Civil War Nurses

Civil War Nurses are an interesting group of military nurses.  You see, most of them were not in the military.  The majority of the nurses who treated wounded and dying soldiers for the Union and Confederate armies weren't even paid for their work.  They were volunteers who often had to overcome bureaucracy and paternalism to help soldiers on and off the battlefield. 

The civil war could be said to be the catalyst for many things in the United States.  Battlefield medicine was primitive and "the golden hour" was one hundred years away from being a life saving concept.  Many famous names in nursing and other pursuits were instrumental in changing how battlefield medicine and military healthcare was delivered.  We have all heard of Florence Nightingale.  She was instrumental in getting better medical treatment for soldiers injured in the Crimean War (1853-1856).  A number of nurses had learned about the concepts of fresh air, clean environment and ensuring that wounded and ill soldiers received compassionate care.  These nurses had been exposed to Florence Nightingales philosophy of nursing care. Famous nurses from the Civil War era included Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Mary Todd Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott.  Admittedly, the last three were not famous for nursing reasons. But, each of them served as a nurse and provided care during the civil war. 

Many of the more than 2000 civil war nurses who served during the civil war are unsung heroes.  Due to the manner of record keeping and the lack of real attention being paid to the many women and some men who served as battlefield angels their names are often lost and un-recorded.  There were some who kept journals, wrote memoirs and were recognized.  A few became prominent for the causes they championed.  But, all of them are to be commended for wanting to do more than stay at home and sew. 

Battlefield surgery at that time often consisted of holding a soldier down while the surgeon cut and sewed up the wound.  Ether and modern principles of anesthesia were in short supply.  These battlefield angels wrote letters home, comforted dying soldiers, changed bandages, fed, bathed, and took care of wounded and sick soldiers. They saw the horrors of war and trauma from a very close perspective.  The influence of these experiences probably played a part in the many causes and changes they championed after the civil war.

The confederate army actually commissioned a woman at the rank of Captain and put her in charge of the main hospital in Richmond. She was reported as the only woman to be commissioned in the confederate army.  Her name was Sallie Louisa Tompkins.  "Captain Sally" received a full military funeral when she died in 1916. 

The Civil War was the catalyst for many changes in the United States.  Nursing as a profession for women who were not of low character was probably one of the most significant changes.  Women like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix made nursing respectable. 

Many of the jobs women in the civil war did may not seem related to nursing but had an impact on soldiers health.  Soldiers Aid Societies often ensured that medicines, bandages, and clean supplies were delivered to the soldiers. Civil War Nurses often worked as nurses and members of the soldiers aid societies. Sanitation Commissions were responsible for everything from contract healthcare and hospital services to outright sanitation and ensuring camp hygiene.  

Some interesting facts and a good list of civil war nurses can be found at  

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