1861: Unidentified Soldier to Sister Cornelia

The author and the date of this letter are not stated though we learn from the content that the author was a soldier and was treated and boarded in the Providence Hospital on Capitol Hill in Washington D. C. which had been opened by the Daughters of Charity in the summer of 1861 as a non-military hospital. My hunch is that the author was advanced in years and could not withstand the rigors of camp life. If he had sustained an injury, it may have been the loss of hearing. He was accompanied and cared for by someone named Alfred—most likely another soldier—possibly a relative.

The soldier wrote the letter to his sister, Cornelia—location unknown. My assumption is that the letter was written in 1861 when the hospital opened since the author claimed the room had never been occupied by a former patient. The letter has value in its description of the Providence Hospital.

TRANSCRIPTION

Washington [D. C.]
Providence Hospital ¹
Tuesday Morning

Dear Sister Cornelia,

I would not answer your good letter by pencil had I any ink. I had the mishap to spill it all and Alfred has taken the stand to be filled today. I have had my breakfast & got dressed and feeling as well and better than some mornings at this time. Alfred took me from the Columbia Hospital to the Providence Hospital yesterday. I stood the ride very well and am not feeling any the worse for it today. I had a pretty poor time last night. Alfred was with me. He has the privilege of rooming here with me which privilege has was not allowed at the other [hospital]. We were not at all satisfied with the medical treatment. I think we have changed much for the better.

We have a beautiful room—new—never has been occupied—newly furnished—has [  ] marble-top furniture, red & black carpet—everything just as nice as nice can be—nice spring bed, firm mattress &c. It is the prettiest and nicest spot we were ever located in in Washington. It is in the care of the Sisters. They are just as kind and attentive as they can be. I could not ask for more. The other hospital is no where to be compared to this in any respect if it proves as they begin. I cannot ask or wish anything better. I shall remain here till I am well enough to come to G. That will be when I can do for myself and not before.

The Dr. performed an operation in the other hospital. He about killed me. I feel better this morning and hope I am getting over it.

The soldiers’ barracks are right back of the Hospital. I only have to step out of my door to see the parades and could I only hear, should hear fine music as they have a splendid band that plays every day. I wish you could come in and see how pleasant and beautiful it is here. I am charmed with it and now what I need to enjoy it is health—whether I am ever to have it again remains to be seen. Cornelia, take my advice—try and do something for yourself before you get where nothing can be done. I tried to brave it through [but] I have suffered so much. I could hold out no longer. I have had to just give in and here I am—confined now almost to my bed. I do believe it’s my age although my Dr. says to the contrary and can I stem the tide to get over it, I shall be good for something yet. I feel so sorry for Alfred. He has a hard time with me. He has to pay fifteen dollars a week for my board and then he indulges me in everything of the luxury kind he can get me. I tell you, it pulls on the purse strings. I can’t help.

Have your Mother tell you what you ought to do. She is a good more and perhaps is as good as as going to the Physician. I am out of patience with them. Just be faithful and thorough. If you can get anything to help you, I do hope [paper creased]…for anyone that suffers since I am where I am. I feel as much than when I was well. I was surprised that Julia is as you say. I thought her through with those troubles long ago. I have not been entirely free from pain for the last six months, only when under the influence of some opiate. It is such a bad way to get into one of the hospitals. Doctors will come in to see me today. I hope they may present something that may help me.


¹ Providence Hospital once stood between 2nd and 3rd St. and D and E St. Southeast. Providence was founded June 10, 1861. The grounds on which it stood for 95 years and where the Library of Congress and the nation’s Capitol still stand. The Roman Catholic Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul had been busy opening hospitals throughout the U.S., and Sister Lucy Gwynn (1800-1865) spearheaded the effort to start a hospital in Washington. The sisters opened their hospital in the renovated Nicholson Mansion a month before the Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war, when no one was imagining yet what horrors would await medical facilities like Providence. A notice in The National Intelligencer about the opening of the hospital paints an idyllic picture:

“The [Nicholson Mansion] is large and airy, the location high and healthy, and the grounds extensive and beautifully ornamented with shade and fruit trees, and gravelled walks. We can imagine what a relief it would be to the invalid to be transferred from the hot and dusty city to the grateful shade of this cool and quiet retreat.”

1861-Providence-Hospital
Providence Hospital as it looked in 1861

It didn’t work out quite like that. After Bull Run and subsequent Civil War battles, the wounded began pouring into Washington. Numerous temporary hospitals were quickly established in converted churches and hotels, and government buildings were requisitioned as infirmaries throughout the city. The Washington Infirmary, the city’s only other permanent hospital, burned to the ground in November 1861 and was never reconstructed. At Providence, the beautifully ornamented grounds were soon full of tents groaning with the wounded, as the hospital building itself could accommodate very few patients. The “high and healthy” perch on Capitol Hill became known as Bloody Hill as Providence cared for countless soldiers from both the North and the South throughout the conflict.

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