Northern Volunteer Nurses of America’s Civil War
U.S.A.M.H.I., Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Photo by Jim Enos
| A nurse prepares to spoon-feed soldiers in this photograph taken inside a Union hospital. Women also likely donated the coverlets warming the men.
They came from the paneled drawing rooms of the nation’s great mansions, the log lean-tos of the far frontier and the chaste confines of Eastern convents. Lacking professional training but endlessly resourceful, the volunteer nurses of the Civil War labored tirelessly to bring aid and comfort to the sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the fighting.
At the outbreak of the war, the nursing profession was in its infancy and dominated by men–women generally were considered too frail to cope with the rigors of administering to the sick. There were only about 150 hospitals in the entire country, and no formal nursing schools existed. The massive numbers of sick and wounded men who needed care during the Civil War exacerbated the lack of medical professionalization, and wartime hospital facilities, particularly early in the conflict, were primitive and disorganized. Military and societal protocol banned women from field hospitals, so most nursing duties continued to be assigned to men. Increasing numbers of casualties and the overburdening of aide facilities, however, soon broke down gender-related strictures on nursing and spurred the nation’s women into taking immediate and decisive action to help correct the situation.
Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, brought supplies and help to the battlefronts before formal relief organizations could take shape to administer such shipments. Acting entirely on her own, the Massachusetts-born Barton personally collected food, clothing and medical supplies for the hard-pressed Union Army after the Peninsula campaign in 1862. She later served in a similar capacity at other engagements.
Religious orders also responded to this new opportunity for service by sending their own trained nurses to staff field hospitals near the front. Within a few months of the war’s onset, some 600 women were serving as nurses in 12 hospitals. In all, eight Catho-lic orders sent nuns to serve in the war.
In April 1861, Dorothea Dix and a hastily assembled group of volunteer female nurses staged a march on Washington, demanding that the government recognize their desire to aid the Union’s wounded. Although not a nurse, Dix was nationally known as a crusader for enlightened care of the mentally ill, and her grandfather, Elijah Dix, had been a prominent Boston physician. Secretary of War Simon Cameron quickly named her to superintend the women nurses assigned to the U.S. Army. Cameron’s nominating citation read in part: ‘She will give at all times all necessary aid in organizing military hospitals for the care of all sick and wounded soldiers, aiding the chief surgeons by supplying nurses and substantial means for the comfort and relief of the suffering.’ Despite such responsibilities, however, neither she nor her nurses were granted military appointments.
By nature compassionate and giving, Dix was also a no-nonsense and often quirky leader. At first she required nursing applicants to be at least 30 years of age–old by the standards of the time–and ‘plain looking,’ wearing brown or black clothing with no ornaments, bows, curls, jewelry or hoops. She steadfastly denied admission to nuns or other representatives of religious sisterhoods. Despite these stringent requirements, some 2,000 women across the country laid aside their cherished jewels and laces to pass Dix’s austere muster.
As casualties mounted, Dix was forced to relax her standards, and after the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 she accepted anyone willing to work. Her nurses were paid 40 cents a day plus rations, housing and transportation, while male nurses received $20.50 a month plus superior benefits.
As the war dragged on, other women augmented the work of Dix’s corps and the volunteer nuns. Soldiers’ wives, residents of battlefront areas and representatives of newly formed organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission all helped care for sick and wounded soldiers.
Dix operated from houses she personally rented in Washington, and she did not take off a single day during her four years of service. Her hospitality was always available to nurses and discharged servicemen who lacked shelter. Louisa May Alcott, who became ill with typhoid fever soon after entering her brief service as a nurse, gratefully recalled Dix’stealing a moment from her busy life to watch over the stranger of whom she was as thoughtfully tender as any mother.’
In her zeal to reduce suffering and death, Dix constantly prowled the hospitals. Her intolerance of hospital administrators and nurses who did not meet her exacting standards caused constant friction. Finally, in October 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton transferred part of the responsibility for appointing nurses to the surgeon general and gave medical officers at each hospital jurisdiction over their own female nurses.
Dix was heartbroken but responded with a magnanimity that drew admiration from even her staunchest opponents. After she resigned at war’s end and her post was abolished, she continued to work doggedly for another 18 months, helping individual soldiers and their families deal with the stresses of recuperation. Throughout the rest of her life, Dix begged biographers to de-emphasize her Civil War years. But in 1983, long after she was dead and could not protest the well-deserved honor, she was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
While Dix was gathering her forces in Washington, Mary Ann Bickerdyke was taking matters into her own equally dedicated hands in Galesburg, Ill. A 45-year-old juggernaut, Bickerdyke personified Dix’s ideal nurse. Before the war, she had received training in botanic and homeopathic medicine and had been engaged in private-duty nursing. Recently bereaved by the untimely death of both her husband and young daughter, she felt divinely called to spend her remaining life relieving human suffering.
