with Louisa May Alcott. Alcott mentions her a few times in her book, “Hospital Sketches”. Nurses had to be above thirty years old, unattractive, healthy, of good moral character, and able to cook. Hannah fulfilled all of these qualifications. Dorothea Dix, the head matron, turned away many pretty young women, concerned at the trouble their looks might cause.

Hannah, like other nurses, often came into conflict with the male hospital administrators. She saw no reason to follow hidebound bureaucratic procedures when the intuition of a woman, “as unerring as the finger of God”, sufficed to instruct both logistics and practice. She had to deal with “every style of arrogant army surgeon”, and drunkenness of hospital staff. “I will get the things my men need without orders. I am considered the shiftiest woman on the hospital grounds.”

Alcott describes their routine: “Up at six, dress by gaslight, run through my ward throwing open windows, though the men may grumble – the air is rank enough to breed pestilence. No notice is taken of our appeals for better ventilation, so I must do what I can. Poke up the fire, add blankets, and continue to open doors and windows as if life depends upon it – mine does. A more perfect pestilence house than this I never saw. Cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds and stable.” Hannah arrived June 25, 1862, just before the battle of Mechanicsville, and Louisa somewhat later – her first day on the ward was just after the battle of Fredericksburg, and the ambulances arrived en masse.

Louisa describes it this way: “My three days’ experiences had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, five typhoids on the opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots, hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new “nuss,” who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness”.

Hannah fought stupid rules, prejudiced and often incompetent surgeons, and the ever-present disease and malaise of the horrible conditions. Her responsibilities grew, and she was quick to dismiss anyone who violated her principles of sound medical care, sanitation, and hard work. She wrote, “The poor privates are my special children of the present…the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.” Secretary of War Stanton wrote a letter forbidding anyone to remove Hannah from her post. On one occasion, Ropes had a surgeon arrested for graft (selling food and clothing meant for the hospital patients for profit). On November 1, 1862, the matron engaged in a heated argument with head surgeon Dr. Ottman regarding the man’s decision to lock a disease-infested soldier in a dark cellar to keep ‘a plague’ from spreading to the other wards. Dr. Ottman has plans to exterminate the wounded soldier. Ropes wanted to give the soldier time to recover; however, her orders were stiffly ignored. As she did not let men trump her decisions, Ropes took her complaint to the office of the Secretary of War. Edward Stanton sided with the head matron and addressed the following note to the department’s provost marshal: “Go to the Union Hospital with this lady, take the boy out of that black hole, go into it yourself so as to be able to tell me all about it, then arrest the surgeon and take him to a cell in the old capital prison, to await further orders!”

Faithful to the end, during the height of her nursing career, Hannah Ropes’ life abruptly came to an end in January 1863. On January 9, Ropes wrote a letter to her son Edward noting that she and Alcott “worked together over four dying men and saved all but one…we both too cold…and have pneumonia and have suffered terribly.” The women contracted the deadly virus known as typhoid pneumonia, a major killer of wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Although she was sick, Ropes continued to work (day and night) and put the lives of injured Union soldiers ahead of her own health. Alcott hovered between life and death, however, was able to recover in the spring. January 20, 1863, Hannah Ropes took her last breath and died of the disease. She was fifty-three years old.

Louisa May Alcott. Hospital Sketches (Kindle Locations 314-318).

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