At the outbreak of the Civil War, nursing was not considered an appropriate activity for women. Most people believed that women were too weak and uneducated to endure the demands of working in a hospital.
In spite of this social prejudice, over 15,000 women traveled to hospitals and battlefields to volunteer as nurses during the Civil War. At the time, there were no nursing schools, so these women went into the field without training. They endured cruel treatment from male doctors and surgeons who hoped to discourage them.
Civil War nurses were responsible for duties far beyond the care of their patients’ bodies. They helped wounded and dying soldiers write letters home to their families. They talked to patients about physical and mental battlefield traumas, including the loss of limbs. They taught soldiers how to adapt to the physical limitations caused by their wounds. And they comforted the dying, making their passing as peaceful as possible. They performed these duties in addition to the laundering, sewing, and general housekeeping that was expected of all women regardless of the circumstances they found themselves in.
By the war’s end, these brave pioneers had overcome some of society’s biases and established nursing as a new career for women.
These four sources illustrate the experiences of nurses during the Civil War. The photograph demonstrates the practical and somber clothing that all nurses were required to wear. The Currier and Ives print shows how the public attitude toward female nurses had shifted by mid-war from general disdain to something closer to hero worship. Sarah Blunt’s letter highlights the fact that communicable diseases were the most dangerous threat to the lives of soldiers and nurses. The excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches recounts the first time the author encountered wounded troops straight from the battlefield.