"The Wounded Zouave in the Hospital at Washington" from Harper's Weekly, 17 August 1861
(Courtesy of the Webmaster's Collection)
"I struggled long and hard with my sense of propriety, with the appalling fact that I was a woman, whispering in one ear, and groans of suffering men, . . . thundering in the other."
Before we can appreciate the work of the Civil War nurse we need to place them within a contextual framework. We must understand that female nurses did not really exist in America at the time. Unfortunately, women during the mid-nineteenth century faced entirely different roles than women do today. Grace Greenwood, in her 1850 book entitled Greenwood Leaves, claimed that "true feminine genius is ever timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood. A true woman shrinks instinctively from greatness." Obviously, Greenwood's views would be opposed by women today even though they were quite common in her lifetime. Imagine the opposition society threw at these women when they first began to volunteer their services. None of them had any training or experience other than personal experience or a few short courses in most cases. The general public believed women would only be a nuisance and get in the way of the doctors. Others worried that women would lose their moral stature and become vulgar beings after becoming associated with the army for a time. Some claimed that young women were attracted to hospitals only with the intentions of finding love. Thus, it is not surprising that throughout the War, female nurses were outnumbered by male nurses 1 to 4.
While general consent asserted that the use of female nurses was absurd, there were a few people who thought the idea would be beneficial. For instance, Henry W. Bellows of the U.S. Sanitary Commission suggested that soldiers would profit greatly from the care of females rather than other males who were not as sensetive. An anonymous writer claimed that a woman's touch could make "all the difference." A letter that was printed in a medical journal at the time stated that if women could not be of any other use in the hospitals, they could at least keep the floors clean.
Regardless of what society thought, women applied to nurse positions by the thousands. Their work was truly significant; all sharing multiple responsibilities and being forced to make critical decisions. Historian, Daniel J. Hoisington asserts that female nurses had three distinct purposes. First, they regulated, prepared, and served patients their meals during their hospital stays. Annie Wittenmyer described the women who occupied such positions as "superintendents of special diet." The surgeons would prescribe each patient either a "full," "half," or "low diet" depending on his status. For instance, the "low diet" was prescribed only to seriously ill or wounded patients and usually consisted of coffee and toast or farina. The nurses' duty was to assure that all patients were fed the correct diet. Second, they also managed the physical needs of patients, including the distribution of linens and clothing or supplies received from the U.S. Sanitary Commission or other aid societies. Finally, and probably most importantly, female nurses cared for the emotional and spiritual needs of the patients. This included a whole range of activities, from daily conversation with patients to writing letters for them or reading to them. The list goes on and on, varying from one nurse to the next depending on her personality. While one nurse might have made a point to sing to the men of her ward every evening, another might have cheered them up by placing flowers by their cots or decorating the wards. In any case, most sources indicate that patients truly appreciated the efforts made by their nurses. The presence of females in the general hospitals lightened the hearts and minds of the soldiers, many not having seen a woman for months on end. For them, female nurses took on the roles of mothers, daughters, or sisters.
Even though female nurses busied themselves with several diverse tasks, they were still discouraged from undertaking other types of work because they were simply women. For example, few nurses were ever present on the actual battlefields. Instead, the majority of nurses were assigned to general hospitals or hospital transports. Some women, such as Clara Barton and Annie Etheridge, did indeed courageously offer their help on the battlefields. Another task that very few women ever participated in was surgery. Louisa May Alcott mentioned in Hospital Sketches that she did not believe many nurses were present during surgeries. However, she did express that it was possible for women to watch some procedures if the surgeon in charge approved. She wrote: "I witnessed several operations . . . Several of my mates shrunk from such things; for though the spirit was wholly willing, the flesh was inconveniently weak." Clara Barton, however, was one of the few women who actually performed an operation. At the Battle of Antietam she removed a minie ball from a wounded soldier's cheek, then cleaned and bandaged the wound. Mary Ellis assisted a surgeon with several surgical procedures following the Battle of Pea Ridge. She wrote: "there was no part of the work of a nurse that I did not do . . . I stood at the surgeon's table, not one or two, but many hours, with the hot blood steaming into my face . . ." It is difficult to determine the percentage of female nurses who were present on battlefields or aided surgeons in operations, but they were exptremely low. Such duties were strictly preserved for their male counterparts.
Copyright 2002 by Britta Arendt