Saturday, September 07, 2013

Before Antietam, nurse Maria Hall met the Lincolns

In this cropped enlargement of a photo taken at Smoketown Hospital, nurse Maria Hall tends 
to Union wounded  from the Battle of Antietam.  
 (Ely Collection, Edward G. Miner Library, Rochester, N.Y.)
One of the more compelling figures in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam was a little-known nurse named Maria Hall, whose story is told in my book, "Connecticut Yankees at Antietam." From a prominent Washington D.C. family, Maria (pronounced Mar-EYE-Ah)  rushed to the battlefield from the capital after the fighting was over to help tend to some of the thousands of wounded. A veteran nurse by September 1862, Hall soon was put in charge of a ward at Smoketown Hospital, one of two large tent hospitals near the battlefield. (Crystal Spring hospital near Keedysville was the other.) Many Union wounded later recalled  the loving care received from the 26-year-old nurse. "With untiring perseverance she dealt out to the poor, wounded soldier the delicacies that he could relish, and which, by Government regulations, he could not get," wrote 78th New York Sergeant Thomas Grenan, who had suffered a gunshot wound to his jaw. During a visit to Smoketown in January 1863, more than four months after the battle, an Indianapolis Weekly Sentinel reporter noticed these words written in Hall's honor in a tent in her ward:

Maria Hall cared for President Lincoln's son Tad, 8, after his
 11-year-old son Willie died of typhus. (Photo: Courtesy Powers family)
To Miss Hall, our benefactress:
Your tender care of wounded men
Speaks loud of sympathy
For us on whom misfortune fell
In strife for liberty
Angel spirits revive the hopes
In many an aching heart.
And you, in human form, each day
Do act an angel's part.
Be thanked for it, and do believe
That, in our future days,
Our greatful heart remembers you,
And for your welfare prays.

Hall cared for hundreds of patients at Smoketown until it was disbanded in May 1863, but none was more high-profile than the little boy she cared for seven months before Antietam. On Feb. 21, 1862, one day after President Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie died of typhus, Hall was asked to go to the White House to help care for the president's youngest son, Tad. Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of army nurses, had recommended Hall. In a letter dated March 27, 1862 -- a transcript of which was graciously given to me by Maria's great-grandchild -- Hall wrote of that momentous day.

 "You may imagine my surprise therefore when (Dix) said "I have a carriage waiting, I wish to take you to the President's," Hall wrote to her friend. "This was the day but one after the death of little Willie, and 'Taddie' was then very ill; Mrs. Lincoln was sick with watching and grief. Such a request (came) from Miss Dix and under all the circumstances I could not refuse to go, thinking that she wanted me only for one night, but when fairly in for it, I found that she expected me to stay until the child was better."

The carriage ride to the White House, Hall wrote, was especially nerve-wracking.

Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, in a photograph taken by Alexander Gardner in 1865.
 (Library of Congress collection)
"Picture the pent up excitement with which I rode along Pennsylvania Avenue with D.L. Dix, and in through the gate leading to the entrance where always heretofore I had gone with the gay throng of the nation to greet the President, mid the gayety (sic) and glitter of fashion and pleasure," she wrote. "Now all was silent and in subdued sadness. I saw the bell handle shrouded with crepe and thought how mysteriously death enters upon the heels of pleasure and revelry."

Maria Hall wasn't an admirer of Mary Lincoln, seen here in
 an 1861  photo taken by Mathew Brady.  
(Library of Congress collection)
After entering the White House, Hall was escorted into Mrs, Lincoln's bedroom. The young nurse wasn't a big fan of Mary Lincoln's, writing in a letter to her friend before Willie died that the president's wife was "not of sufficient dignity of character to fill the post at the White House in any time." During Hall's nearly week-long experience at the White House, the grief-stricken Mary Lincoln was sick in bed most of the time. "I doubt not but I saw the best there is in her," Hall wrote. "She is very impulsive, gay and totally undisciplined." The nurse, however, was a huge admirer of the president.

"But what a rare chance I had of seeing 'Uncle Abe,'" Hall wrote her friend, "and let me tell you that I love him and am proud of him more than ever. He is honest, pure-hearted as the sun is bright; his devotion to his child was beautiful; he was only too kind and indulgent for the chlld's good ..." Hall thought "Taddie" was a "spoiled child and quite ungoverned." The president, she observed, would bring his work to Tad's room and sit for hours just to please his son.

"In this way I saw him sign nearly two hundred commissions for army officers," she wrote her friend, "and also my dear he gave me his autograph. Many a cozy chat I had with him before an open fire of wood, and it will be an experience to remember and tell to the youngsters of future years how I saw Old Abe in his child's sick room ... and in his child's bed take care of him if he were a tender woman."

After the Civil War, Hall moved to Connecticut, married a twice-married man named Lucas Richards in 1872 and reared two daughters and a son in a large house in Unionville, 15 miles west of Hartford. Hall, who often spoke to schoolchildren in Unionville about working in the White House, died in West Hartford, Conn., on July 20, 1912 at age 76.

In a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant published three days after her death, Maria's passing was mourned.

"It will be something for the boys and girls who are now in high school to remember that they have seen and talked with a woman who had the privilege of knowing Abraham Lincoln in every-day life," C.M.H. wrote. (She is) one of the few Civil war nurses, who have lived up to this time."

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