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.1 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.2 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.3 Putting women at the center of the story— albeit women who were white, well educated, articulate, and elite like them-