Seldom Thanked, Never Praised, and Scarcely Recognized: Gender and Racism in Civil War Hospitals

Article excerpt

Before the Battle of Fredericksburg in late 1862, thirty-year-old Louisa May Alcott went to work at Georgetown's Union Hotel Hospital in the District of Columbia. As a Northerner from the rural community of Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott worried that white co-workers at Union Hotel would scorn her ignorance of African Americans and her untried abolitionist views. Expecting to be found out as a false abolitionist, Alcott instead encountered white co-workers who reviled her for speaking to blacks; one nearly fainted when she cradled a black toddler. White nurses, she noticed, were willing to be waited upon by blacks but "seldom thanked them, never praised, and scarcely recognized them in the street." (1) Perhaps more telling than Alcott's discovery of racial tension was her expectation that white workers would put aside prejudice in military hospitals and transcend their petty differences. Whether driven by idealism or racial naivete, Alcott's vision of a racially harmonious workplace was at odds with the model of social interaction she recorded in Hospital Sketches (1863), the narrative she constructed from her diary after typhoid cut short her tour of duty at six weeks.

What Alcott witnessed inside the Union Hotel Hospital during those weeks radicalized her inasmuch as a high-minded New Englander might, for a moment, step out of her own skin. What she understood as the benighted conduct of her peers in contrast to her own egalitarian views, however, would hardly have passed muster with African Americans themselves. Recent work on black-white relations during the war has suggested that whites little understood black subjectivity and that, even when most benevolently disposed, were likely to re-create the very structures that had oppressed African Americans and discouraged what was known, in post-emancipatory parlance, as racial uplift. (2) As institutions that shaped racial interaction, military hospitals were not exempt from reproducing the hierarchies of privilege and subjugation invisible to the whites who made them. By taking a closer look at some of the 20,000 black and white civilian women who engaged in Union relief work, we see that common experience did little to foster sympathy between the races. (3) In fact, white women's perceptions of blacks deteriorated when they met face to face in the workplace.

Approximately lo percent of the Union's female relief workforce was of African descent: free blacks of diverse education and class background who earned wages or worked without pay in the larger cause of freedom, and runaway slaves who sought sanctuary in military camps and hospitals. (4) Black men, slave and free, were just as visible behind the lines, working as cooks, carpenters, and heavy laborers, but I limit my scope here to women because the impact of their institutional work has not been fully assessed. I argue that little real distance existed between white and black women's relief duties and show how white women's attempts to subordinate blacks at work illuminated their own embattled status within military hospitals. As outsiders in a male-centered military arena, white middle-class women experienced a diminution of their social power within hospitals. They in turn asserted themselves by oppressing the single class of workers they could--black women, whom they felt were their class and racial inferiors. Even when most benevolently disposed toward black co-workers, white women's missionary attitudes were not always welcome. Their inability to shield their charges from insult and physical assault ultimately undermined their vision of themselves as defenders and protectors of the weak.

Scholarship on female relief workers began in 1866 in a series of books by white authors. Frank Moore's Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice (1866) and Linus Brockett and Mary Vaughan's Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience (1867) were the chief postwar texts to commemorate Northern women's relief services. …