Read an Excerpt
Women at the Front Hospital Workers in Civil War America
By Jane E. Schultz
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 Jane E. Schultz
All right reserved.
Chapter One Women at the Front
Custom inures the most sensitive person to that which is at first most repellent, and in the late war we saw the most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood, become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and the margins of battle-fields, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity, with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower garden. -Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (1873)
A widely reproduced photograph of three women in dark dresses, white aprons, and beehivelike hats has been used by modern historians as evidence that young, uniformed nurses served in military hospitals during the Civil War. In fact, the women were volunteers in a food concession and were dressed in traditional Norman costumes to sell Normandy cakes at an 1864 Sanitary Commission fair in New York. The twentieth-century historian who first identified the photo expected nurses to wear white hats, even though no female relief worker of the Civil War ever wore professional headgear or a uniform.
Historians' misreading of the photograph exemplifies their misreading of the identity and status of female hospital workers in Civil War America. As early as 1866, assessments of women's wartime contributions read like the lives of saints: the war generation held that the women who nursed soldiers were angelic and motivated by Christian sacrifice. After four years of unstinting labor, the story goes, they returned happily to their homes and domestic routines. What the editors of these early commemorative works did not spell out, however, was that the objects of their praise were exclusively white and middle class. Their depiction of sainted, self-sacrificing, and socially respectable women provided psychological penicillin for an ailing and still sectionalized nation. But it led modern historians away from discovering the demographic truth about more than twenty thousand women who served as domestic workers during the Civil War.
As a point of departure, this study does not restrict itself to a single group of relief workers but instead crosses the boundaries of race, region, and class to re-create the vast complexity of the medical world that women and men inhabited. Female hospital workers were as diverse as the population of the United States in 1860: they were adolescent slaves, Catholic sisters, elite slaveholders, free African Americans, abandoned wives, and farm women. Some were mothers and grandmothers, others childless or unmarried. Most served according to inclination, but a few served under chattel obligation. Northerners had been teachers or reformers before the war; mill operatives, seamstresses, or compositors. Among Southerners, we find plantation mistresses and escaped slaves, genteel widows looking for respectable employment, and yeoman women in need of a living wage. Under the idealized banners of patriotism and religious duty, women from fifteen to sixty-five offered their services. The zeal with which young men enlisted in the first year of the war was matched by women seeking hospital positions. Even though the number pursuing positions tapered off in both sections after 1862, civilian women were writing to the surgeons general as late as 1864 to find them hospital situations. The evidence of willing Southern hands is particularly remarkable in light of the low morale in the Confederacy by the summer of 1864, when increasing numbers of Confederate women had begun urging their men to return home.
Picnickers who drove eighteen miles to Manassas on a hot July day in 1861 to watch soldiers fight on Virginia soil little anticipated the horrific spectacle that war is. But they began to understand its seriousness when, looking out of their carriages, they saw bloodied, shoeless young men limping along the road to the capital. In lieu of Union or Confederate plans to provide for incapacitated soldiers-few in 1861 imagined how long the war might last-some of those citizens formed local aid societies for soldiers' relief. Historians have estimated that ten thousand groups mobilized in the first year of the war alone. Societies made virtual factories of homes, schools, and churches by sending food, clothing, and medical supplies to the front. As early as April 1861 an alliance of well-to-do New Yorkers envisioned a national organization devoted to soldiers' welfare. By June the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) was trying to bring local aid societies organized by the Women's Central Association of Relief under its wing. Though "manned" by women in the sense that material aid was the result of their labor, the administrators of the Union's Sanitary Commission were primarily men. An early national example of centralized bureaucracy, the commission would distribute over $15 million in supplies, marshal a force of paid relief agents numbering in the hundreds, and work independently of the Union surgeon general's appointment of civilian workers. Not as large but equally ambitious was the U.S. Christian Commission (USCC), established in November 1861 at a meeting of the Young Men's Christian Association, for the purpose of promoting the soldier's "spiritual good" along with his "social and physical comfort." Motivated by an evangelical mission, the USCC distributed hundreds of thousands of Bibles and millions of pages of religious tracts in the hope of returning the errant soldier to the flock. By war's end, it had collected over $3.5 million in aid and organized over 4,800 volunteers.
