- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

One unsung heroine of the War Between the States was not a Southerner, or even an American. Yet she became a beloved figure to Confederate troops. When she died, the veterans accorded her all the rites of an officer of the Confederacy.

Few have heard her name, and even to many scholars of the war, Mary Sophia Hill is an unfamiliar heroine. Until recently, her grave was unmarked. Thanks to a dedicated member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that omission has been corrected.

Mary Hill was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Nov. 12, 1819. She lived for a while in England and enjoyed the normal privileges of a British subject. When her brother, Samuel William Hill, moved to New Orleans in December 1850, she came with him.

Described as “a teacher and a woman of independent means,” she established herself quickly in the Queen City, teaching English, French and music. All went well until brother and sister had some sort of altercation, and Samuel left in a fit of pique to join the Confederate army.

For her brother

Mary Hill felt that her brother was not cut out to be a soldier. When he enlisted in the 6th Louisiana Infantry, she found a way to come along. When he transferred into the Irish Brigade and was ordered to Richmond, she went there.

As she later stated in a letter to the British High Commission in 1871, “I tried all I could to get him free; went to Mr. Muir, who was then Consul, to see what he could do, but with no good result. It nearly broke my heart to see my only brother and only near male relative leave me and leave the flag we were born under for a stranger, and perhaps get killed for his folly; so I concluded I would follow him to Virginia to care for him … and that I would, wherever needed, care for the wounded, the sick, and the distressed.”

She went on to explain that she had been with the soldiers at the Battle of Bull Run and had worked in the hospital, and then the battles “of the Valley of Virginia followed, where I nursed my brother and all I could in Charlottesville; saw many a poor mother’s son decently buried, and from dying lips took charge of loving and last words to wife, sister, mother.”

She followed her brother from one battlefield to another, one state to another, and her work for one soldier begat similar compassion for all. Her ministrations and dedication were acknowledged by officer and enlisted man alike. Ultimately, she cared for every injured or ill Confederate soldier she could find; doctors and generals quickly put her to work in their sparse battlefield facilities.

Field hardships

Her diary describes daily episodes of camp and war life and also tidbits about whom she saw and from whom she heard. Her entries in the fall of 1862 tell of field hardships:

“[October] 30th. Ratcliffe, of Sabines, has typhoid fever. Conley called to see me; he is so grateful for my waiting upon him when sick. I have to administer the stimulants myself to patients, as whiskey hardly ever goes to the party needing it. I suppose it gets spilled.

“31st. With all our care, poor Ratcliffe died.

“November 1st. Wet and stormy. Nearly all the tents down.

“2nd. Awful day.

“4th. A great many sick. Dr. McKelvy thinks he will resign. No general engagements expected; all going into winter-quarters.

“13th. A fight expected. Doctor says I had better not stay in camp for fear of a rout; but I will risk it. I am determined to keep my brother in view, and I have no other means of protection.

“25th. One-armed Ryan brought whiskey to camp; Colonel had him arrested and whiskey spilled. Grand review of troops; letter from Mrs. B______ ; gave it to her husband. What a life she leads him! On a Captain’s pay she wants him to live like a General. Regiment returned.

“29th. Doctor asked me was it true I sent meals to prisoners? I said yes; I never could bear to think any one was hungry.”

Prince Napoleon

Her diary also mentions occasions when she saw Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and other dignitaries, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis. A simple entry for Aug. 11, when the troops were near Centreville, states, “Prince Napoleon passed through.” This would have been Napoleon III, who, with his wife, Clotilde, visited Washington for a week, having come up on a French gunboat into New York harbor. During his stay, it is said that the temperamental European prince was offended by the apparent informality of the Lincoln White House.

Another entry reads, “Paymaster here; intense excitement prevails; men want clothes. My brother lost his; nevertheless he was ordered on dress parade. I had to go to his captain to ask, did he want him in rags? Every one has begun to speculate; Captain F. in tobacco. Sergeant-Major J. has brought forward another Jew to contract for soldiers’ uniforms. Poor private soldiers, how you are imposed on! One woman will look after you, in sickness, at least, and from no selfish or speculating motive.”

Her sentimental words changed the next day, when she wrote, “Major James put a man in the guard-house for 48 hours for selling brandy, and served him right.”

Imprisoned

It seems the glory of military life faded quickly for Samuel, who would have returned home eagerly had not Mary been there to bolster his fading interest and to care for him when wounded. The young man apparently was not soldier material; he was always losing his coat or his cartridge belt or some other accouterment he needed, and his sister frequently had to replace lost items.

She returned to Dublin in 1863 to attend to family matters, leaving New Orleans on a pass from the Union provost marshal there. In her absence, it was said that she was a spy, and when she returned to New Orleans in 1864, she was arrested by Union officials and placed in the Julia Street Woman’s Prison. She wrote of her three-month incarceration there, the “indignities” she suffered, as well as the apparent trumped-up charges through a forged letter written by a nonexistent Confederate general.

Her descriptions are interesting, and her Southern allegiance is obvious when she talks of “the Provost-Marshal, Major Porter … [who] introduced himself with a great deal of pomp and arrogance” and was unable to advise her of the charges against her.

Convicted of spying

Her acknowledged crimes were carrying letters between family members across the battle lines and also taking items of clothing and food to the soldiers. At least one of the “letters for the enemy” was to her brother, Sam.

