Dr. Esther Hill Hawks and Mildred Tarver Bee

DECEMBER 27, 2019

Esther Hill Hawks was one of those real historical figures that I took a few liberties with. She and her husband, John, were both doctors, and ardent abolitionists, who organized reformist salons of the era. When the Civil War broke out, she tried to enlist as a physician, but was refused on the grounds of gender. She tried to enlist as a nurse, but was told by Dorothea Dix she was too pretty, and would distract the soldiers.

She joined her husband, who was stationed at the Charleston Islands, but when he was sent further south on a spy mission, she assumed his duties as a surgeon, doing battle duty for the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment at the battle of Fort Wagner.

When her husband didn’t return, she ventured deep into the South to look for him, having many adventures of her own. Here is where I took some creative license. I imagined that one of the places her quest took her was to Brownsville and Matamoros, where she crosses paths with the folks in my novel.

In real life, one of the things she did on her journey into Dixieland was establish secret slave schools. I took this piece of her history, and then took the liberty of giving it to another character in the book, Mildred Tarver Bee, the wife of General Hamilton Bee, the Commandant of Fort Brown – also both real people. Though General Bee was a slave owner himself, his wife’s diaries reveal abolitionist sympathies – so I felt it not impossible to imagine she was teaching secret slave schools herself.

This becomes a minor plot in the book, and the major focus of the song about Mildred Tarver Bee, on the CD. Esther Hill Hawks, alas, was left with no memorial song in my book; but will hopefully have her own movie some day.

The song is a Southern waltz, as I thought appropriate for a Southern lady. But it partakes of more modern poetic tropes, which broke earlier conventions – such as enjambment – as befitted a historical figure who herself broke conventions of the time.



 Now young Mildred Tarver was a lady of passion

For justice and freedom and of course Paris fashion, 

When her heart was purloined by a Gen’ral so dashin’ –

Name of Hamilton Bee, with his saber and sash, and

Her name then became Mildred Tarver Bee

When she married that Officer from West Tennessee

They lived on his plantation ‘til July ’63,

When he got transferred to Brownsville on the Rio Grandee


Now General Bee was in charge of that fort,

Guardin’ Rebel cotton shippin’ out of the port,

While his wife was known better for holdin’ court

In the Brownsville cafés and salons of a sort

That were looked upon by some with a fair jaundiced eye,

For speeches so spirited, the questions would fly

About temperance, abolition, women’s suffrage, and why

Must we kill one another ere our time’s come to die.


Mildred Tarver wants to change the world,

After all of the lies, hate, and stones have been hurled,

Still she keeps on, she just keeps on.


So she started a slave school, on the sly, in the cane

Where she taught them arithmetic, reading, and the plain

Call of freedom she aspired to help them attain

From the men who enslaved them for worldly gain.


Her General gen’rally shared not her views,

And he took it rather badly when he found out the news

Of her errant behavior, which he could not excuse,

So he gave her a choice, and said she must choose

Between teaching her students or opting to stay

With the man she’d sworn to honor, to love and obey.

She was torn to her soul, she knew not what to say,

So she wept tears of anger all the night, to the day.


Oh, Mildred Tarver wants to change the world,

After all of the lies, hate, and stones have been hurled,

But she keeps on, she just keeps on.


Well, the morning brought light, and an end to her rage,

Mildred quietly closed her school, turning that page.

Since she dear loved her husband, she commenced to engage

In a campaign of persuasion only a good wife can wage…

So she taught school in secret in the back of a store

While the Gen’ral turned a blind eye and went back to his war

They could not abide each other’s passions, yet nor

Did they turn from the one whom they each did adore.


Oh, Mildred Tarver changed the world in her way,

With small acts of giving she performed every day,

Gifts of kindness, they remind us,

To plant seeds, and so leave behind us, come what may.


You can hear the song, and get links to CDBaby, Amazon, and the usual streaming services at https://jameskahn.hearnow.com/matamoros

1 thought on “Dr. Esther Hill Hawks and Mildred Tarver Bee”

  1. Appreciated your mention of Hawks. I’m completing a thesis about the couple and reenact as them here in Florida! rsvp

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