Civil War Nursing

This illustration depicts the different roles women filled during the Civil War.

Nursing During the Civil War as Described by Roberta West in Her Book “History of Nursing in Pennsylvania” published by the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association in c1930

By Jane Early, BSN, RN

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 found little differences in the care of the sick and wounded than during the Revolutionary War. Still lacking was the development of a formal system to provide for the care of the sick and wounded.  However, the civilian populous during this time period had a better knowledge of current events and a greater interest in the affairs of the country.

According to the regulations of the Army medical department, urgent care of the sick and wounded rested with the nurses who were generally allocated from the “ranks.”  The expectation being, in addition to hospital care of the sick and wounded, they were also responsible for other tasks in the camp.  (This writer can only imagine the cross contamination of infected wounds, dysentery, loss of limbs and worse.) As the war between the states escalated in magnitude and suddenness, it became necessary to supplement the staff with volunteer nurses.

Dorthea Dix, well known for her work with the mentally ill and valuable hospital work, offered her services and was appointed as Superintendent of Women Nurses.  Women came from all classes of society and social conditions to offer their services.  Many were the soldiers’ wives and sisters coming to visit, saw a need and were pushed into service.  The pay was $12.00 a month, and some women served without pay.

In addition, ladies’ aid societies soon provided additional assistance with distribution of clothing, comfort for the soldiers, and as the war intensified and lengthened, families as well.  The ladies’ aid societies (which in some cases became Hospital Auxiliaries) provided nursing care, prepared bandages and collected lint.  (Lint- why lint you may ask?) Lint was used as “wadding” for the absorption of bodily fluids. Most lint came from the fabrics of the time, which were natural such as cotton, linen, wool and silk.

In Pennsylvania, several groups organized with the intention of acting as Army nurses when needed and carefully studied Florence Nightingale’s book,  Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is not,  first published in London in 1859.  In 1860, the America’s first edition of  Nightingale’s book was published by D. Appleton and Company, New York.

Post Script: 2013 – 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

To be continued …