Civil War Nurses – "The Angels of the Battlefield"

William Ludwell Sheppard’s watercolor In the Hospital, 1861 (above) pays tribute to those women of the South who labored ceaselessly to care for the war’s wounded. "I have never worked so hard in all my life and I would rather do that than anything else in the world," declared one weary attendant.

A devoted nurse later praised her female colleagues: "Would that I could do more than thank the dear friends who made my life for four years so happy and contented; who never made me feel by word or act, that my self-imposed occupation was otherwise than one which would ennoble any woman. If ever any aid was given through my own exertions, or any labor rendered effective by me for the good of the South-if any sick soldier ever benefitted by my happy face or pleasant smiles at his bedside, or death was ever soothed by gentle words of hope and tender care, such results were only owing to the cheering encouragement I received from them. They were gentlewomen in every sense of the word, and though they might not have remembered that "noblesse oblige," they felt and acted up to the motto in every act of their lives. My only wish was to live and die among them, growing each day better from contact with their gentle, kindly sympathies and heroic hearts.

Approximately two thousand women, North and South, served as volunteer nurses in military hospitals during the American Civil War. Seeking convention and direct involvement in the national struggle rather than the domestic support roles to which social minimum career opportunity had traditionally confined the majority of their sex, they experienced at first hand the grim constants of war — amputated limbs, mutilated bodies, disease and death — and provided invaluable aid to the sick and wounded soldiers and medical authorities on either side. Of those so employed a relative few-such as Louisa May Alcott, Jane Stuart Woolsey, and Katharine Prescott Wormeley – recorded their experiences for posterity. Most, however, unfortunately left little record of their wartime service. They therefore remain in large measure historically anonymous, except for the terse appearance of their names on hospital muster rolls, and consequently the activities and influence of the woman nurse constitute one of the rare aspects of Civil War history that has not been extensively recorded.

That comparatively little secondary material has been written concerning women nurses mutes the significance of their contribution to the wartime medical service. Available evidence indicates that their activities often had important ramifications in both an immediate and broader social sense, and that as a group they deserve attention as full participants in the civil conflict rather than as mere helpers of the main actors, more interesting than substantial. in fact, these women often had notable impact upon the men they tended and served under; and, further, the introduction of female personnel into responsible roles in a traditionally male military environment was one significant step in the progress of women toward a fuller involvement in American Society.

Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton were the leaders of a national effort to organize a nursing corps to care for the war’s wounded and sick. Dix was already recognized for her work in improving the treatment received by the insane when she began to recruit women to serve as nurses in the Army Medical Bureau. Military traditionalists opposed her, but she prevailed, armed with an indomitable will and a singleness of purpose. One of the standards that Dix established for her nurses was that they be "plain looking" and middle-aged. "In those days it was considered indecorous for angels of mercy to appear otherwise than gray-haired and spectacled," explained one you young lady rejected by Dix. "Such a thing as a hospital corps of comely young maiden nurses, possessing grace and good looks, was then unknown." Recruits nicknamed her "Dragon Dix," but it was a badge of honor id it indicated what it took to succeed in creating the army’s first professional nursing corps.

Clara Barton worked on parallel lines, but outside the official military system. A Massachusetts schoolteacher, Barton had come to Washington in 1854 to work at the e U.S. Patent Office. Determined to play a role in the events of 1861, she cared for wounded soldiers who had returned to Washington. Thanks to financial support garnered throughout New England, Barton had the means, along with the resolve, to overcome the military bureaucracy ad travel to the front lines. "I went in while the battle raged," she recalled with pride. After the war, she was instrumental in the creation of an American branch of the International Red Cross.

Source: Civil War Nurse, The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Introduction and commentary by John R. Brumgardt