The Confederate government did not centralize relief efforts until 1862. Where states' rights had constituted an integral part of prewar politics, state relief organizations and individuals took the lead in caring for soldiers. The largesse of prominent Southern citizens, like Alabama's Juliet Opie Hopkins, Arkansas' Ella Newsom, North Carolina's Catherine Gibbon, and Florida's Mary Smith Reid, established state hospitals near the scene of fighting. Governors also relied on ladies' aid societies to manufacture socks, shirts, and "hospital suits" for soldiers from their home states. Newspapers in Charleston and Richmond regularly reported their charitable contributions for hospitalized soldiers and for troops at the front. Judging from the early success of the South Carolina and Alabama hospitals in Charlottesville and Richmond, the state was a productive locus of organization and distribution. After 1862 the Confederate Congress authorized a more centralized relief system, but not on the public-private model of collaboration instituted in the North. The Women's Relief Society of the Confederate States-begun by Nashville's Felicia Grundy Porter in 1864-came closest to a Southern sanitary commission, but it received no aid from the flagging Confederate treasury. Historians have argued that the Confederate government's takeover of citizen-sponsored relief early in the war effectively shut women out of the general hospitals. But by virtue of their proximity to battlefields, Southern women could scarcely avoid providing relief to the sick and wounded.
Women began volunteering for hospital work before the medical departments of either section had adequately assessed the magnitude of their task. Besieged by applicants as soon as Fort Sumter was fired on, the Union's Acting Surgeon General R. C. Wood appointed fifty-nine-year-old Dorothea Dix to supervise the appointment of female nurses in May 1861 soon after Federal troops seized Alexandria and Newport News, and began blockading strategic Southern ports. Nationally recognized for humanitarian work in asylum and prison reform, Dix established the Office of Army Nurses and generated guidelines for the selection of nurses. By October 1863, after the enormous loss of life at Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, Surgeon General William Hammond authorized all U.S. surgeons to appoint female attendants, which circumvented Dix's power. In reality, few surgeons or sanitary commissioners ever acknowledged Dix's authority and her power was ineffectual from the war's first year.
The superintendent ultimately appointed over three thousand nurses. Her selection standards were stringent, and she turned away many able applicants. Dix stipulated that only women between thirty-five and fifty were eligible and that "matronly persons of experience, good conduct, or superior education and serious disposition will have preference." She listed "neatness, order, sobriety, and industry" as prerequisites. Applicants were expected to produce two letters of reference testifying to their "morality, integrity, seriousness, and capacity for the care of the sick" and to "dress plain ... while connected with the service, without ornaments of any sort." Dix's drab dress code and her preference for middle-aged matrons were meant to discourage thrill seekers from applying. Civilian and military officials feared what might happen to young women in hospitals filled with eager young men; wary of public opinion, Dix did what she could to head off potential romances. In one Washington-area hospital, for example, female workers were not even allowed to stroll the grounds without permission.
Women whose applications had been rejected were persistent in finding ways to serve. New York's Jane Woolsey reported that her sister Georgeanna and a cousin "earnestly wish[ed] to join the Nurse Corps, but [were] under the required age," adding that she knew of women falsifying their ages to gain entry. Though Dix turned them down, the Woolseys' social connections paid off: the Sanitary Commission put Georgeanna, cousin Eliza, and the wife of George Templeton Strong-all elite women-to work on its fleet of hospital ships while Generals George McClellan and Joseph Johnston amassed troops on the Peninsula in 1862. The less well-connected Fanny Titus-Hazen, of Vermont, whose petition was rejected by the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, packed her bags for Washington anyway. Armed with letters of reference, the twenty-three-year-old found leniency because, she reported, Dix "believe[d] [her] heart [was] in the work." New Jersey's Cornelia Hancock, also twenty-three, and twenty-eight-year-old Esther Hill Hawks of New Hampshire thought that Dix had turned them down because of their good looks. Trained at the New England Female Medical College in the 1850s, Hawks spent the summer of 1861 seeking medical employment in Washington. Finding none, she returned to Manchester in December and took over her husband's medical practice. Ten months later she joined him on the Sea Islands, where he was serving the Union army as a plantation superintendent. There Hawks practiced among the predominantly black soldiers and residents of the islands, convinced that military officials, at best uninterested in people of color, looked the other way. Hancock traveled to Gettysburg just two days after the battle under the protection of her surgeon brother-in-law; the need for helping hands was so great in the town of only 2,400 that she was pressed into service with no questions asked.