In her reminiscences published in 1875, titled “A British Subject’s Recollections of the Confederacy While a Visitor and Attendant in its Hospitals and Camps,” she tells of the weeks of imprisonment and of her trial, in which she was accused of acts against the government. She points out that there were three women surnamed Hill in the area and that the acts of all were attributed to her alone.

Her recollections are replete with stories of the conditions under which she worked and the poignant tales of the men for whom she cared. Interspersed are her attempts to get her brother transferred out of the service, and out of harm’s way, her main goal in life. It was not to happen until late in the war, when he was assigned to the Engineer Corps.

She is quite vehement in her opinions of Union Gens. Benjamin “Beast” Butler and Nathaniel “Commissary” Banks. She says, “Butler and Banks! Well, I declare Butler was best, as he was an up-and-down ruffian and you could meet him on his own ground; but Banks was the snake in the grass springing on you when you least expected it.”

Ultimately, she would be convicted of spying and, instead of returning to England, was sent across the lines into Confederate-held territory. In her papers, she says that being a British subject made her life harder because Union officials claimed that the British aided the Confederates, though under the mantle of supposed neutrality. It did not seem to hinder her activities.

It appears that her conviction ultimately was overturned through the actions of Christian Roselius, a Union lawyer who represented her before a military commission. Part of the case file includes letters from the heads of various Confederate hospitals attesting to her service.

Later years

After the war, she brought a claim against the United States for “two thousand pounds sterling, as damages for cruel treatment and false imprisonment during the months of May, June, July and August, 1864 in the City of New Orleans, LA, and banishment therefrom,” which she said had resulted in her health being ruined and her being rendered an invalid. She did not prevail in the lawsuit.

She was sent on several confidential missions to Europe during the war years, and today relatives still have her “pass,” which says, “Miss Mary S. Hill has permission to sail from a Confederate port under the usual military conditions.” It is signed by James Seddon, secretary of the Army, and dated Sept. 16, 1864.

In peacetime, she became the first matron of a hospital in Louisiana, where she cared for injured patients for some time until its stability was assured. She then went to live with a nephew, William VanSlooten, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she died of cancer on Jan. 7, 1902. Samuel Hill was ill and could not even attend the funeral for his devoted sister.

Paying homage

When she died, aging Confederate veterans rallied to pay her homage. Eighteen of them provided an honor cortege for her casket, which had the flag of Camp 1, Army of Northern Virginia covering it. Her coffin was shipped home to Louisiana by the Illinois Central Railroad. She had requested to be buried in New Orleans.

The long cortege wound around the city, out Howard Avenue, half circling the monument of Robert E. Lee onto Camp Street, and then ahead to Canal Street, to the Metairie Ridge and, finally, Greenwood cemetery.

The headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune for Jan. 13, 1902, reads: “Veterans Bore Her to the Grave. Wrapped the Stars and Bars Around Her Casket And Sounded Taps as the Earth Claimed Her. The Unusual Tribute Paid to Miss Mary Hill, Who Was One of the Heroines of the South’s Fight Against Odds.”

The newspaper article says, “A funeral at 9 o’clock in the morning is a rare occurrence in this city, and still more unusual is the sight of a large number of men in the twilight of life, some wearing the Confederate uniform of gray, reverently marching behind a hearse, while with martial tread a delegation of veterans walk along as pallbearers. Such a scene was witnessed yesterday morning, when, on the arrival of the 9:35 train of the Illinois Central, the remains of Miss Mary S. Hill were transferred to the hearse, and then accompanied to their last resting place in Greenwood Cemetery by veteran Confederates. …

“Forty-one years ago Miss Hill was one of those ministering angels who, leaving their homes and firesides, and impelled by a call from on high, sought the battle fields and the crowded hospitals and devoted themselves to taking care of the dying and the wounded soldiers. She was a true type of feminine gentleness, charity and sympathy; with a sweet voice, a touch so light that care vanished at its charm, and footsteps as noiseless as a snowfall.”

Finding the grave

A few years ago, Pat Gallagher, then the president of the Louisiana Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy, was one of the few who was aware of Miss Hill’s story, and she set out to locate the grave. Employees at the Greenwood Cemetery office finally provided the information when she went there with two friends to determine the exact location.

When the grave finally was found, the original wrought-iron fence was falling down, branches and debris had been piled carelessly into the enclosure, and there was no stone or marker to indicate where the valiant Irish lady had been interred. Ms. Gallagher made a vow that day in 1998 that she would work to see that Mary Sophia Hill’s final resting place was suitably marked, and some seven years later, her dream was realized.

On March 6, 2005, UDC Louisiana Division President Lou Ann Rigby led the dedication of a granite grave marker for the Confederate nurse reading:

“MARY SOPHIA HILL

Nov. 12, 1819

Jan. 7, 1902

CONFEDERATE NURSE

HOSPITAL MATRON”

It calls to mind one of the closing paragraphs of the Times-Picayune article: “After the body was lowered into the grave and the earth covered it, there arose the plaintively soulful melody of ‘taps,’ the soldier’s call to rest, which was sounded on the bugle by Prof. Armand Veazle; and as the last note tremulously soaring above the waving tree tops, up and up to the azure dome of the heavens was lost, and there remained but the sighing of the gentle breeze among the branches, and the soft chirping of birds, the mourners slowly and in silence left the city of the dead.”

A small green string of beads with a Kelly green Irish shamrock hanging from it was left atop the stone on that March day of the marker dedication, in honor of the Confederate nurse from the heart of Ireland.

Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. She is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table.

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