The Life of a Civil War Nurse

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Women nurses, though small, impacted the civil war greatly. The small quantity of women in the nursing role is solely a repercussion of the views society had on women. They were seen as working women viewed as objects of pity. Due to the domestic roles women filled in their homes they were seen as inadequate to serve in the medical field. At the beginning of The Civil War males were the only ones allowed to fill the nursing position. These men were recruited to serve as temporary nurses having no concrete medical training. Until an early nursing pioneer, Dorothea Lynde Dix endorsed nurses who were middle-aged females. Breaking the what once was the ideals of a woman’s place in society.

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Regardless of the views society had on women during The Civil War without their care for wounded servicemen the outcome of this four year war would be completely different. On April 1861, there was no organized medical corps let alone trained nurses for the United States. The term nurse was used very loosely during the war. An officer’s wife who accompanied her husband to the battlefield, or a mother who came to care for her wounded husband or son and stayed behind to care for others. At the time the term nurse carried no real weight behind it. As a result, when the war broke out, women volunteered with little to no experience.the only sort of healthcare they experienced was from a home setting, rather than in any hospital. Women from the catholic religious community had training that consist of apprenticeships with more experienced nursing sisters. However, when the Union army put out a newspaper ad looking for medical assistance. Women responded to this ad with quickness.

Despite their lack of experience, they volunteered to care for the sick and wounded. Looking for away to put their knowledge to good use. Doctors in the Union Army did not agree with the acceptance of women nurses. They believed their were undisplined and amateur. These were not completely empty accusations due to women having minimal experience. Acceptance from medical officials was hard to come by for a woman nurse. Even after becoming proficient in their nursing skills women still were seen as incompetent. Any mistake made by a female nurse was magnified. Making it hard for women to do their jobs without being ridiculed daily bases. Jane Hoge, a leader in the Northwestern Sanitary Commissions, said the opposition of female nurses stemmed from the lack of organization among the physicians. She wroteThe system [of nurses] was an untried experiment, and was suspiciously watched and severely criticized. Unfortunate failures were magnified and widely circulated. The misguided zeal of some benevolent individuals thrust large numbers of women into hospitals, without organization or consultation with surgeons. As a consequence, they were summarily dismissed by the surgeons.

By the end of the war, the untrained nurses who had volunteered to serve in the Union Army won the respect of the Army physicians as well as the soldiers they cared for. Amanda Akin Stearns a nurse during the war reportedly said:
We pass up and down among these rough men without fear of the slightest word of disrespect. They feel their dependence upon us for comfort and entertainment, and the difference in the wards where there in no ?lady shows how much can be done for them

The Union Army acquired all these nurses through the appointed Dorothea L Dix Superintendent of the Female Nurses of the Army. Dix had no prior knowledge of nursing, but her acquired organizational skills from her previous work with asylums and prisons allowed her to be seen as a force. Dix was determined to provide the necessary aid the military hospitals needed. Women who applied for her program had a standard to meet before being endorsed by
Dix. The applicants were required to be older than thirty-five, plain-looking and have habits of neatness,order and sobriety. These requirements ruled out many women who yearned to be nurses. Resulting in women disobeying the requirements and working in the war without appointments. They received no government payment for their service during The Civil War.

Physicians and volunteer nurses did not see eye to eye. Nurses actions were seen as impulsive and subordinate. Questioning the practices the doctors performed on patients. They were criticized for attending to the needs of their patients, disregarding doctors orders. Sometimes nurses would completely throw out prescription and use homemade treatments. Women were labeled as disruptive when they attempted to prevent amputations. Soon their actions were marked as independent, at times, seemed naive, saved thousands lives. The more experience the nurse’s acquired the more medical norms they established. Nurses had no set routine during the battles. There days started at 6 a.m and ended at 9 p.m. official duties included administering medicines and distributing prescriptions to injured and ill soldiers. Much of their time consist of nonmedical tasks, writing letters for the men in battle and attending to the hospital visitors. They spent a lot of time entertaining the patients, by singing and playing music.

After major battles the demand for nurses sky rocked. On June 14, 1863, Amanda Akin wrote several entries to her sister back home as the soldiers flooded the hospital after fighting at Chancellorsville, Virginia. She wrote:
It seemed to me this evening, as I sat at my table adding to the list of medicines writing down name, regiment, list of clothing, etc., of the new arrivals, calmly looking at the poor maimed sufferers carried by, some without limbs, on a ?stretcher that I had forgotten how to feel, it seemed as if I were entirely separated from the world I had left behind.

