Teacher, physician. Hawks was born in Hooksett, New Hampshire, on August 4, 1833, the fifth child of Parmenas Hill and Jane Kimball. After attending public schools in her home state, she worked as a teacher and was committed to women’s rights and abolition. On October 5, 1854, she married John Milton Hawks, a doctor who shared her reformist views. They traveled to Florida where Hawks taught black children in a small school. She began reading her husband’s medical books and in 1855 enrolled in the New England Female Medical College, graduating in 1857 into a profession that was still the domain of men. When war broke out in 1861, she applied for a position as a physician or nurse with the Union army but was repeatedly refused. Dorothea Dix, superintendent of army nurses, proclaimed Hawks too young and attractive to nurse.
Undaunted, Hawks volunteered in Washington hospitals until she was offered a teaching position with the Freedmen’s Aid Society in 1862. In that capacity she arrived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina where her husband was serving as a physician. She stated, “I was born to be a missionary,” and zealously embraced her new role, teaching classes of hundreds of students. In early 1863 she began working as a teacher with the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of black soldiers recruited from the Union-controlled lowcountry. In April 1863 she joined her husband at the newly established hospital for people of color in Beaufort where she both nursed and taught her patients, who included the wounded of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry after their assault on Fort Wagner. Away from the prying eyes of Washington, she utilized her medical skills and supervised the hospital during her husband’s frequent absences, which could last as long as three weeks. Hawks doubted she would have been allowed such authority “if my brother had not been hospital steward—or if the patients had been white men.” She continued to work in the hospitals and freedmen’s schools of South Carolina and Florida throughout the remainder of the war.
In March 1865, after Charleston fell to Federal forces, she joined her husband in the city. Almost immediately, she organized the Colonel Shaw Orphan House for black children on East Bay Street and began supervising the six hundred students of the city’s Normal School. After the war Hawks and her husband left South Carolina for Florida where she continued her work as both a teacher and physician. Finally, in September 1870, she returned to the North to practice medicine in Lynn, Massachusetts, where she was active in various charity organizations and served as an officer of the Woman’s Rights or Suffrage Club. Although she had been denied an official position as a surgeon, her work during the war was not forgotten. In 1899 the New Hampshire Association of Military Surgeons elected Hawks an honorary member. After a brief illness, she died at her home in Lynn on May 6, 1906.
Hawks, Esther Hill. A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary. Edited by Gerald Schwartz. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.