Female Nurses of the Civil War
By: Britta Arendt




"You have given your boys to die for their country;
now you can give your girls to nurse them."

(Nurse Mary Stinebaugh to her father in 1863)

Some historians believe that somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 women volunteered their services as nurses throughout the duration of the Civil War, the majority of them being from northern states. However, such an estimate is questionable due to the fact that several nurses, upon receiving appointments, refused to have their names recorded in the official books. Mrs. M. J. Boston once said to the surgeon she was working under, "I do not want any pay for my services. I only try to do all I can for the soldiers." Other women who made similar decisions found it even more difficult to collect pensions later in their lives. With the lack of documentation, it is nearly impossible to claim the exact number of women who performed duty as nurses. Yet, we do know that their work was greatly appreciated by the men they cared for. John G. B. Adams, once the National Commander of the G.A.R., expressed that the memory of these nurses "will ever live in the hearts of the veterans they nursed with such tender care."

Although this web site will never reach completion, I have attempted to revive the memory of the female nurses, both northern and southern, by providing accurate information on the work they accomplished. Because this is a work in progress, please feel free to email me with any questions, comments, or concerns. My goal is only to preserve the legacy of these nurses so they may not be forgotten.

Who They Were

"Women's Meeting at Cooper Union Hall, Cooper Institute, New York City, to organize the 'Woman's Central Association of Relief' for the Army," from Harper's Weekly. Any of these women could have become nurses.
(From the collection of Shaun Greenan)

"And who were they all? -- They were many, my men:
Their record was kept by no tabular pen:
They exist in traditions from father to son.
Who recalls, in dim memory, now here and there one. --
A few names were writ, and by chance live to-day;
But's a perishing fast fading away."

(from "The Women Who Went To The War" by Clara Barton)

Although we may never be able to document every female nurse who served during the Civil War, we can make a few generalizations regarding who they were. For the most part, they came from comfortable, middle class families. The majority of these women were well educated. They were "old stock" Americans, many claiming to be descendents of Revolutionary War veterans. Few nurses were of foreign birth, except for many of the Catholic Sisterhoods who also volunteered their services. Similarly, the accounts of female African-American nurses have been greatly neglected. However, individuals such as Harriet Tubman and Susie King Taylor have been well documented cases of black nurses. Regardless of their backgrounds, these women were all swept up in the patriotic fervor that followed the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Just like the men around the country, women also desired to show their support for the War.

Nursing the sick and wounded was one way for women to prove themselves during the War. Most of them volunteered their services, not always expecting to be paid for their work. Others were sent by state agencies or aid societies. Many in the northern states were assigned by the Superintendent of Nurses, Dorothea Dix. Others, yet, followed their husbands, fathers, or sons into the army. Some women were not necessarily recognized as nurses even though they performed similar duties. Selener Richards, for example, was awarded the title of superintendent of the Diet Kitchen. Marie Tepe was the vivandiere of the 27th and later the 114th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, but she also worked at the field hospitals following the battles in which her regiment was engaged.

Even though Dorothea Dix required that her nurses be over 30 years of age, we find a few instances of younger women working under her supervision or finding appointments in other manners in the North. It has been documented that Dix assigned women to positions who were much younger than 30, especially towards the end of the War when help was greatly needed. Elizabeth C. Perkins was able to follow the 11th Maine Vols. Inf. as a nurse even though she was only 22 years old due to her strong "character" and "reliability," in Dix's words. In the South, there were no strict age requirements for female nurses. Therefore, the ages of nurses ranged greatly in the North and South - from young teenage women to more mature adults. On the one hand, Annie Etheridge was merely 17 years old when she attached herself to the 2nd Michigan Vols. Inf. as a nurse. Abigail H. Gibbons, on the other hand, left her work in New York City at the age of 60 to volunteer in the hospitals near Washington when the War started. For the most part, though, nurses seemed to be between their late 20s and early 40s, many having been married as well.