For African American women who wished to serve, there were other obstacles. No matter what their class or educational attainments, free black women encountered resistance. In August 1862 twenty-five-year-old Charlotte Forten sought a position in the Sea Islands. Daughter of a prominent abolitionist family established in Philadelphia since the eighteenth century, Forten was turned away at the door by the Port Royal Relief Association of Boston. Told that the clerks were "all out of town," Forten determined to press on: she submitted a second application to the Philadelphia Port Royal Relief Association and was accepted. Forten's position as teacher and relief worker privileged her; other blacks were shunted into cleaning and laundering jobs.
Confederate women were as enthusiastic about volunteering for service in 1861 as their Northern counterparts. Although it was not until September 1862 that the Confederate Congress authorized the hiring of female hospital employees in the wake of horrendous losses at Antietam, women answered ads in the Richmond Dispatch as early as June 1861 that sought their aid in state-sponsored hospitals. Without a nursing superintendent or formal selection guidelines, Southerners willing to serve met with fewer official roadblocks. Nineteen-year-old Constance Cary of Virginia worked around the clock at Seven Pines in May 1862, learning as Cornelia Hancock would at Gettysburg, that medical emergencies took precedence over youth. Cary remembered that "up to that time the younger girls had been regarded as superfluities in hospital service; but on Monday two of us found a couple of rooms where fifteen wounded men lay upon pallets around the floor, and, on offering our services to the surgeons in charge, were proud to have them accepted." Once the government began to phase out female managers, elite women lost interest in serving. The Confederate Congress ultimately empowered surgeons to appoint two matrons, assistant matrons, and ward matrons to each hospital and as many cooks and laundresses as they saw fit. Although elite volunteers were still reserved for more prized matron jobs, working-class, slave, and immigrant women constituted the majority of Confederate hospital workers.
Much of the hard labor in Confederate hospitals was performed by slaves hired out by their mistresses. Men were detailed to cook, do carpentry work, and lift soldiers. Women also worked as cooks and as laundresses and chambermaids; occasionally they nursed sick white women. When South Carolina's Ada Bacot left her Florence County plantation in 1862 to nurse Palmetto soldiers in Charlottesville, a female slave accompanied her. Ella Newsom, newly widowed like Bacot, left genteel comfort in Arkansas to join the Confederate Army of Tennessee in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. She took slaves with her and hired dozens of others on location as the army moved its base of operations. Emily Mason depended on her "manservant" Jim for protection as she journeyed away from her Fairfax County, Virginia, home to set up a hospital "in the mountains." Jim slept in a room adjoining his mistress's to protect and "comfort" her at night.
Few Southerners left home to serve, however, because the war usually went to them. As Confederate troops passed through Southern towns, women had the opportunity to work in wayside or field hospitals established in nearby churches, schools, and warehouses. In the absence of adequate public space, they arranged to nurse soldiers in their own homes, like the women of Washington, North Carolina, or those of Abbeville, South Carolina, who met hospital trains with their carriages. In more rural areas, citizens had no choice but to turn their homes into hospitals. Fifty-three-year-old Sarah Hails Bellinger offered her Montgomery plantation in 1861 for a hospital until a larger building could be secured.
Excerpted from Women at the Front by Jane E. Schultz Copyright © 2004 by Jane E. Schultz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.