Tuesday, August 3, 2010

KILLED BY THE CURE: CIVIL WAR MEDICINE, PT. IV

XI. Nuns as Nurses

One female volunteer nurse noted that the plain, unornamented dresses she was required to wear “caused most people to mistake me for a nun.” Some of the women who volunteered to serve as nurses actually were nuns, including 300 Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (1/3 of the order’s total membership at the time).

XII. Employment Status of Female Nurses

By war’s end, at least 5,000 women had volunteered to serve as nurses in Union Army hospitals. Nurses served in one of these ways:

1. As paid volunteers arranged on the local level.
2. As unpaid volunteers arranged on the local level.
3. Wives and daughters of medical personnel sometimes served as nurses, without pay but drawing daily rations from the Union Army.
4. Female relatives of wounded men sometimes stayed on after their relative recovered or passed on, having no formal assignment but helping out as needed.
5. As employees of State agencies or aid societies like the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
6. As nurses specifically assigned to a hospital by the Superintendent of Female Nurses.

XIII. Famous Civil War Nurses

Two of the most famous Civil War nurses, Clara Barton and Mary “Mother” Bickerdyke, began their service as volunteer nurses without official government appointments. When someone asked Mother Bickerdyke by whose authority she served, she replied that she had “received my commission from Almighty God.” Since nobody chose to question His authority, she was allowed to continue her work. During the war she was formally commended by General Sherman for her tireless efforts to aid injured soldiers. Miss Barton became famous for her post-war efforts to help people find missing soldiers.

XIV. Civil War Nurses- Postwar Experiences

Much is made of the liberating effect employment in World War II industries had on American women, but little is made of the liberating effect that employment as Civil War nurses had on women North and South. Women who worked as nurses experienced freedoms and responsibilities many had never encountered in their pre-war occupations. Once the war ended, their brushes with the outside world were not easily forgotten. Many such women later played important parts in the women’s suffrage movement.

Tom Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library
1301 Olive Street
St. Louis, MO 63103

Copyright © 2009 by St. Louis Public Library.

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