During the American Civil War, nurses were rare and were often looked down upon as “unladylike” and unbecoming of a woman. At first, people found it awkward that women would tend to men who had been beaten up or shot during a battle. Eventually, things became typical, with many women becoming skilled at treating battle wounds and even amputating limbs, earning them the nickname of “angels of mercy.”
Due to the efforts of nurses like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, thousands of lives were saved, and the public came to appreciate the hardships that nurses go through daily.
The first women to fight as soldiers during the war were disguised as men and held positions such as nurses, cooks, and sewists. It is unknown how many women like this fought, but some estimate about 400, including Sarah Emma Edmonds, who served for two years in the Union Army posing as Franklin Thompson. Once it was revealed that she was a woman, she was discharged from service (and given back pay).
Many female Civil War soldiers focused more on nursing than anything else but there are documented cases of women fighting alongside their husbands or brothers in arms. With that, many Civil War nurse facts are unknown to the public. Let’s explore them.
Nurse Facts in Civil War
- One such fact is that Dorthea Dix was against women being nurses because she wasn’t one herself. She wanted males to do everything in war, even deliver babies if they were needed. Even though this mentality was corrected during the course of her work, there still exist other facts about her you might find interesting.
- Another nurse fact is that Dorothea Dix had a sister who volunteered as a nurse just like her but died from Typhoid fever before making much of an impact on the field; only having served for 5 months and coming home mostly healed from illness already. Her name was Mary Smith, and unlike most sisters,, they didn’t resemble each other at all (Dorthea was quite short, and Mary was pretty tall).
- Lastly, some people believe that Clara Barton (the founder of the American Red Cross) invented the red cross symbol. This statement is incorrect, though, because this symbol was introduced much before she even joined her first war all the way back in 1859 by a group called the Geneva Convention.
- The only thing she did do was to make it mandatory for medical personnel to wear this sign on their clothing when treating wounded soldiers during wars (it had never been done before, but Barton’s idea was to make them easily visible in battle; something which came in handy later when airplanes were used).
- Most nurses were male during the American Civil War, outnumbering female nurses 4 to 1. This was largely due to American society’s general belief that women were not capable of performing important duties. Because of this, nurses’ facts show that it took a long time before women were truly accepted in the business.
- Another interesting nurse fact that hasn’t been much talked about is that for most of the war surgeons refused to let female nurses attend to them because they believed that women had no place in medicine and only men could do such important work. This meant we’re surgeries were performed by males who were getting exhausted due to lack of sleep and constant fighting (something which usually resulted in reduced medical care and resultingly increased deaths among soldiers).
- It was only during the final years of the American Civil War did this start to change with Dorothea Dix threatening military officials with investigating them unless army hospitals were given enough supplies but mostly forcing male nurses to be replaced by females (she needed female nurses to help her navigate the bureaucratic maze of army bureaucracy which slowed down everything she tried to do).
- Although it took much time for women to have their much-deserved place in society finally, it is undeniable that the American Civil War would have played out differently without these women. We can only hope that looking at these facts will inspire future generations to strive harder so that they too might be able to one day make a difference this way.
- It is estimated that about two thousand women from the North and South served as nurses during the American Civil War; most of them volunteering their services. Because the war lasted for 5 years, these women nurses had to share their time between very long working hours and multiple tours of duty.
- Women Civil War Nurses were also not paid like their male counterparts. These are some of the reasons why women volunteered for work in armies where there were plenty of opportunities (although still more limited than men’s) to find more rewarding jobs; some of these high paying opportunities were very close to battlefronts while the rest didn’t require too much physical strength (something that was needed during war but something which hindered them getting these types of jobs afterward, mostly because they had small dangerous-looking hands).
- During early years of war, many nurses were forced to get this job due to lack of other employment alternatives, but soon enough it became apparent that also helping wounded soldiers weren’t just physically strenuous but emotionally draining as well. Even though most people think about these women back then as angels (because of the charitable nature of their work), it is undeniable that they met with very harsh criticism (most of the time from people who never had to go any war themselves where there are far worse things than being an administrator).
- Many women turned out to be excellent nurses, working under some of the harshest conditions known during those days. They were often required to travel long distances on foot or by carriage, through mud and over rough terrain just so they could get first-hand medical supplies directly from battlefields themselves. These nurses’ facts show that female casualties were unsurprisingly high due to frequent onslaughts on them by Confederate soldiers.
- One interesting fact about these brave women was that even though many didn’t have much formal medical training, many still managed to save countless lives with their quick thinking and medical supplies (and what they knew were only common sense and basic first aid training). These women (and often nurses from the opposite sides of the conflict) became best friends; many even worked together to improve conditions for everyone.
- The Union army alone employed about 3,000 female nurses during American Civil War. In 1862, Dorothea Dix became Superintendent of Army Nurses as a social reformer who cared more about the welfare of those under her care than she did, being a stern boss making sure everything went by rules. She had a big impact on reducing restraints usage in asylums and significantly improved existing conditions there.
List of Famous American Civil War Nurses
Many nurses served in the civil war, but not everyone became famous. But these ones made the cut:
Clara Barton is perhaps the most famous Civil War nurse. She was present at many battles of the war, including battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and more. At first, she ran a soup kitchen for sick and wounded soldiers but later became an official nurse.
She also helped distribute supplies to hospitals inspected by Emma E. Edmonds, who had disguised herself as a man so that no one would know about her gender. For more facts about Clara Barton, click here!
Dorothea Lynde Dix
This woman must have gone through hell to accomplish what she did during the Civil War times! She was actually originally hired by the Federal Government as superintendent of women nurses, but soon she realized that this job didn’t provide enough money or freedom to make proper changes in the army medical care system. So she went to Washington, argued with officials, and even threatened to shoot anyone who tried to stop her from doing her job. As a result, she ended up being appointed as Superintendent of Army Nurses.
Mary Ann Bickerdyke
Mary had only 3 years of formal education, but that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most influential nurses during Civil War times. Upon request of General William Tecumseh Sherman,, she was given command of all nursing services for military hospitals in St Louis, which were left behind when Union troops moved on the campaign. She proved so efficient at this job that many called her “Mother” or “General”. This nickname became so popular that she eventually adopted it herself!
Annie Etheridge was a member of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. She was often very close to the fights because she helped transport the wounded. Etheridge was also known for giving medical supplies to both Union and Confederate soldiers who required help.
Ending Thoughts on Civil War Nurse Facts:
Usually, wars are not good, but women got the chance to become nurses because of civil war. They helped save the lives of many wounded soldiers and didn’t give up on even one person. All in all, these female nurses were courageous and did their job significantly! Because of war, they could help themselves to gain freedom which was one of their dreams.
Also Check Out:
- The History of the Nursing Profession Goes Beyond Florence Nightingale: A Look at Suzanne Aubert
- Nurse Symbols: The Origin and the History
- Significant Clara Barton Quotes – Angel of the Battlefield