As we have seen, the female nurses of the Civil War were not a superior breed of being. They were average but strong willed women who wanted to make a difference despite the societal rules which reigned over their lives. By becoming nurses, they left their marks on American history.


What They Did

"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."
(Clara Barton)

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.

Armory Square Hospital, Washington DC
(Courtesy of Library of Congress)

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 sensitive. 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.

Camp Letterman, Gettysburg
(Courtesy of USAHMI)

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.

How They Dressed

Nurse Marsh is wearing a typical dark colored dress and white apron
(Courtesy of Mass. MOLLUS)

"It seems heartless to see women caring for curls and colors."
(Nurse Sarah Palmer, "the worst dressed woman in the whole army")

When Dorothea Dix assigned northern women as nurses, she placed restrictions on their type of dress. "All nurses are required to be plain looking women," she stated. "Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop-skirts." However, for many murses of the North or South, such regulations were not significant. As the War progressed, female nurses learned to adapt their clothing to the conditions at hand. Dresses were often dark in color, either solid or patterned, so that filth and other stains would not easily be seen. These dresses were also primarily constructed of cotton fabric, which could easily be washed when soiled. Cage crinolines were almost never worn because they got in the way of work, so petticoats were worn instead. Hospital aisles were so narrow that women's hoops could not fit between them. Jane Grey Swisshelm once recounted an event in which another woman wearing a cage crinoline proceeded to walk down one of the aisles of hospital cots. She passed a soldier who was cautioned by the Surgeon in Charge to remain "in absolute stillness" unless he wished his wound to tear open. The woman caught her hoop on the cot the soldier was lying on, the sudden jolt opening his wound and causing him to soon die from the loss of blood.

Two views of the same dress, worn by Mrs. Beach during her service as a nurse. This is a typical work dress made of cotton with a calico print. Notice the blood stains on the fabric, all of which have been tested positive for human blood.
(From the collection of Mr. Synnamon, owner of The Union Drummer Boy in Gettysburg, PA; Photographs courtesy of the Webmaster and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD)

The range of garments worn by female nurses varied greatly. The Catholic Sisters wore their traditional black habits (although, the Sisters of Charity wore blue habits). Georgeanna Woolsey favored a zouave jacket, blouse, and skirt rather than a dress with a fitted bodice, because the jacket gave her "free motion to the arms." Katherine Wormeley believed flannel shirts were the most comfortable garments to wear when on duty. Nurses from the Portsmouth General Hospital in Rhode Island devised their own uniform "consisting of a skirt of blue army flannel, a zouave jacket lined with red with gilt United States buttons, and a round hat and cavalry gloves." Amanda Farnham was known to wear the "Rational Dress" or "Bloomer Costume" when she worked, consisting of "full pants buttoning over the tops of her boots, skirts falling a little below the knee, and a jacket with tight sleeves." We must understand, however, that generally these forms of dress were not frequently worn by nurses.

Notice the contrast in clothing between the Sister of Charity and the nurse wearing the "Bloomer Costume"
(Courtesy of Our Army Nurses)

The most common style of nurse attire was nicely illustrated in an 1862 article written for the Chicago Times. It expressed that "[t]hey [nurses] seem imbued . . . with the idea that there is nobody to look at them, and the customary attire is a faded calico loose gown, straight from top to bottom, ignoring waist and personifying the theory of the shirt on a bean-pole." Nevertheless, such dress made work for the nurses much easier to accomplish. An apron (either white or patterned), work shoes, and sometimes a bonnet of some sort, usually completed the outfit. The hair was then tied back, most likely into a bun at the nape of the neck, and a few even held their hair back in a dark hairnet (although this was not as common). However the nurse wore her hair or clothed herself was adapted only so she could conduct her tasks in the most efficient manner.

Unlike how this Barbie is dressed, the real Civil War nurses would never have worn such attire!
(from the Webmaster's collection)