Famous Nurses From The Civil War

The Civil War, a tumultuous period in American history, was not only a battleground for soldiers but also a defining moment for the medical profession, particularly nursing. This era saw the emergence of numerous remarkable nurses who left indelible marks on the field of healthcare and the broader social landscape. Their courage, compassion, and dedication under challenging conditions transformed the role of nursing, paving the way for future advancements.

This article celebrates the lives and contributions of some of the most famous nurses from the Civil War, highlighting their impact and the legacy they left behind.

During all periods of the (Civil) War, instances occurred of women being found in the ranks, fighting as common soldiers, their sex remaining unsuspected, and the particular motive in each case often unknown.

F. Moore, 1866

The famous nurses of the Civil War era were more than caregivers; they were innovators, advocates, and pioneers who transformed the field of nursing. Their courage in the face of adversity, commitment to their patients, and vision for the future of healthcare left a lasting impact on the medical profession and society at large. As we remember the women’s contributions to the Civil War, we are reminded of the essential role of nurses in healing not only the body but also the spirit in times of war as well as peace.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix was sixty years old when the Civil War began, considered by some “too old” to “do any good” for the Northern cause. Still, Dorothea was a veteran of hospitals, having devoted her life to the reform of insane asylums. Despite her age, she was chosen to head the nurses assigned to the Northern medical facilities.

Assertive and domineering, Dorothea took the significance of her appointment to heart and immediately set rigid standards for nurses, issuing this call for volunteers: “No woman under 30 need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop skirts.” This expectation of hard work soon gave her a reputation of trustworthiness among the wounded.

Although Dorothea pushed her nurses, she asked no more of them than she did of herself and often opened her home to tired nurses so that they could stay closer to the hospitals.

Sally Louisa Tompkins

Sally Louisa Tompkins lived in Richmond, Virginia, at the outbreak of the war, when Richmond was flooded with casualties that filled the understaffed hospitals beyond capacity. Sally, an influential woman in Richmond of no small reputation, persuaded a judge in Richmond to give up his house in the interest of the war. Sally turned it into a private hospital, staffing it with her friends and the slaves from her household. As the matriarchal head of care, Sally’s perspective on cleanliness was different from that of other hospitals.

While on the battlefield, the same surgery tools were used without washing between patients; Sally’s techniques encouraged cleanliness as part of the treatment for the wounded. Sally’s Hospital gained a reputation for saving lives. In fact, more Confederate soldiers returned to the battlefield from Sally’s hospital in Richmond than any other medical facility in the South.

During the 45 months that Sally’s hospital was in existence, countless soldiers were sent to her. Only 73 were lost to death.

Robertson Hospital during Civil War

Confederacy President Jefferson Davis bestowed upon Sally the rank of Captain and made her hospital an official army-supported medical facility. It was renamed Robertson Hospital and was run by “Captain Tompkins” for the duration of the war.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Because Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, was born of Southern heritage, there was some suspicion about her loyalty at the onset of the Civil War. However, Mrs. Lincoln proved herself to be a loyal Unionist and a nurse with much stamina. She frequented the hospitals, feeding, cleaning, and consoling the wounded.

The story is told of the First Lady’s visit to Campbell Hospital shortly after several limb amputations had been performed. The stench was intolerable, and the amputees lay groaning in anguish. Many of the volunteers left, overcome by the odor and the noise. Mary Lincoln stayed, holding the hands of those suffering and bathing their feverish brows with wet rags.

Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke

Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was known to everyone in her Galesburg, Illinois hometown as “Mother” Bickerdyke, so it was no surprise when she was asked to take supplies to the northern hospital in Cairo, Illinois, a ride of several hours.

Mary Ann was appalled by the filth that was present in the hospital, so she launched her own campaign to clean up the Cairo hospital and the field hospitals on the battlefields as well. Mary Ann frequently walked the battlefields after dark, searching for wounded that might have been overlooked by the stretcher brigades. General Ulysses S. Grant asked Mary Ann to join the Atlanta Campaign as a hospital volunteer. Because Mary Ann fought for better hospital conditions, she offended hospital staff and doctors. But she was loved by the soldiers.

When a doctor reported Mary to General Sherman, his response was to dismiss the complaint with these words: “She outranks me. You’ll have to see President Lincoln about that.”

Mary Jane Safford

Mary Jane Safford served as a nurse under the indomitable Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Although she was small and frail, Mary Jane adopted Mother Bickerdyke’s standards, and she walked the Union battlelines at night, searching for the wounded. Mary Jane nursed the sick and wounded at the battles of Belmont, Missouri, and Fort Donelson, Tennessee.

The story is told that Mary was once so close to enemy lines that Confederates fired on her. She made a flag of truce from her white petticoat and a branch and continued to nurse the sick. Mary Jane accepted duties aboard the Union ship “City of Memphis,” making five subsequent trips before collapsing from exhaustion.

When the Civil War was over, Mary Ann Safford studied medicine and became one of the first female surgeons in America.

Clarrisa (Clara) Barton

Among the many nurses who served during the Civil War, Clara Barton stands out for her immense contribution.

Clarrisa (Clara) Barton

Clarrisa (Clara) Barton, attributed to the founding of the American Red Cross, began her nursing career when Union soldiers arrived in Washington, D.C., after having been brutalized by secession sympathizers. She gathered baskets of food and supplies from her own household and from the homes of her friends and donated these to the bloodied regiment. This opened up a new area of service – the gathering of supplies for the wounded. Clara is credited with bringing bandages and dressings to the surgeons at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, just as the field hospital ran out of supplies. Once there, Clara handed out supplies and carried food and water to the men lying wounded on the battlefield.

It was there that surgeon James Dunn deemed her the “angel of the battlefield,” a name that stayed with Clara Barton from then on.

The stories of these remarkable women offer inspiration and guidance for today’s nurses, embodying the core values of compassion, resilience, and excellence that define the profession. As we look back on their legacy, we recognize the profound influence they had on the evolution of nursing and healthcare, shaping a future in which care and compassion remain at the heart of healing. Their lives and work continue to inspire generations of nurses, affirming the vital role of nursing in addressing the challenges of each new era.

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