Civil War Medicine: “Have You Nerve Enough For Such Things?”

John V. Hadley, post war photograph

While researching some soldier accounts of the battle of Port Republic last June, I found the collection of John V. Hadley’s letters, published in the Indiana Magazine of History in 1963. I typically read some of the letters beyond the battle I’m researching to get a sense of how the soldier wrote, and this collection…well, I read it all in one evening. It’s that good!

Hadley wrote the majority of his letters to Miss Mary Hill, a young woman who became his fiancee and, after the war, his wife. Though her letters are missing from the collection, his one-sided letters offer a lot of insight into their relationship and compare favorably with other similar northern collections.

On August 25, 1863, Hadley penned a remarkable letter that offers a perspective on Civil War hospitals. Mary had clearly written to him, feeling that it was her duty to go and volunteer at a military hospital and asking what he thought about the idea. Hadley had been wounded during the battle of Second Manassas the previous year and had spent weeks in a military hospital. His response to his fiancee’s idea is delicate, respectful, and honest. Here’s the text of the letter, and the spelling is original:

Army of the Potomac

Rappk. St Va. [Rappahannock Station, Virginia] Aug 25 1863

Miss Mary J. Hill

Pittsboro Ind[iana]

Darling Mary

Your long looked for letter was received but yesterday. In addition to the usual interest I find in your dear good letters, was the reception of your photograph. It was a long time before I could persuade my self that that was the shadow of my Mary. So changed. So unlike the rosy tinted girl I had in my possession. But the change is not for the worse — happy to say it. The girl has given place to the woman. Such female physical power — such prominent intelligence — such exponents of genuine goodness — such blossomes for the richest harvest of love — are rarely found associated in sex. I’m proud of the picture as I am proud of you & vie with lieged lords in the possession of the noblest sweetheart.

Mary, you seem to have a passion for hospital Duty & do me the honor of asking my opinion in regard to its propriety. I am ever ready to render advise when asked for but in this case I feel a little loath.

I don’t like to shape your actions or influence you from the path of duty which seemes plain, while such relations exist between us and while I know it will be contrary to your wishes. Not that I oppose the system of female nursing — for it is good and noble as well as consoling and comforting to the soldier. There are thousands of obsticles that would rise before you that you never behold in your sympathetic fancy. Having been 10 weeks a patient in a hospital I should know something of its character & being constantly attended by females I should judge whether it would suit you or whether you would suit the soldiers. That you would give satisfaction I am sure — this I know but that you would receive satisfaction I am not so sure.

If none but gentlemen found their way to hospitals it would be easy enough, pleasant enough, safe enough, but some of our meanest society is always there — men who have no respect for female presence or female modesty. To make a bed, to carry a cup of water, to prepare a nice toast or steak would be the easiest thing out of a hundred that you would be called on to do. The labor is most fatiguing as well as embarrassing and while I know that you are not unwilling to do yet by the labor you would be worn & wearied and while I know you are not fastidious, there are hospital scenes of hourly occurrence that would be unpleasant to one raised in modest retirement.

And the hospital is such a place to shade the heart and fetter joys. Sadness is King and Melancholy Queen, and to their rule you are as all are the most crouching vassal. Last farewell words, agonizing groans, frenzied screams, dying strugles, laying out of the dead, &c. are their constant amusements and you the constant spectator. — Have you nerve enough for such things? —study well.

Were you to spend six months in hospital I should expect to find you in a nunnery wearing the emblems of the sisterhood of Charity — never expect to see your face smile or radiate happiness again.

There are those who love to feel sad and mour[n] — who prefer it to any other life — who have lost irreparable happiness — such are fitted for hospitals and such only. I believe, can enjoy life. But don’t let me influence you. If you want to go & have good company to go with I say go & my best wishes shall go with you my darling.

I am on picket again — got the—toothache. I salute you.


In the end, it appears that Mary did not volunteer as a nurse. The subject does not seem to be addressed or re-approached in the following letters, and it would be uncharacteristic of Hadley’s writing to not “follow-up” if she had decided to go.

While Hadley uses some of the arguments that were typically broached to keep women out of military hospitals, he approaches from a different angle. He was not saying that female nurses were useless or improper. In fact, he praises them. Rather, he advised a sheltered, unmarried young woman to seriously consider if she really wanted the experience of hospital duties and if she could mentally and emotionally bear that burden.

Hadley’s response did not deny Mary the opportunity, but it did ask her to make an informed decision. And a decision he left to her…a far different scenario than the forbidding male relatives or hospital doctors than many other willing women encountered.


James I. Robertson, Jr. and Jane Hadley Comer, “An Indiana Soldier in Love and War: The Civil War Letters of John V. Hadley”, published in Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 59, No. 3. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963). Accessed through Jstor.

2 Responses to Civil War Medicine: “Have You Nerve Enough For Such Things?”

  1. Thank you this post, Sarah. Hadley’s comment that “some of the meanest society is always there” shivered my timbers. In all the Civil War movies depicting at least some level of nursing in military hospitals, I have never seen the “meanest society” depicted. Hadley obviously saw examples of it when he was hospitalized.

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