Friday, October 06, 2006

Civil War Nurses

In both my young adult novel, Under the Guns, and my current work-in-progress, a time travel romance set during the Civil War, Erin's Rebel, my heroines assume the duties of nurses both on the battlefield and, in the former, a Washington hospital.
At the time of the Civil War, nursing as a profession didn't exist for women. The armies used soldiers, appointed to serve as nurses for their fellow soldiers. It wasn't until the war escalated that women, who wanted to help the war effort of their respective sides, left their homes to nurse the wounded. Women living in towns near where battles were fought volunteered their homes and their nursing abilities. Also laundresses and cooks, already with the armies, were often pressed into service as nurses as needed after a battle.
These nurses had no formal training. Most used the skills they'd obtained caring for family members. Many were married, middle-aged women who either had husbands, sons or both serving in the army.
Sophronia Bucklin was a unusual nurse because she was single and very young at the time she served. She was born in 1846, so would have been only about 15 or 16 when the war started. After the war, she wrote a book of her experiences, In Hospital and Camp, published in 1869.
In a quote from that book: "Could I ever suppress the shuddering that passed over me, as I entered the low wooden house, in which on rude benches lay the cold white corpses of three men? Miss Clark uncovered the face of the man who died last, and told me this story--of the wife and three children in the far West, who were yet to know how it had gone with their soldier. He was wounded in the second battle of Bull Run, and had been under her care for ten days.
"A cloth saturated with blood lay over a bench, and I was wrought upon by sadness of the scene, and the echoing of many groans coming from the wards, that I only desired to hasten away from the dreadful place, and forget that it was man against his brother man, who was causing this awful destruction."
Bucklin, Sophronia E. In Hospital and Camp. Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company, 1869.
In Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches, she relates: "I am free to confess that I had a realizing sense of the fact that my hospital bed was not a bed of roses just then, or the prospect before me one of unmingled raptures. My three days' experiences had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new "nuss", who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn't."
Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath Publishers, 1863.
Adelaide W. Smith was a independent volunteer who offered her services to help in the hospitals. In her book about her experiences, she wrote this dedication.
"To the Boys in Blue 1861-1865; and to those brave women, who, with smiling faces and breaking hearts, sent them forth to save their country and their homes, while they themselves toiled in fields and elsewhere, waiting to welcome home too many who never returned; and to that band of heroic devoted women, many of whom left luxurious homes for the discomforts and privations of hospital life, and died, self-sacrificing patriots of the war, this true story is affectionately dedicated. Adelaide W. Smith."
Smith, Adelaide W. Reminiscences of an Army Nurse during the Civil War. New York: Greaves Publishing Company, 1911.
Source: In Hospital and Camp: The Civil War Through the Eyes of It's Doctors and Nurses by Harold Elk Straubing: Stackpole Books; copyright 1993 ISBN:0-8117-1631-7
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1 comment:

Alice Valdal said...

Wow! Great post. I love it when someone else does my research for me. Isn't the language in those reports wonderful? In our modern world of "txt mssgng" it's balm to the mind to read phrases like "A cloth saturated with blood lay over a bench, and I was wrought upon by sadness of the scene, and the echoing of many groans coming from the wards," Real people did talk like that.
I found this blog at Jennifer Ross's invitation. If you're interested in some other historical tidbits check out my newsletter at
Thanks for the invitation Jennifer, I've bookmarked your page.
Alice V