In New Orleans in 1861, Mary Hill and her brother Sam had an argument. The siblings were close; the emigrants from Dublin lived together, with Sam working as an engineer and Mary as a teacher. As a result of the fight, Sam left and joined Company F of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, a largely Irish regiment that was destined to serve in the Army of Northern Virginia. Mary was distraught at her brother’s decision to enlist, convinced that he was not cut out to be a soldier. She resolved to follow the regiment to the front and attached herself to the unit’s medical staff. Her activities during the course of the war would see her become a heroine in the eyes of all Louisiana troops, who would refer to her as the ‘Florence Nightingale of the Army of Northern Virginia’.
Mary soon found herself facing the realities of war as casualties began to stream in following the first battle of Manassas, where she helped to deal with the wounded. Her diary, transcribed by the Louisiana Division of the UDC, records her thoughts. Mary remembered ‘being asked by some to pick Minie balls out of their legs and arms, while they waited their turn of the doctors, who of course had to attend to the most serious cases first. They have not half supplies. I tore down all the window blinds, and rolled them into bandages; nor was there half hospital accommodations. I made good chicken-soup, and flew around generally. The sights of the wounded were fearful to look at; I was nearly wild with excitement, thinking, as each batch of wounded arrived, I might see my brother, or my Louisiana friends of Walker’s Brigade.’ Thankfully for Mary, her brother’s regiment were not seriously engaged at the battle. As the war progressed, the Louisiana boys under her care came to call her ‘mother’ due to her attentiveness to their needs when they were sick and wounded. Throughout she always found time to look after her brother, trying to make sure that he was well fed and clothed, while often despairing of his propensity for losing his belongings.
While Sam’s regiment prepared to take part in Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign, Mary decided to travel to the Richmond hospitals to see what she could do for the wounded soldiers there. She soon learned that the 6th Louisiana were engaged and decided to rejoin her brother and his comrades. While en-route, she heard a report that her brother had been killed in action, news which Mary describes as driving her ‘nearly crazy’. Luckily the reports were premature, although Sam had been badly wounded. While nursing him back to health in Richmond Mary also worked in the Louisiana Hospital, where she cared for many men of that State who were wounded during the Seven Days Battles.
Aside from her work at the front aiding the soldiers, Mary had many other adventures throughout the course of the war. Availing of her British citizenship, she was able to move between Confederate and Union controlled areas, which included New Orleans following its fall. This allowed her to carry out further compassionate work, such as bringing news of killed and wounded soldiers to their families and loved ones behind the lines. However, her actions did not go unnoticed by the Federal authorities, and in 1864 she was arrested in New Orleans and charged with ‘having correspondence with and giving intelligence to the enemy’. At the time of her arrest she was recovering from scarlet fever, but despite this she went on to spend four months in prison. She was eventually sentenced ‘to be sent into the Confederacy as an enemy’. Following her ordeal she was never to fully recover her health, and after the war she sought redress for what she saw as unlawful imprisonment.
One of the interesting aspects of Mary’s wartime experience were her two visits to Europe, once in 1863 and again in early 1865. While there she took the opportunity to visit her family in Ireland. Her diary illustrates that the Irish experience of the American Civil War was not restricted to those who had left for America; she met an Irish family who gave her presents to take to their only son who was a sergeant in Company F of the 6th Louisiana, and a custom-house official who asked her to carry a letter to his brother in the war department in Richmond. One can only imagine what it was like for families such as these who had loved ones fighting at such remove from Ireland. Much of their time must have been anxiously spent waiting for scraps of out of date and often inaccurate information about the conflict in which their family members were engaged.
After the war, Mary was named the first matron of the Soldiers’ Home set up by the associations of the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee. She eventually moved to New York where she lived with her nephew until her death in 1902. The true impact she made on so many lives during the Civil War was revealed in a Confederate Veteran article written on the occasion of her passing. The magazine described Mary’s funeral: Through the streets of New Orleans, at an early morning hour, marched a long line of aged men wearing gray uniforms, with bowed heads and saddened hearts. Before them was borne the remains of a woman whom they had known in adversity, and honored as a queen among Southern sympathizers. The “Florence Nightingale of the Army of Northern Virginia” was dead, and its surviving veterans sought to show their love and appreciation by burying her with military honors, an unusual and beautiful occurrence.’ Many of the men who marched in the funeral cortege had first hand experience of Mary’s kindness. One was John H. Collins, who had served with Wheat’s Tigers during the war and ‘whose empty sleeve spoke silently of the past struggle in which she was a participant’. He bore a heart-shaped floral wreath of red roses, tied with a broad white satin ribbon. It was a final tribute from the men of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Irishwoman who had made such a difference to their lives during the war.
References & Further Reading
Confederate Veteran Volume X, March 1902
Gannon, James 1998. Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers: A History of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers