In setting out to tell a story of women in hospital and relief work during the American Civil War, I acknowledge the rich foundation Mary Elizabeth Massey laid in the 1960s with Bonnet Brigades (1966). Having a wealth of material and wanting to tell as much of the story as that material afforded, Massey wrote a work that was expansive and suggestive. It was nowhere more eloquent than when it invited readers to mine its sources for further study. Women at the Front extends one part of Massey's larger examination of gender and the Civil War: that pertaining to the amorphous body of work known as nursing, but which included tasks as various as washing clothes, washing pots, and washing wounds. A central tenet of this project has been to show the limitations of an earlier era's definition of nursing, which eclipsed the vast majority of women who took on relief work during the war and were glad, for the most part, to be paid for it.
Since Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage published their six-volume text, The History of Woman Suffrage (1881–1922), only a handful of writers —Massey and Anne Firor Scott the most prominent among them —took up the question of the war's meaning for women, and even fewer diverged from the consensus that woman's galvanic achievement catapulted women into the polity. Ann Douglas argued in the early 1970s that in their zeal to bring the home front to the battlefront, Union army nurses attempted “to replace the captain with the mother, the doctor with the nurse, and even to outsoldier the soldiers.”1 Douglas presented a model of male-female conflict in which women's exclusion from medical practice gave them incentive to usurp military power. This argument accurately identified the parties to the power struggle but failed to perceive its nuances: female workers did not wish to take the place of medical officials so much as to change the terms of the power struggle. Silenced by their low status within the medical and military hierarchies in which they moved, women wanted a greater voice in decision-making that concerned patients