Nurses in the U.S. Civil War

Civil War nurses were actually not part of the military and did not serve as part of any army. Most of those nurses who tended to the dying and wounded of the Confederate or the Union armies were volunteers and not paid for their work. Even as volunteers they were confronted with difficulties with regard to paternalism and bureaucracy in order to help soldiers both on and off the battlefield.

The Civil War is known to have been the impetus and catalyst for many good things. It was the main source for volunteerism which became an integral part of American society. Although battlefield hospitals and medicine were nearly non-existent during the Civil War, women helped and saved countless numbers of soldiers. There are many famous names associated with Civil War nursing and they were instrumental in revolutionizing the way battlefield medicine and healthcare in the military were administered and delivered.

The most famous pre-Civil War nurse was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who was instrumental in obtaining better medical care for the soldiers who required medical attention during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Many nurses of the Civil War had studied Florence Nightingale's way of working and were exposed to her philosophies of nursing care, which advocated a clean environment and fresh air, as well as guaranteeing that every wounded soldier received kind, compassionate and humane care. The Civil War produced some very famous nurses. They include Clara Barton, Mary Todd Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott and even one man -- the famous poet, Walt Whitman. All of them served as nurses during the Civil War and had a profound impact on the lives of many soldiers.

It is estimated that more than 2,000 nurses served in the Civil War with most of their names being unknown. They are considered the unsung heroes of the war. Due to poor record-keeping and the lack of appreciation and attention given to the many individuals -- mainly women -- who worked the battlefields providing medical care to the soldiers, their names were either lost or never recorded. Some of the nurses of the time kept diaries or journals while others wrote their memoirs after the war. It is through those written records that some names and people became prominent for the causes they championed.

Battlefield surgery, as it is referred to today, was not the same as in modern times. If surgery became necessary, it often consisted of two nurses holding the soldier down while the surgeon went to work cleaning, cutting and sewing the wound. Ether or modern-day anesthesia did not exist or were in very short supply. Most soldiers suffered in pain. The soldiers called the nurses "battlefield angels," who helped by feeding, changing bandages and bathing sick or wounded soldiers. At times they had to comfort dying soldiers. They witnessed the horrors and trauma of war from a very personal viewpoint. These experiences most definitely influenced these nurses and played a role in the causes they championed after the war.

The Confederate army did promote a nurse, Sallie Louisa Tompkins, to the rank of captain and put her in charge of the hospital in Richmond, Virginia. It appears that she was the only woman to be commissioned in the Confederate army.

Many changes took place in the United States after the Civil War in the field of nursing. The most profound change was that nursing became the profession of women. Women were viewed as compassionate and willing to give of themselves to others, especially the sick and wounded. It was women like Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton who made the nursing profession a respectable and sought-after career for women.

Although not actually nurses, many women who served during the Civil War had a tremendous effect and impact on the soldiers' health. These women belonged to groups called Soldiers' Aid Societies, that ensured that the medical and nursing needs of the soldiers were met. They delivered bandages, medicines and clean supplies to the soldiers. Many nurses during the war were also members of the societies and worked alongside other members. Another organized group of women during the Civil War was the Sanitation Commission which was in charge of the camps' sanitation and hygiene.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience
L. P. Brockett; Mary C. Vaughan.
Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867
Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War
Frank R. Freemon.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Introduction of Women Nurses"
Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort
Patricia L. Richard.
Fordham University Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "'The Kind Attentions of Woman': Female Nurses Bring Home to the Hospital"
Seldom Thanked, Never Praised, and Scarcely Recognized: Gender and Racism in Civil War Hospitals
Schultz, Jane E.
Civil War History, Vol. 48, No. 3, September 2002
Battle Time: Gender, Modernity, and Confederate Hospitals
Wells, Cheryl A.
Journal of Social History, Vol. 35, No. 2, Winter 2001
Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War
Catherine Clinton; Nina Silber.
Oxford University Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Arranging a Doll's House: Refined Women as Union Nurses"
Letters of a Civil War Nurse: Cornelia Hancock, 1863-1865
Cornelia Hancock; Henrietta Stratton Jaquette.
University of Nebraska Press, 1998
Professional Nursing: Concepts, Issues, and Challenges
John Daly; Sandra Speedy; Debra Jackson; Vickie A. Lambert; Clinton E. Lambert.
Springer, 2005
Librarian’s tip: "The American Civil War (1860-1865)" begins on p. 21
Nursing, the Finest Art: An Illustrated History
M. Patricia Donahue.
Mosby, 1996 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Nursing in the Civil War (1861-1865)" begins on p. 244
Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust.
University of North Carolina Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "We Must Go To Work, Too"
Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War
Catherine Clinton; Nina Silber.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Mary Walker, Mary Surratt, and Some Thoughts on Gender in the Civil War"
Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia
Judith E. Harper.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "Nurses" begins on p. 285
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