On a Sunday in June 1861, Bickerdyke listened as her pastor, Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, told of the need for volunteer help in the military camps in nearby Cairo, Ill. When the congregation asked her to accompany a load of food, clothing and medical supplies to Cairo on behalf of the church, she was ready. Except for short visits, that was the last her two young sons saw of her until the end of the war.
When Bickerdyke saw the poor condition of the hospital in Cairo, she took a room in town and immediately began a determined cleanup effort that quickly spread to the other five military hospitals in the area. Although he granted her a grudging welcome at first, Dr. J.J. Woodward, a surgeon with the 22nd Illinois Infantry, later praised Bickerdyke as’strong as a man, muscles of iron, nerves of finest steel; sensitive, but self-reliant, kind and tender; seeking all for others, nothing for herself.’
Throughout the war, ‘Mother’ Bickerdyke moved from one trouble spot to another, acting on her belief that bodies healed best when they were bathed, placed in clean surroundings and fed well. She evinced a special concern for enlisted men and stopped at nothing to get supplies that would bring comfort to her ‘boys.’ She begged food from any viable source, raided government supplies–often without permission–and commandeered boxes of delicacies sent from home to healthy soldiers. Many times, when government rations were waylaid or ran out, she found a way to feed the troops. Her tireless zeal earned her the nickname ‘Cyclone in Calico.’
Library of Congress
| Although her strict nature earned her the unkind sobriquet ‘Dragon Dix’ from some, the rigid standards set by Dorothea Dix saved the lives of many men.
In the early period of her service, Bickerdyke held no authority other than semiofficial status granted occasionally by Union Army officers. Her manner, however, was so forthright and compelling that she was rarely questioned. When one surgeon dared to ask where she received permission to do what she was doing, Bickerdyke retorted she was given orders by ‘the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that ranks higher than that?’ Later, she was named a Sanitary Commission agent.
In spite of her brusque and aggressive behavior, Bickerdyke gained the friendship of a few high-ranking officers, among them Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Toward the end of the war, when someone complained about Bickerdyke to Sherman, he commented that she was the only person around who outranked him, and he suggested the complainer refer the matter to President Abraham Lincoln.
On one occasion, when she was besieging Sherman at an inopportune moment, the oft-prickly general asked whether she had ever heard of insubordination. Bickerdyke responded in an equally testy manner: ‘You bet I’ve heard of it….It’s the only way I ever get anything done in this army.’
She demonstrated that point one day when troops passed one of her hospitals en route to battle at Corinth, Miss. When Bickerdyke invited the captain to halt his exhausted men so that she and her staff could feed them, he refused. As he led the men on, a deep voice cried, ‘Halt!’ The men slowed to a stop, confused. Their bewilderment was replaced with glee when a group of women led by Bickerdyke quickly served them soup and coffee and gave them bread, fruit and fresh water to take along on the march. By the time anyone realized Bickerdyke had given the spurious order to halt, all the men had been served and sent off with the only food they were to see for two days. A formal reprimand brought no firm promise of reform from the unrepentant Bickerdyke.
Major General John ‘Black Jack’ Logan also crossed paths with Bickerdyke, meeting her for the first time late one night after a battle. While lying in his tent, he observed a lone figure with a lamp crisscrossing the battlefield and sent an orderly to bring the person in for questioning. Bickerdyke explained that she could not rest until she was satisfied that no living man remained on the field. The story was picked up by the press and contributed to her folk-hero status. After that incident, Logan often confided in her, called on her to provide for his men, and ordered her to ride at his side at the Union’s gala victory parade in Washington after the Confederate surrender.
As matron of many temporary field hospitals, Mother Bickerdyke often crossed swords with surgeons and other staff members. In some cases, her complaints to superior officers brought disciplinary action; other situations she resolved in her own way. She reserved special vengeance for anyone she suspected of snitching supplies or delicacies she had set aside for the sick and wounded. Once, after repeated warnings to kitchen workers, she decided to set a trap. She cooked some peaches, secretly spiked them with a potent but harmless purgative, and left them to cool while she worked elsewhere. Soon, agonized cries from the kitchen attested that she finally had made her point.
Bickerdyke drafted anyone within reach of her voice to help with the endless labor. Healthy soldiers and camp visitors were either bribed with hot meals or badgered into service. When gentlemen from the Christian Commission came to restore wounded souls, she suggested that they would have a better chance of success if they began with wounded bodies.
Formerly active in the Underground Railroad, Bickerdyke respected blacks and often sought their help. Many contrabands cheerfully worked hard for her, and, in turn, she fought for their fair treatment and taught them skills they could use later in postwar America.
