Civil War Nursing
Over 5000 volunteer nurses’ north and south served in military hospitals during the Civil War. Nurses were of all sorts and came from all over. Women wanted to be involved in this national struggle in any way they could. They did not want to stay home and play their traditional domestic roles that social convention and minimal career opportunities had confined the majority of their sex to. Many women thought of nursing as an extension of their home duties, almost like taking care of “their boys.” They recall the Civil War as a time when their work as nurses made a difference. It gave them an opportunity to prove they had the ability and courage to help.
The presence of women in military hospitals with male soldiers raised concerns at first regarding motivation and proper etiquette. This was regulated when Dorthea Dix became the general supervisor or superintendent over all women nurses. She set requirements for the women who were to be recruited. They had to be over 30 and healthy, be of good moral character, dress modestly, be unattractive, and able to cook.
The primary tasks of the Civil War nurses was not so much in medical procedures performed on severely wounded or ill soldiers, most did not even take part in activities like wound dressing, bathing, or dispensing medicines. Instead, nurses were to assist with the soldiers’ diet and make sure what they ate was carefully regulated. They cared for physical needs like distribution of linen and clothes. They also helped with emotional and spiritual care by comforting them and writing letters to their family for them.
Nurses faced great danger in hospitals because they were a breeding ground for disease. They were extremely over crowded, especially after a large battle, and because of these conditions, illnesses were spread very easily. Typhoid, malaria, and dysentery were the biggest diseases. Typhoid was the worst. One of the poorer facilities was named the “Hurly Burly House.” The patients here were enlisted men. Better quarters were reserved for sick and wounded officers. Most of the hospitals had bad ventilation, no provisions for bathing, and no dead house. Some of them had decaying wood and old carpets that were not removed. Kitchens and washrooms were described as “cold, damp, dirty, and full of vile odors from wounds.” The nurses quarters were not much better. Nurses would often work from 6am to 1am. These miserable accommodations combined with overworked and under qualified staff made hospital conditions adverse to patient welfare and therefore unsuitable for either dispensing or receiving treatment. The Sanitary Commission finally investigated and recommended reforms.
The work of the army nurses dramatically changed public perceptions about women in medicine. It helped to introduce female personnel into responsible roles in a traditionally male military environment. This was a big step in the progression of women toward more involvement in American society. Nursing changed rapidly after the war, few women remained in the profession. Some became physicians. Clara Barton, who was a civil war nurse, founded the American Red Cross. In 1868, Dr. Samuel Gross, President of the American Medical Association, strongly endorsed the development of nurses’ training, and therefore many training schools were founded after the Civil War.
Holland, M. G. (1998). Our army nurses: Stories from women in the Civil War. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press
Brumgardt, J. R. (1980). Civil War nurse: The diaries and letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press
Leonard, E. D. (1995). Civil War nurse, Civil War nursing: Rebecca Usher of Maine. Civil War History, 41(3), 190-207.
Word Count: 539