Over three thousand American women acted as paid nurses during the Civil War, and thousands more performed nursing duties as volunteers. Women chose to contribute to the war effort as nurses for a wide variety of reasons. Some became nurses out of compassion—they saw that the wounded soldiers needed help and were determined to provide it. Others were looking for excitement or for an opportunity to be independent and make themselves useful. Still others became nurses so that they could be near their loved ones or because they needed the money.
In the early days of the war, both the Union and Confederate armies actively discouraged women from serving as nurses. Many men of that time felt that nursing was not an appropriate activity for women. They did not want "refined ladies" to be subjected to the horrors of war by treating sick, wounded, and dying soldiers in army hospitals. "No one denied that most women had an aptitude for nursing, that many had gained experience from tending their families and friends, and that necessity had required those in rural areas to be amateur pharmacists, yet public opinion doubted the [suitability] of their nursing in army hospitals," Massey noted. "It was permissible for white women to nurse the sick at home or even in the slave quarters, but they had no business in the masculine [environment] of an army hospital which presented sights that no lady should see," according to James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. "[Most men felt that] women should stay at home and make bandages, knit socks for soldiers, and comfort the menfolk when they returned from the rigors [hardships] of battle."
But many women chose to become nurses anyway, ignoring the opinions of their fathers, husbands, or brothers. Some of them were inspired by Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the Englishwoman who had revolutionized British Army medical services during the Crimean War (1853-56) a few years earlier. Many American women viewed Nightingale as a hero for her wartime service and for building the world's first nursing school in 1860. Unfortunately, there were no formal training programs for nurses in the United States at that time. As a result, the word "nurse" applied to many people who performed different functions in the early years of the Civil War. Some women nurses wrote letters for bedridden soldiers, prepared their meals, or entertained them with music or stories. Others changed bandages, disinfected wounds, and assisted in operations.
Nursing efforts were generally better organized among Northern
^^ Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Female Nurses for the Union
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in Hampden, Maine, in 1802. She worked as a schoolteacher for many years before turning her attention to the treatment of the insane. In the early 1800s, people who were deaf, could not speak, or had psychological problems were treated as outcasts in American society. They were often sent to asylums (institutions for the mentally ill) where they endured inhumane treatment by uncaring workers. In 1843, Dix published a report describing the terrible abuse mentally ill people suffered in such places. She claimed that they were treated like animals—left unclothed, sometimes chained to a bed or wall, in small, dark, unsanitary rooms. She argued that the insane deserved special facilities staffed by caring, trained personnel. In the pre-war years, Dix took her case to state legislatures all over the country and succeeded in convincing many of them to build special hospitals for the treatment of the insane.
Over the years, Dix gained a reputation as an important social reformer. In the 1850s, she traveled to Europe to visit Florence Nightingale, the Englishwoman who had revolutionized British Army medical services during the Crimean War and later established the world's first nursing school. At the beginning of the Civil War, it became clear that the Federal government needed an efficient, qualified woman to supervise the female nurses who would be working with the Union Army. Dix was appointed superintendent of female nurses on June 10, 1861.
Dix—who was a proper, matronly woman at the age of fifty-nine—immediately began outlining qualifications and rules for women nurses. Like many other people of her time, she believed that nursing was not an appropriate occupation for young, unmarried women. She thought that attractive female nurses would be harassed by soldiers, would not be taken seriously by doctors, and would have their morality questioned by the larger society. As a result, she set a minimum age of thirty for women nurses, and also required appli-
women than Southern women. Northern women enjoyed greater independence at the beginning of the Civil War, and many had formed or joined groups to support the abolition of slavery. As a result, they became involved in nursing earlier and in greater numbers. Women throughout the North organized local aid societies to collect supplies and distribute them to Union troops. In 1861, several of these local societies combined forces under the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was created by an order of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). The mission of this government
Dorothea Dix. (Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos, Inc.)
cants to be "plain in appearance." Women who met these requirements and completed the formal training were allowed to take paying jobs as nurses at army hospitals. While they worked, Dix required them to wear simple, hoopless dresses, and no jewelry or makeup. Although some nurses initially objected to this rule, they soon real ized that fancy clothing would only get in the way of doing their jobs.
Dix had equal numbers of admirers and enemies during her time as superintendent of female nurses for the Union. She could be soft-spoken and gentle at times, but at other times she was abrasive (harsh) and opinionated, especially when she had to defend her nurses from discrimination. "It is not always clear whether the men resented Miss Dix because she was dictatorial or because she was more efficient than many of them," Mary Elizabeth Massey wrote in Women of the Civil War. "The nurses' opinions of their superintendent were mixed; the new ones almost invariably were afraid or awed, but after a time most came to respect her and many were sincerely devoted." When the Civil War ended, Dix resigned from her post and returned to her humanitarian work on behalf of the insane. She continued working up until her death in 1887, at the age of eighty-five.
agency was to establish training programs for nurses and to improve sanitary conditions for the Union Army.
By 1863, the Sanitary Commission had seven thousand affiliated local organizations and tens of thousands of women volunteer workers.
These volunteers raised money and sent food, medicine, and clothing to army camps and hospitals. They also provided meals and lodging to soldiers coming and going from the battle lines. The Sanitary Commission provided training for women nurses and sent them to areas where they were
[ff^; Appreciation for the
By the time the Civil War ended, most people recognized that women had made immense contributions to the war effort. President Abraham Lincoln was one of many men who expressed their appreciation:
I am not accustomed to use the language of eulogy. I have never studied the art of paying compliments to women. But I must say that, if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women was applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. I will close by saying, God bless the women of America!
needed. Women nurses were particularly important on hospital ships— large, specially equipped boats that evacuated wounded Union soldiers from Southern ports and took them to civilian hospitals in New York and Washington. These ships often faced enemy fire as they carried out their missions. Another important role of the Sanitary Commission involved inspecting army camps and recommending changes that would improve the health of the soldiers. These inspections were important because poor hygiene at army camps—including contaminated water supplies and unsanitary cooking practices—contributed to widespread illness and disease among the soldiers.
In contrast to these organized efforts in the North, most Southern women entered nursing independently. Some chose to become nurses, while others were pressed into service when their homes were turned into makeshift hospitals. The early efforts of these women nurses were recognized in September 1862, when the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing civilian nurses to work in army hospitals. Many Southern women became part of the official Confederate Army medical service under this law.
Confederate nurses faced special problems. Since most of the fighting took place in the South, they were often forced to move patients and entire hospitals in order to remain behind the battle lines. When Confederate troops made a sudden retreat, some women nurses risked their lives to stay with patients who could not be moved.
Since Southern white women had tended to lead sheltered lives before the war, many people were surprised at the nurses' courage and ability to recover quickly during the war. Kate Cumming, a young woman from Mobile, Alabama, served as a nurse in a hotel that had been turned into a hospital. "Nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here," she wrote in her memoir, Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse. "The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk and, when we give the men anything, kneel in blood and water; but we think nothing of it."
The service of women nurses during the Civil War helped change traditional attitudes about women as the "weaker sex." It also helped turn nursing into a respectable profession for women. "Despite the early skepticism [doubting attitude] of the surgeons and the general public about the propriety as well as the ability of women to serve as nurses during the Civil War, some 3,000 women showed the world they had the stamina [endurance], the commitment, the organizational abilities, and the talent to become a vital force in the Nation," Marilyn Mayer Culpepper wrote in Trials and Triumphs: Women of the American Civil War.
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