Battle Time: Gender, Modernity, and Confederate Hospitals

By Wells, Cheryl A. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Battle Time: Gender, Modernity, and Confederate Hospitals


Wells, Cheryl A., Journal of Social History


While Confederate men took to the battlefields to ensure their independence, southern women challenged societal norms and took to the hospitals to care for the wounded. Archetypal southern womanhood mandated modesty, domesticity, purity, delicacy, refinement, gentility, and subordination; being a nurse meant none or few of these things. (1) It meant working outside the home, making vital decisions, challenging male doctors, and "intimacy with male bodies." (2) As several historians have recently demonstrated, this dissonance between the professed ideal of southern womanhood and the graphic realities of nursing caused male surgeons and hospital staff to ostracize Confederate nurses. (3) The presence and perseverance of female nurses in Confederate hospitals signified a new independence which freed women from the patriarchal control of Old South gender relations and accelerated social change. As Mary Elizabeth Massey puts it: "the Civil War provided a springboard from which ... [women] leaped beyond the circums cribed 'woman's sphere' into the heretofore reserved for men." (4) More recent scholarship, however, has complicated these findings. While women certainly made gains during the Civil War, these gains were, according to Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Jean Friedman, Drew Gilpin Faust and George Rable, temporary. (5)

This article builds on and refines these recent findings by applying the historical study of time consciousness and multiple temporalities to the experiences of Confederate nurses. The article's principal points are these: first, it argues that some Civil War temporalities effectively degendered Civil War hospitals by making both Confederate nurses and male surgeons increasingly hostage to a new, entirely capricious temporality: battle time. Military time, generally, battle time specifically, complicated antebellum gendered temporalities and reconfigured them with a more antiseptic and ruthless time of large scale battle. Such temporal de-gendering, though, proved ephemeral. With southern defeat at Appomatox, southern white women's time, characterized by male-scheduled tasks largely prescribed by nature, religion, and the clock, returned. (6) Although nineteenth century Americans were attempting to build a modern, orderly society based in part on the clock, Civil War hospitals retarded such progress as clock time failed to impose order. (7) Instead a temporary resurgence of the task system emerged and, in many ways, proved to be more efficient and modern than clock time.

Secondly, this article argues that in Civil War hospitals, the link between gendered worlds broke and a new ruling time emerged. The exigencies of battle time eroded men's time and their customary authority over its allocation and replaced it with a standard temporality determined not so much by men or women but by the war machine. A single, ruling, and relatively egalitarian time which degendered hospitals by making men and women subject to the same temporal master temporarily superseded clock time. Although male surgeons and southern nurses continued to work within multiple times both became increasingly aware of and controlled by a new, entirely capricious time--battle time--a temporality independent of considerations of gender.

Finally, recent work on time consciousness is used to illustrate the nature of Confederate nurses' work and further our understanding of how the Civil War itself encouraged women to embrace an antebellum masculine time consciousness. In this reconfiguration, we see a temporary degendering of how men and women were supposed to use and apply time as well as an illustration of the emergence of a hegemonic or ruling time--the time of battle--in the context of a war that has recently been described as premodern. (8)

Southern nurses certainly carried out traditionally male prescribed female tasks during the War. They cleaned, tended, comforted, fed, and nurtured the wounded much as they had their own families and slaves in the antebellum era. …

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