Bickerdyke was equally effective on her occasional speaking forays for the Sanitary Commission. One day toward the end of the war, she was telling the ladies of Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn how she had bound the stumps of new amputees with old cloth bags when she had nothing better. Suddenly, she asked the startled women to rise, lift their dresses, and drop one of their many petticoats to the floor. The collected garments filled three trunks, and within a few weeks, Bickerdyke was using the petticoats to bandage the terrible sores of prisoners released from Andersonville in Georgia.
When the last Illinois man was discharged, Bickerdyke resigned from the Sanitary Commission to devote the rest of her life to her family and to charitable deeds. She died in 1901, and a sturdy freighter named for her carried on her work in the 20th century by ferrying Spam and sulfa drugs to American servicemen isolated on Pacific islands in World War II.
Another tireless champion of wounded enlisted men during the Civil War was Hannah Ropes. The daughter and sister of prominent Maine lawyers, she was over 50 when the war started. An experienced nurse, she had gained prewar recognition as a reformer and abolitionist and was acquainted with many New England political leaders. Like Dix and Bickerdyke, she believed every soldier deserved proper sanitation, good food and humanitarian treatment, and never hesitated to go to the top to obtain such creature comforts. Secretary of War Stanton personally took action against officers and stewards she found to be slovenly and incompetent.
In 1862 Ropes became the matron of the Union Hotel Hospital located in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown, where Louisa May Alcott also served. In her book Hospital Sketches, Alcott described Ropes’ actions as casualties arrived from the Battle of Fredericksburg: ‘The hall was full of these wrecks of humanity…and, in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making the hospital a home.’
In her own published diary and letters, Ropes spoke often of her particular regard for the enlisted man. In October 1862, she wrote, ‘The poor privates are my special children of the present,’ and described ‘the loss they have experienced in health, in spirits, in weakened faith in man, as well as shattered hope in themselves.’ Later, she wrote to her daughter, Alice, ‘I owe no man anything but love.’
In her final diary entry in December of that year, Ropes, writing in the third person, described the passing of one of these men: ”Thank you, madam….I must be marching on.’ So said Lewie as he passed away. Sitting on one side of him was his nurse, Miss Alcott, on the other side the matron [Ropes]….There was in the man such a calm consciousness of life, such repose in its secure strength….The matron is left alone when the breath ceases.’ A few weeks later, Ropes died of typhoid fever, the same disease that had shortened Alcott’s nursing service.
Sometimes caring for the war wounded became a family undertaking. In New York, Jane Newton Woolsey, widow of a prominent industrialist, quickly rallied her six daughters to the cause. Georgeanna (‘Georgy’), Eliza and Jane became nurses, while the others made supplies. The Woolsey home near the Brevoort House Hotel be-came a center for preparing supplies and distributing them to Union hospitals.
In 1861 Georgy Woolsey was among the first women to be accepted for nurse’s training and assigned to duty by Dorothea Dix. By September of that year, Georgy and Eliza were serving in a makeshift hospital in an unfinished government building. Georgy described how they used rough wood scaffolding for beds, with as many as six men in each one. The beds were so high that long broom handles had to be used to support them. Very sick men were given individual beds on piles of marble slabs originally intended for building construction. Until further work was done on the building, pulleys raised food and water to the ersatz hospital’s upper floors.
The three sisters served in numerous capacities, both in hospitals and on military hospital transport ships. Jane and Georgy were assistant superintendents of the U.S. Army hospital at Portsmouth Grove, R.I. The two also served at Hammond General Hospital. They were paid $12 a month and immediately returned the compensation to the surgeon-in-charge to purchase items for the patients. Eliza returned to private life when her husband, Colonel Joseph Howland, was wounded and mustered out of service.
Like Hannah Ropes, the three Woolsey women used their prominent social position to obtain prodigious amounts of supplies and other necessities for the wounded. At one point, Georgy personally delivered to the White House a letter she had written to President Lincoln, imploring him to send chaplains to the military hospitals. He promptly named seven new chaplains.
Georgy was noted for her cool demeanor, in times of emergency. Jane wrote of her: ‘There was never a critical case in the hospital on which Georgy’s intelligence was not brought to bear in some shape.’ Ever alert for ways to make patients more comfortable and their care more efficient, she kept her apron pockets filled with forks, spoons, corkscrews and other useful items. Both sisters carried notebooks in which they re-corded individual patient needs and wishes. Georgy carefully noted the names and addresses of the dying for later use in returning their possessions to their families.
Both Jane and Georgy Woolsey depicted wartime hospital life in sensitive and enduring writings. Jane’s book, Hospital Days, published in 1868, enjoyed wide readership. In it she quotes an unnamed officer’s view of the Civil War nurse: ‘She may be totally impervious to ideas of order; she may love ‘hugger-mugger’ and hand-to-mouth ways of getting at direct objects; she may hopelessly muddle the ward returns, and interchange sentiment with the most obnoxious of the stewards, but she will cheerfully sacrifice time, ease, and health to the wants or whims of a wounded man.’
