Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America

Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America

Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America

Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America


As many as 20,000 women worked in Union and Confederate hospitals during America's bloodiest war. Black and white, and from various social classes, these women served as nurses, administrators, matrons, seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, and custodial workers. Jane E. Schultz provides the first full history of these female relief workers, showing how the domestic and military arenas merged in Civil War America, blurring the line between homefront and battlefront.

Schultz uses government records, private manuscripts, and published sources by and about women hospital workers, some of whom are familiar--such as Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, and Sojourner Truth--but most of whom are not well-known. Examining the lives and legacies of these women, Schultz considers who they were, how they became involved in wartime hospital work, how they adjusted to it, and how they challenged it. She demonstrates that class, race, and gender roles linked female workers with soldiers, both black and white, but became sites of conflict between the women and doctors and even among themselves.

Schultz also explores the women's postwar lives--their professional and domestic choices, their pursuit of pensions, and their memorials to the war in published narratives. Surprisingly few parlayed their war experience into postwar medical work, and their extremely varied postwar experiences, Schultz argues, defy any simple narrative of pre-professionalism, triumphalism, or conciliation.


If you turn to page 958 in volume 6 of the behemoth Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1875–88), you will see a two hundred— word paragraph on the subject of “female nurses”—the only reference to the topic in the twelve-volume set. As early as 1866, Charles Stillé observed in his History of the United States Sanitary Commission that “for some reason, not very apparent, this branch of volunteer relief occupied a very subordinate place in the medical history of the war,” despite “extensive arrangements” to supply the Union army with trained nurses. He referred to several weeks of training that physician Elizabeth Blackwell had agreed to give to interested members of New York's Woman's Central Relief Association. As an executive of the Sanitary Commission, Stillé full well believed that plans to initiate war nursing had been extensive, caught up as he was in promoting his organization and anxious to smooth over the fissures that had developed between its largely female force of aid workers and its male governors. Nearly a century and a half later, it is clear that a dearth of trained nurses (and doctors) gave rise in the postwar era to substantial changes in the training, regulation, and licensing of medical workers.

More important, Stillé discerned that the story of women engaged in hospital work had escaped the tellers of the medical war. His contemporaries attempted to rectify this oversight with rhetorically expansive but socially exclusive volumes that celebrated women's war work by affirming the models of morality and nurture that constructed their sphere of influence. It is not surprising that, focused on a war story whose central players were men in arms, these early commemorators regarded women as adjuncts to military power brokers. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Gage sought the meaning of relief work in the early 1880s, their conclusions reflected their commitment to the legal, political, and economic advancement of women. Putting women at the center of the story— albeit women who were white, well educated, articulate, and elite like them-

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