At the start of the Civil War all nurses and hospital attendants were men. Women generally were considered too frail to cope with the rigors of administering to the sick. Throughout the entire country there were only 150 hospitals and no formal nursing schools existed. Nurses learned by doing, apprenticed to doctors, in order to learn their craft.
No one anticipated the vast number of casualties or the continued fighting. Most observers believed that the war would be over after several months. But the war went on and the state of battlefield medicine and the condition of military hospitals was appalling. Military and societal protocol banned women from field hospitals, so most nursing duties continued to be assigned to men.
But the increasing number of casualties and the overburdening of hospital facilities forced the military authorities to allow women to act as nurses. There simply was no one else available to do the work. Over the course of the war approximately 2,000 women served as nurses for both the Union and Confederate Armies.
Religious orders responded to this new opportunity for service by sending their own trained nurses to staff field hospitals near the front. Within a few months of the war’s onset, some 600 women were serving as nurses in 12 hospitals. In all, eight Catholic orders sent nuns to serve in the war.
Before the war Dorothea Dix was an activist for the indigent insane in home state of Massachusetts. At the start of the war she traveled to Washington with a group of female nurses. There aim was to lobby the military authorities on behalf of women serving as nurses on the battlefield.
Secretary of War Simon Cameron quickly named her to superintend the women nurses assigned to the U.S. Army. Cameron’s nominating citation read in part: ‘She will give at all times all necessary aid in organizing military hospitals for the care of all sick and wounded soldiers, aiding the chief surgeons by supplying nurses and substantial means for the comfort and relief of the suffering.’ Despite such responsibilities, however, neither she nor her nurses were granted military appointments.
At first Dix required nursing applicants to be at least 30 years of age–old by the standards of the time–and ‘plain looking,’ wearing brown or black clothing with no ornaments, bows, curls, jewelry or hoops. She steadfastly denied admission to nuns or other representatives of religious sisterhoods. Despite these stringent requirements, women all across the country laid aside their cherished jewels and laces to pass Dix’s austere muster.
As the war grew in intensity and casualties mounted Dix was required to relax her standards and after the First Battle of Bull Run she allowed anyone who was willing to work to do so. Her nurses were paid 40 cents a day plus rations, housing and transportation, while male nurses received $20.50 a month plus superior benefits.
Perhaps the best-known Civil War nurse was Clara Barton. She collected food, medical supplies and clothing for the Union Army after the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. By 1864 Barton was named the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Until then she had worked outside of the military system.
Among her more harrowing experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending. She is widely known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” Barton went on to found the American Red Cross.
Dix insisted that the wounded from both armies be cared for in an even-handed manner. This may not have endeared her to Radical Republicans, assured her memory in the South. Her nurses provided what was often the only care available in the field to Confederate wounded.
Georgeanna Woolsey, a Dix nurse, said, “The surgeon in charge of our camp…looked after all their wounds, which were often in a most shocking state, particularly among the rebels. Every evening and morning they were dressed.”
Another Dix nurse, Julia Susan Wheelock, said, “Many of these were Rebels. I could not pass them by neglected. Though enemies, they were nevertheless helpless, suffering human beings.”
When Confederate forces retreated from Gettysburg, they left behind 5,000 wounded soldiers who were then treated by Dix’s nurses. Cornelia Hancock wrote about what she saw—“There are no words in the English language to express the suffering I witnessed today….” Hancock had been initially turned down by Dix due to her youth (23) and attractive appearance.
As the war dragged on, other women augmented the work of Dix’s corps and the volunteer nuns. Soldiers’ wives, residents of battlefront areas and representatives of newly formed organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission all helped care for sick and wounded soldiers.
There were many nurses who today are unsung and virtually unknown. One such woman was Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a Galesburg, Illinois widow and mother who took it upon herself to become a volunteer at the military camp in Cairo, Illinois. Before the war, she had received training in botanic and homeopathic medicine and had been engaged in private-duty nursing.
She was a believer in the healing power of clean conditions for men who were clean of body and well fed. She had a special concern for enlisted men and stopped at nothing to get supplies that would bring comfort to her ‘boys.’ She begged food from any viable source, raided government supplies–often without permission–and commandeered boxes of delicacies sent from home to healthy soldiers.
The experience of Louisa May Alcott, the famous writer, may be indicative of the service that many women volunteers performed. Alcott served as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown, D.C., for six weeks in 1862–1863.
Her letters home – revised and published in the Commonwealth and collected as Hospital Sketches (1863) – brought her first critical recognition for her observations and humor. Alcott spoke out about the mismanagement of hospitals and the indifference and callousness of some of the surgeons she encountered.
The women nurses of the American Civil War performed an invaluable service to the soldiers during the war. But beyond their tangible service they helped to make nursing a legitimate profession after the war and beyond.