Friday, August 30, 2013

Esther Hill Hawks, Civil War Army Doctor and Teacher

Army Physician During the Civil War


Dr. Esther Hill Hawks was an army physician and a teacher during the Civil War. A woman ahead of her time, Dr. Hawks taught both freed slaves and whites in what may have been Florida's first interracial school, before returning to New England to practice medicine.
Dr. Esther Hawks joined him there in 1862. She provided medical care for the blacks and worked as a contract physician in General Hospital Number 10, which was established for black soldiers in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina. In July 1863, she helped care for the black soldiers from the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Infantry after its ill-fated attempt to take Fort Wagner, in which their valiant colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed.

Already defying convention by being a certified woman physician, Dr. Esther Hill Hawks did a brief stint as the regimental surgeon, but was forbidden to continue practicing medicine after a new doctor took charge of the hospital.

Thereafter Dr. Esther Hawks spent her days educating the African American soldiers and their families so that they would be able to live better lives after the war ended. After the war, she continued to work in the area, caring for former slaves and teaching school.

She kept a diary that covers the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The South she described consisted of carpetbaggers, occupation troops, zealous missionaries, freed slaves and their hungry children. She described the South she saw - conquered but still proud.

After the war, the soldiers and slaves that Drs.Esther and John Hawks had cared for in South Carolina joined them on a trek to Volusia County, on the east coast of Florida.
Dr. Esther Hill Hawks arrived in Florida one month after her husband. As a teacher with the Freedmen's Aid Society, she established what might have been the first integrated school in Florida. She taught black adults, and both black and white children.

There was a delay in getting a sawmill up and running, so the people lived in crude huts at the beginning, and the schoolhouse was unfinished for quite some time. So, Esther taught school outside, building a log fire for warmth when needed.
Dr. Hawks continued teaching, even after the colony failed. She traveled far to be closer to the students who had left the settlement. That also brought her closer to unsympathetic whites, who despised integrated schools. In January 1869, a new schoolhouse was torched.

Dr. Esther Hill Hawks returned to New England, where she was able to practice medicine again.


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