|Nurse Maria Hall cared for soldiers at|
Smoketown Hospital, near the Antietam battlefield.
(United States Army Military History Institute)
There’s a legislative file on Hall at the National Archives in Washington, he pointed out, and there could be a trove of information in it. Connecticut Civil War veterans spoke highly of her, said Alderman, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of local history. “She served at the White House,” he gently reminded me during a visit to the small Unionville museum one night.
“She knew Lincoln.”
She knew Lincoln.
This, I thought, may be a story worth researching after all.
|In this enlargement of a rare photo taken at Smoketown Hospital, Maria Hall |
tends to wounded soldiers.
(Photo: Eli Collection, Edward G. Miner Library, Rochester, N.Y.)
|In a first-person account in The Delineator magazine|
in 1921, nine years after her death, Hall wrote of her
experience in the White House caring for
President Lincoln's ill son.
At the beginning of the Civil War, young nurses were frowned upon by Dorothea "Dragon" Dix, the efficient but iron-fisted Superintendent of Army Nurses, who preferred they be over 30, plain-looking and wear drab, un-hooped dresses and forego cosmetics. Dix eventually took a liking to Hall, whom she recommended to help care for the Lincolns’ ill 8-year-old son Tad after the president's other son, 11-year-old Willie, died of typhus in the White House in early February 1862. At Smoketown, where Hall worked tirelessly until May 1863, she was praised by soldiers for her kindness. Hall later became chief nurse at a large Union hospital in Annapolis, where many Connecticut POWs were cared for after their release from Southern prisons.
Nine years after her death in 1912, The Delineator magazine published Hall's first-person account of her experience in the White House, which was in a state of mourning after Willie’s death. “…we went directly to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and Miss Dix presented me to her,” Hall wrote. “And here was Mr. Lincoln standing before an open fire, his hands behind him and his tall, gaunt figure looming up as the center of interest. Miss Dix, introducing me, said: ‘You may feel she is too young to be trusted with your sick boy, but you will find her reliable.’
|Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, in a February|
1865 photograph by Alexander Gardner.
(Library of Congress collection)
“I looked up at him,” the nurse wrote, “possibly with an appeal for a fair trial, for he approached me so kindly. Extending both hands to me, he said: ‘Well. All I can say is I hope she will turn to right away, for we need the help.’ ” Hall wrote of dining in the White House (“table talk was naturally of current events”); taking care of Tad (“a patient, uncomplaining young man”); and even getting the president’s autograph. He signed it “A. Lincoln,” Hall recalled, because that’s the way he liked to write it best.
Alderman gave me possible contact information for a Hall descendant culled from the Internet, so I eagerly dived deeper into the story of the young Civil War nurse. An e-mail to a woman in Michigan confirmed that she indeed was related to Hall, but her mother was the key contact. Days later, I received an e-mail from Barbara Powers, a retired teacher living in Michigan, who had a keen interest in the story of her great-grandmother, Maria Hall. Pleasantly surprised that I had tracked her down, Powers said during a phone conversation that the family had a wealth of information on her ancestor, whose first name was always pronounced Mar-I-YAH by Barbara’s father.
The Powers had a small block of wood in which the word “Antietam” was carved by a Civil War soldier, who gave it to Hall. Embedded in it was a bullet that, according to family lore, narrowly missed Maria. The family had a fragile old flag, possibly from a Civil War hospital, in an old suitcase. And they also owned letters in which Maria described her short experience in Lincoln’s White House. Those letters became a fabulous addition to the chapter on Hall that I included in my book.
|Only these fragments exist of a flag that may have flown at a hospital where |
Maria Hall cared for wounded. (Courtesy: Barbara Powers family)
After the visit to the cemetery, Alderman, the Powers and I talked about their journey to discover more about their ancestor. “You can’t believe what this means to me and Barb,” Dave Powers said, thanking Alderman and me for helping tell Maria's story. And then I remembered a comment that Barbara recently posted on my Civil War blog Facebook page.
"My great grandmother, Maria," she wrote, "is smiling down on you."
No, the Civil War really isn't so far away after all.
|Barbara Powers at the site of the mansion (below) where her great-grandmother, |
Civil War nurse Maria Hall, lived in Unionville, Conn. The house was torn down
many years ago and replaced by a small building and a parking lot.
|Photo courtesy Unionville (Conn.) Museum.|