Four primary sources that illustrate the experiences of women nurses during the Civil War.

Civil War nurse and soldier.

Frank L. Keyes, wounded soldier, and unidentified woman, 1862. New-York Historical Society Library.

The Night after the Battle, 1863.

Currier & Ives, The Night after the Battle, 1863. Jay T. Last Collection. The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, priJLC_MIL_000941.

Letter home from nurse Sarah Blunt, 1863.

Letter home from Sarah Blunt written from Point Lookout, Maryland, May 11, 1863. New-York Historical Society Library.

Document Text


Island Hospital, Harper’s Ferry, VA.
March 11, 1865
My dear Mother,
You see I write to you very often and so keep you posted up as to what we are doing. Tonight I am rather lonely. Mrs. de Grindle being very unwell the other two young ladies are over in their wards. So I am quite alone for a little while. I am lonely tonight. Mrs. De Grindle is sick, and the other girls who live here are working at the hospital.
There is hardly a day passed but what there is a death here sometimes several. One poor fellow died yesterday, such a handsome, bright boy. Apparently with the strongest of constitutions. That dreadful fever typhoid and pneumonia takes off so many of the poor fellows. Every day a soldier dies at the hospital. Sometimes many die in one day. Yesterday a handsome, bright soldier died even though he had a strong body. The poor soldiers are being killed by diseases like typhoid and pneumonia.
I cannot tell you how thankful I am to be able to relieve the poor fellows. You must try and feel so too and be glad that I was formed for some use in this world. . . . I am so glad I can help these poor soldiers. You must try and be glad too. . . .

Letter home from Sarah Blunt written from Point Lookout, transcription, Maryland, May 11, 1863. New-York Historical Society Library.

Document Text

The first thing I met was a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted the human nose, and took it by storm. Cologne, with its seven and seventy evil savors, was a posy-bed to it; and the worst of this affliction was, every one had assured me that it was a chronic weakness of all hospitals, and I must bear it. I did, armed with lavender water, with which I so besprinkled myself and premises, that, like my friend Sairy, I was soon known among my patients as “the nurse with the bottle.” Having been run over by three excited surgeons, bumped against by migratory coal-hods, water-pails, and small boys, nearly scalded by an avalanche of newly-filled tea-pots, and hopelessly entangled in a knot of colored sisters coming to wash, I progressed by slow stages up stairs and down, till the main hall was reached, and I paused to take breath and a survey. There they were! “Our brave boys,” as the papers justly call them, for cowards could hardly have been so riddled with shot and shell, so torn and shattered, nor have borne suffering for which we have no name, with an uncomplaining fortitude, which made one glad to cherish each as a brother. In they came, some on stretchers, some in men’s arms, some feebly staggering along propped on rude crutches, and one lay stark and still with covered face, as a comrade gave his name to be recorded before they carried him away to the dead house. All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till duly ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and door-ways filled with helpers and lookers on; the sound of many feet and voices made that usually quiet hour as noisy as noon; and, in the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.
The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather “a hard road to travel” just then. The house had been a hotel before hospitals were needed, and many of the doors still bore their old names; some not so inappropriate as might be imagined, for my ward was in truth a ball-room, if gun-shot wounds could christen it. Forty beds were prepared, many already tenanted by tired men who fell down anywhere, and drowsed till the smell of food roused them. Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw—ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat, more plainly than any telegram of the Burnside blunder. I pitied them so much, I dared not speak to them, though, remembering all they had been through since the rout at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all.

Excerpt from Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches (Boston: James Redpath, 1863). New-York Historical Society. Pg. 33-35.