Sunday, August 19, 2012

Medicine in the Civil War: Part Two - Nurses

Nursing during the Civil War started out as a duty done by less sick soldiers in hospitals. Eventually women who were inspired by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War came to hospitals to cheer up troops, and became nurses. This allowed soldiers to go back to the front faster, and concentrate on healing. On top of caring for soldiers nurses also helped entertain, assist in surgery, administer medicine, write letters home for those who could not, and search for supplies.

Before female nurses were allowed in hospitals, young women who lived near the hospitals would visit to help care for and entertain the wounded. They would bring food, alcohol, and flowers. They would also play the piano, sing, and read poetry. This was frequently done on Sunday. After the war had been going on for a while female nurses were more accepted, and recruited so male nurses could return to fight in the war. The nursing service had women from all parts of society.

Dorothea Dix was working as a copy clerk for the U.S. government in Washington D.C. in1862, when she noticed how bad the military hospitals were. She took it upon herself to walk into the office of Acting Surgeon General R. C. Wood and tell him that the War Department did not have adequate resources to treat its soldiers. There were only a few surgeons, not enough nurses -- which meant that soldiers were filling the nursing role -- and no permanent hospitals. She asked to put together a female nursing corps of volunteers under the War Department. She sought the help of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell to do this. She hoped to keep romance out of the army, so her requirements for nurses were very strict. Her requirements, which were published as an article in the Sandusky Register, included: only plain looking women over the age of thirty could apply, married ladies preferred; dresses must be brown or black; women’s clothing could not have any jewelry, and their hair could not have bows or curls; women could not wear hoop skirts. This was because hoops were cumbersome, and made movement in narrow wards difficult. The ban on hoop skirts was even published in the Sandusky Register as an order from the government.

Nursing was not yet a profession and most who took the role learned as they worked. Convalescent soldiers usually filled the role, before women were allowed to work as nurses. Ill soldiers were expected to take care of each other. Only wounded had special treatment from medical staff at the beginning of the war. Many women followed their male family members into service, and then by accident became nurses. Nuns were also nurses. Some doctors liked them the best because they did not question the doctor’s authority. Women nurses were also sought out when it was discovered that a soldier was a woman and she needed treatment.

Female nurses were new in the military. The position was open to any women no matter their class, although upper class women were looked down on if they became nurses. Nursing duties included administering medicine, distributing special diets ordered by the doctor, writing letters, and attending to visitors. In cases where a soldier was dying and he was alone, they would sometimes pretend to be the dying soldier’s relative to make him feel better. Another thing nurses did to make things easier was to fill out a card with the patient’s information and attached it to the head of the patient’s bed for staff to read.

Opponents to female nurses said that they were too weak to help. The strongest of these critics were male doctors. Nurses had to care for wounded not just in hospitals, but in tents, caves, under trees, in fields and in barns. Nurses would go out while the battle was still occurring to take care of the men. After battles the wounded would lie close together for miles. Clara Barton said, “The wounded laid so close it was impossible to move about in the dark. The slightest misstep brought a torrent of groans from some poor mangled fellow in your path.” This was her experience, and men thought that at the sight of such things women would faint. They were wrong.

Female nurses received twelve dollars a month while their male counterparts received twenty. Female nurses were well aware of the difference. Pay was not just an issue for nurses. Doctors had problems receiving their pay also. It would sometimes take months. In June of 1861, Dr. McMeens wrote a letter to the Register. In the letter, he stated that he had been in the Army for two months and had not been paid yet. He then went on to ask his patients who owed him money to pay his wife. They could pay the entire bill or only part of it.

Nurses, because they were so close to patients, could often discover things about the patient that the doctor had missed. This occurred to one local soldier who had received a scalp wound in battle. He said, “She (the nurse) had been engaged in washing the blood from my head and face when she discovered that what had seemed on a superficial view to be the most desperate wound of the head, including the skull was but a mere scalp wound which bled profusely and doubtless made a most unpromising case for surgery at first view.” Cases like this were common. Sometimes because of the circumstances of the war and the way medicine was practiced at the time, things were overlooked and people were not treated properly.

Nurses also served an important function in letter writing. They would write for soldiers who could not. They would also write letters trying to find information about soldiers. One such letter appeared in the Sandusky Register in June of 1863. Sarah L. Porter wrote a letter about a soldier named Joseph Cramer who was in her care at a hospital in Washington D.C. She could not get much information from him before he died, except that he was from Sandusky. After his death, she wrote a letter to the Postmaster of Sandusky, and it was published in the paper. She asked that his friends and family contact her. Medical professionals did this so that personal belongings of soldiers could be sent home, and so people could get closure.

The author Louisa May Alcott was a nurse during the Civil War. Not only did she recount her experiences in a book, she also wrote for newspapers. One article that appeared in the Boston Commonwealth was reprinted in the Sandusky paper. It recounted the story of a soldier who was sick and dying. He had her write a letter to his mother for him, and the article also talked about how his comrades who were in the hospital could not stand to see him die. This article also gave an impression about how female nurses were treated.

As stated before, a lot of soldiers in the hospital were sick, not wounded. Alcott noted in her book Hospital Sketches, “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 typhoid’s opposite.” Typhoid was one of the more prominent illnesses. Treatment for it was quinine, whiskey, and turpentine. Sometimes all nurses could do was comfort the patient.

By the end of the war, women had helped heal the sick and inspired soldiers to fight. They applied for pensions, and some received medals. Many published their memoirs. Some even went on to start the campaign for women’s rights and the right to vote. The Civil War was a starting point for women to move towards equality.


holly said...

Thank you for a fascinating article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well done.

Jen Baumeister Beatty said...

A fantastic book on this topic is I am Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. Excellent Read.