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Civil War Nursing

Nurses General Nursing Article   posted

Specializes in pediatrics, occupational health.

The American Red Cross. We have all heard about it, but how did it begin? Where did the roots of American Nursing really take hold? Who were the founders of our great profession? Believe it or not - nursing in America achieved a stronghold during the Civil War. Here are a few interesting tidbits about some people you may have already heard about somewhere along the way...

Civil War Nursing
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Clara Barton

Clara Barton took supplies to battlefronts during the Civil War, and organized teams of volunteers to assist with the overwhelming need to deliver items such as medical treatment, clothing, or food. She encouraged religious affiliations to respond to the need of service men and send trained nurses (nuns) to the field hospitals. She later founded the American Red Cross.

Dorthea Dix

Dorthea Dix was an activist who marched on Washington demanding the recognition of women to act as nurses to care for the Union's wounded soldiers. She was not a nurse but a crusader who was appointed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron to be the superintendent of women nurses that would be assigned to care for the soldiers. Interestingly, she initially required women who would be trained as nurses to be at least 30 years old and 'plain looking'. She denied admission to training to those who belonged to religious sects. All students were denied the luxury of wearing jewelry, bows, and could only wear black or brown clothes. However, as the War took its toll and dragged on, she relaxed her standards - and by the time the Battle of Bull Run happened in 1861, she would accept any woman willing to be trained. Women nurses were paid 40 cents/day plus rations (in 30 days, this is $12.00). Male nurses were paid $20.50/month with great benefits. Dorthea Dix never took off a single day of work in 4 years of service.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott became a nurse - although briefly. She came down with Typhoid Fever soon after entering her service and was actually tended to by Dix, whom she described as "thoughtfully tender as any mother". Louisa had cared for sick and wounded soldiers, and had actually caught her illness from a soldier she cared for, which shortened her service as a nurse.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke

Mary Ann Bickerdyke recently lost both her husband and daughter to an untimely death. She accompanied a shipment of food, clothing, and supplies from her congregation to the military camps. When she saw the poor condition of the hospital, she decided to stay and begin a cleanup effort that spread to five other military hospitals. Dubbed "Mother Bickerdyke", she moved from one place to another in an effort to heal soldiers by cleaning the surroundings, bathing the soldiers for better chances at healing, and feeding them healthy meals. She raided government supplies and begged for food from any possible source in order to feed the wounded.

One night, after a long fought battle, Major General John Logan saw a figure with a lamp crisscrossing the battlefield. He sent an orderly to bring the subject in for questioning. Mother Bickerdyke was introduced to the Major General as the subject and when he questioned her on her agenda, she simply stated that she "could not rest until she was satisfied that no living man remained on the field". She enlisted any person into nursing that she could bribe. She was a former Underground Railroad activist and often sought the help of those she aided in escaping. She fought for fair treatment and taught recruits skills that could be used long after the War was over.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is famous for exploits with the Underground Railroad, but became a distinguished nurse caring for wounded soldiers in the Civil War. She moved from camp to camp using her knowledge of the healing properties of roots and herbs to help heal soldiers. She would rarely accept the rations given to her, but instead supported herself by making and selling baked goods. Any extra money she made would be donated to the freedmen in the military camps. At her death in 1913, she was given a formal military funeral.

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor recorded her memories of Civil War nursing in a book titled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. She was trained by Clara Barton who often took her along on hospital tours. Later in her life, she married a soldier and followed the camps nursing the wounded, doing laundry, cooking, and teaching literacy skills. She recalls a night at camp where she would warm her tent with an iron frying pan full of coals, and of being kept awake all night because of fleas.

Taylor summed up her writings with an insight to the attitude of nurses who volunteered: "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."

...and so it began to take root in our country - this great profession we live and love every day. How far we have come in our skills and our treatment, and how much we have stayed the same in our compassion.

Civil War Nurses

Julie Reyes, DNP, RN

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NurseGirl525, ASN, RN

Specializes in ICU.

This is such a great article. In my microbiology class we had to do a journal from the viewpoint of being a nurse in the Civil War and how we would do aseptic technique. I did a lot of research on Dorthea Dix and she was an incredible woman. All of the things she brought to nursing was incredible. One of the things I did not know was it was men who were initially nurses. It was Dorthea Dix who started with women. We as women have come a long way in nursing and we have all of these wonderful women to thank for it.

Julie Reyes, DNP, RN

Specializes in pediatrics, occupational health.

Thank you! I am a huge history buff! I am always glad to meet another! Thank you for your insight!

Chisca, RN

Specializes in Dialysis.

Nursing in the civil war was largely done by men. Out of neccessity. There were simply too many wounded and sick without any organized system in place to care for them. One of the best was Chimborazo hospital located just outside Richmond which had one of the lowest mortality rates of any facilty during the war. The National Park Service has an excellent museum located on the site.

Chimborazo Hospital - Richmond National Battlefield Park (U.S. National Park Service)

Julie Reyes, DNP, RN

Specializes in pediatrics, occupational health.

Nursing in the civil war was largely done by men. Out of neccessity. There were simply too many wounded and sick without any organized system in place to care for them. One of the best was Chimborazo hospital located just outside Richmond which had one of the lowest mortality rates of any facilty during the war. The National Park Service has an excellent museum located on the site.

Chimborazo Hospital - Richmond National Battlefield Park (U.S. National Park Service)

This is true. Women caring for "strange men" (haha, ok, I am just gong to change that to STRANGERS) was considered bad form - and so soldiers who were injured but well enough to care for others were mostly given the nursing jobs; and women of religious sects (like nuns) were allowed to care for injured/ill soldiers without causing a scandel. However, this is when the women who were nurses became accepted as being "naturally suited" to care for patients and were thus widely accepted by the end of the Civil War.

Great post! Thank you for sharing!

Whispera, MSN, RN

Specializes in psych, addictions, hospice, education.

I read that the symbol for the Red Cross came from the symbol some of the Crusaders wore on their armor. Those were assigned the duty of caring for the wounded...

msn10

Specializes in cardiac, ICU, education.

I would like to add Florence Nightingale to that list. Although not an American nurse, her reforms on sanitation where used in the Civil War by other nurses and doctors.

Brenda F. Johnson, BSN

Specializes in Gastrointestinal Nursing.

Thank you for your interesting article. I love history. Reading the synopsis of these brave and dedicated women is inspiring. It must have been so difficult.

Thank you for helping to expand our knowledge of nursing's roots. I knew about the first three, but not about the others. My but we have come a long way!!

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