Soldiers poured into Armory Square Hospital with no order. Nurses were to drop the task at hand and attend to the injured soldiers. These once untrained nurses were the ones who knew how to care for a hurting servicemen. These volunteers had become accustomed to the norm of seeing men with one arm or no legs.

Working as a nurse had not yet been established prior to the civil war. The civil war revolutionized nursing and allowed women the opportunity to contribute to the war. The lack of medical care for the wounded and ill soldier inspired women across the country to help out and save lives. But this opportunity did not go smoothly. Due to the lack of healthcare, women used inadequate equipment and homemade supplies. Relying on remedies they heard of from Florence Nightingale.Her 1860 book Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not became an undisputed guide for nursing care.Nightingales notes were essential to the success of a nurse during the civil war. Nightingale was the first women to be appointed to lay a foundation for nursing in England. Nightingales work helped pave the way for middle and upper class women to seek a nursing career.

For the first few years allowing women into the workplace with the male medical system was war of its own. The establishment of the nursing healthcare unit provided help to those who seeked medical attention. Also benefiting the community as a whole. The building of hospitals opened up job opportunities to those seeking jobs. A prime example of job opportunity was exhibited when the Confederate Congress passed legislation in 1862. This legislation granted positions to women in the military hospitals and paying monthly wages. The increase in job opportunities was not only an economic growth, it increased a demand for education and training. More schools were developed the focused solely on medicine. These were all positive changes for the women who risk their lives to help the medical system during the war.

In 1868, the American Medical Association recommended that general hospitals be used to train nurses. The AMA acknowledged the value of having skilled nursing in hospitals and hoped to avoid the use of untrained and uncontrollable volunteers. By 1880, there was a total of 15 nursing schools in the United States: by 1900, there was 432. Nursing began to receive recognition as a highly skilled profession. A profession requiring experience and knowledge.

The experience for many women during The Civil War was pivotal. For many it was the first time they were away from their family and what society expected of them. From this experience they learned confidence and skills they would carry for the rest of their lives. Nurses during this time wrote many letters expressing their deep satisfaction with their new way of life. Katherine Prescott Wormeley, who served as a matron for a hospital convalescent soldiers in Rhode Island, said she spoke for the army nurses as a whole when she said (PamelaToler, Wonders & Marvels, 2016): We all know in our hearts that it is thorough enjoyment to be here, it is life, in short; and we wouldnt be anywhere else for anything in the world.. Wormeley, like most women returned home after the war. Nursing was only a temporary part of their lives. Many went back to their old lives as if it was just another day. Others capitalized on the buzz of having a women in the workplace. Making their lives a little bigger than what they were before the war started.

Writing was a profession that many nurses took to after the war. The most famous among these would be Louisa May Alcott, whose account of her Civil War experience, Hospital Sketches, inspired women across the country. Alcott wasnt the only nurse to keep account of her time as a nurse. During the war many women carried journals to keep track of the things they encountered. Writing letters to their families shedding light on the horrors that was a day to day life . Another nurse that became famous for her entries about the war was Amanda Akin. Nurses like Akin were eyewitnesses to the brutality of the war. Seeing the amount of soldiers brought into the hospitals after battles can leave a tremendous toll on a women who had never seen anything comparing to death. Writing was not the only profession women went into after the war. Many went on to earn their medical degrees. Vesta Swarts, for example, worked as a high school principal before the war. When she was honorably discharged from her duties as a nurse in Louisville, Kentucky, she became a physician. This was a challenging position to go for as a women.

Despite it being challenging she returned to Auburn, where she practiced medicine for the next thirty years. Going for a medical degree wasnt something many women felt was necessary to make their mark. Helping The Civil War was validation enough that they had accomplished something many thought to be unreasonable. Middle class women who served as nurses during the war were expected to return and work on charity events. This was not the case, women used their newly discovered confidence and experience to organize political activist movements, manipulating their way through a male dominated society. Taking leadership roles at local levels to start their influence bases. For instance, Emily Parsons, a nurse who served in the war for two years at many hospitals, organized a campaign supporting the opening of a charity hospital for women and children in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Others went for national roles, founding groups such as the Womens Christian Temperance Union, the Womens Educational and Industrial Union and American Red Cross (PamelaToler, Wonders & Marvels, 2016). These women became active in the womens right movement which allowed them to expand on all the emotion that lingered from the war. They wanted to tag on womens right to the Abolition Movement that was plaguing the country. They saw much success with this approach to spreading the word about women’s rights.

The life of a Civil War nurse took many different turns after the battles were over. Weather they choose to go back to having a plain life or seek more from their community was completely up to them.

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The Life Of A Civil War Nurse. (2019, May 18). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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