With the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, able-bodied men on both sides of the conflict began marching to battlefields in service to their country. Women on both sides also felt a need to volunteer and contribute to the war effort. Most of these female volunteers served as nurses. Driven by the same patriotic desire as many of their male counterparts, roughly 3,300 women served as nurses for the Union Army from years 1861-1865.
These pioneers challenged existing gender roles and social norms. Many of their male colleagues believed that women did not belong in the hospitals and resented their presences. Civil War nurses overcame their objections through appeals to national pride, patriotic duty, and through hard work and dedicated service to the sick and wounded Soldiers that filled the nation’s hospitals.
Two months after the war began Secretary of War Simon Cameron appointed Dorothea Dix as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union. In August 1861 Congress authorized the Surgeon General to employ female nurses in Army hospitals, and to pay them $12 a month and provide them with food rations. The result was an influx of volunteers. From middle-aged widows to young bachelorettes, women volunteered to assist in hospitals and other medical establishments.
Older women typically had greater freedom to leave their homes to participate in this uncertain and dangerous profession. Apprehensive parents, fearful for their daughter’s safety, attempted to prevent their young daughters from leaving. Beside the fears about sickness, death, or other calamities, many people, including many of the doctors the nurses worked with, did not believe women belonged in a medical setting. The women faced the same challenges as their male counterparts, including the risk of communicable diseases, unsuitable medical field facilities, and various battlefield dangers. Yet thousands of women left home to become nurses, and take care of fighting servicemen.
Nurses acted as homemakers and orderlies in their wards. Soldiers viewed nurses as holistic healers because of the strong connection they drew between physical and spiritual healing. Nurses tended to the Soldier’s physical needs, but also their spiritual needs, especially among Soldiers who were not expected to survive their wounds. Numerous accounts tell of men wracked in pain that would instantly calm and be comforted by a nurse’s attentiveness, conversation, or physical contact. Nurses maintained written correspondence with Soldier’s families, and often assisted with a last letter home or death notification.
Hospital conditions and accommodations varied greatly depending on where the hospital was located and what sort of facilities existed there before the war. Regardless of the accommodations, a nurse could be assured of ghastly experiences dealing with bloody wounds and mangled limbs that would challenge even the hardiest individual’s emotional capacity. Yet these brave women faced the fear of the unknown and the daily horrors that confronted them throughout the war. Many drew strength from the Soldiers themselves, whose constant assurances helped the nurses overcome their emotional burdens.
Over four years of war nurses provided exemplary service to the fighting forces and to the nation as a whole. They persevered through dire and unsafe conditions with selfless dedication. Brave men received attentive care and would forever remember the special women working the hospital wards all around the country during these pivotal moments in American history.
Eggleston, Larry G. Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.
Hilde, Libra Rose. “Worth a Dozen Men: Women, Nursing, and Medical Care During the American Civil War.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2003.
Raus Jr., Edmund J. Ministering Angel: The Reminiscences of Harriet A. Dada, A Union Army Nurse in the Civil War. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2004.
US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps. http://history.amedd.army.mil/ancwebsite/highlights/chrono.html, July 26, 2011.