After the war, Georgy Woolsey assisted in establishing the Connecticut Training School for Nurses in New Haven. She also wrote a nursing handbook that was only the second of its kind to be published in the United States. Jane and another sister, Abby, played pioneer roles in developing enlightened methods of nursing in civilian hospitals.
Among the church leaders who answered the humanitarian call during the war, none responded with more fervor or professional gifts than Mother Angela (Eliza Maria Gillespie), founder of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The daughter of a respected Pennsylvania attorney and landowner, she numbered General Sherman, a senator, and an assortment of other leaders among her relatives. When war broke out, she was the director of St. Mary’s Academy at Notre Dame University.
Early in the conflict, when General Grant sent a plea for nurses to Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, Mother Angela left immediately with a group of sisters. Grant later described her to Sherman as ‘a woman of rare charm of manner, unusual ability, and exceptional executive talents.’
The sisters were first sent to Paducah, Ky., where the surgeons initially received them coolly. The doctors, however, soon came to appreciate both the useful services the women were performing and the military precision with which Mother Angela organized them.
The demoralizing hospital diet of rancid pork and stale bread was quickly replaced by rice, eggs, milk and chicken that Mother Angela procured and prepared herself. At one point, she had 60 nuns helping her care for 1,400 men at Mound City, which was regarded as the best military hospital in the country at the time.
Mother Angela employed her family connections and social skills to obtain supplies where even high-ranking military officers failed. William H. Osborn, president of the Illinois Central Railroad, gave her food, wine and free passes for wounded men who were being sent home. Asked by Secretary of War Cameron to take charge of a hospital at Cairo, she charmed representatives of various commissions and aid societies into backing her efforts. On one occasion, she entertained a weary visitor with tea brewed on her single, makeshift burner and served in a tin cup. Upon returning home, he sent her a six-burner stove and other supplies on the next train.
True to her faith, Mother Angela served Union and Confederate soldiers with equal devotion. Once, a seriously wounded Confederate officer was brought to Mound City. When word got around, an angry mob stormed the hospital, determined to drag the officer out and execute him. But Mother Angela stood over his bed and refused to leave until the Confederate had been guaranteed safe passage home. In September 1862, Mother Angela returned to St. Mary’s Academy, assured that the soldiers’ needs would be met from other sources.
Harriet Tubman was best known among the many blacks who rendered distinguished service as Civil War nurses. Famed for her courageous exploits with the Underground Railroad, she was admired by many leaders of the time, including Secretary of State William Seward and New England poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Early in the war, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew asked Tubman to help nurse in the military camps. She moved from one camp to another throughout the war, using her nursing skills and extensive knowledge of the healing properties of roots and herbs. Tubman rarely accepted the military rations that were offered to her, preferring to support herself by making baked goods and selling them in the camps. She gave any extra money to the freedmen who often sought refuge in the camps. Late in life, she was awarded a military pension, and when she died in 1913, she was given a military funeral.
A record of Civil War nursing from the black viewpoint was left by Susie King Taylor in her Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. Taylor was born a slave on the Isle of Wight near Savannah, Ga. In adolescence she learned to read and write at a clandestine school run by a free black woman. Marrying Edward King, she followed him when he joined the Union Army’s first black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. In camp she nursed the wounded, did laundry, cooked and taught the men literacy skills.
Taylor became a protege of Clara Barton, who often took her along on hospital rounds. Taylor admired Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, whom she described as ‘kind and devoted to his men’ and ‘a genial presence.’ In her book she also recalled Colonel C.T. Trowbridge. ‘He was the very first officer to take charge of black soldiers,’ she wrote. ‘We thought there was no one like him, for he was a ‘man’ among his soldiers….I shall never forget his friendship and kindness toward me….No officer in the army was ever more beloved.’
Taylor’s book is filled with details of camp hospital life. She recalled making custard of milk and turtle eggs for the wounded in a camp on Morris Island, and she described warming her tent at night with an iron frying pan full of coals from the cook shed. She noted that fleas often kept her awake all night.
Taylor served for four years and three months in Union Army hospitals without receiving either pay or a formal appointment. After the war, she was granted no government pension or recognition for her nursing services. Still, she wrote, ‘I was glad…to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.’
Taylor summed up the attitude of volunteer Civil War nurses of both races when she observed: ‘It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war,–how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder, and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.’
The nurses of the Civil War left a heritage far beyond a country’s gratitude for bodies salvaged and spirits renewed. Observing the difference they had made, both the public and the medical community finally came to recognize nursing as a legitimate profession. Women such as the Woolseys and Clara Barton translated their experience in Civil War hospitals into reforms in both nursing science and the education of nurses. As Jane Woolsey noted in Hospital Days, ‘It has been a tiresome march, but think of the results.’
This article was written by Alice P. Stein and originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.