This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, let’s take this opportunity to celebrate the women who served as nurses, both Union and Confederate, throughout the Civil War. Statistics vary, but it is estimated that approximately 3,000 women served as nurses during this turbulent time in American history. These courageous women often risked their lives in an effort to provide assistance to soldiers and sailors who were sick, wounded, and suffering. They were responsible for providing a broad and endless array of services, including everything from food preparation, laundering clothing and reading to soldiers up to administering medication, dressing wounds and assisting surgeons with complicated procedures.
The Nurse’s Manual. New York, NY: Woman’s Central Association of Relief to the Army, 1861. New-York Historical Society.
At the onset of the Civil War, in April 1861, there were no official nursing schools in the U.S. and no field hospital services arranged for the military. Shortly thereafter, the Woman’s Central Association of Relief for the Sick and Wounded of the Army was formed in New York. One hundred women were initially recruited to begin nurses’ training at Bellevue Hospital under the guidance of the first licensed female physician in the United States, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell, along with several prominent male physicians, offered a one-month training course to prepare women for their new roles. Many volunteer nurses, however, received no training and found they had to take the hands-on approach to acquire necessary skills. Nothing could prepare them for the gruesome wounds and terminal illnesses they would encounter.
In June of 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency, was established by federal legislation. While this organization’s officers and most of its paid staff were male, the majority of its thousands of volunteers were female. These volunteers collected clothing, food, bandages, medicine and other supplies for the troops. Many also served as volunteer nurses in army hospitals and military camps, as well as hospital ships. The Sanitary Commission was the first organization to seriously address the unsanitary conditions to which the soldiers were exposed and made genuine efforts to improve and maintain higher standards of cleanliness and sanitation, particularly in Army hospitals. N-YHS holds a collection of manuscript materials for this organization.
Georgeanna Woolsey Bacon’s notebook regarding patients, 1861-1865. AHMC– Bacon, Georgeanna Woolsey. New-York Historical Society.
Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey volunteered for the U.S. Sanitary Commission Hospital Transport Service, which employed a number of vessels for transporting sick and wounded soldiers. Woolsey would go on to serve throughout the war in a number of capacities, providing medical assistance to those on the front lines and in camp as well as acting as Assistant Superintendent of the Portsmouth Grove General Hospital, in Rhode Island. Woolsey came to the aid of soldiers during numerous battles, including Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Our collections contain a small portion of her correspondence along with a variety of wonderful ephemera, as shown here. After the war, she and her husband, Dr. Francis Bacon, were influential in the formation of the Connecticut Training School for Nurses, now the Yale School of Nursing.
Sarah R. Blunt worked as a nurse in Union Army hospitals at Point Lookout, MD, and Harper’s Ferry, WV. Our collection includes letters written from Blunt to her family in Brooklyn, NY, dating from 1862 to 1865. Blunt’s correspondence, which is direct and sometimes amusing, describes her nursing responsibilities, living conditions and details regarding the patients she cared for. Like many men and women communicating from a war zone, she frequently requested that her family write more often and asked for news of home; as I’m sure these tokens provided a source of comfort amidst the chaos. Blunt’s correspondence has been digitized and is available on the New-York Historical Society’s Civil War Treasures website.
In a letter to her mother, penned just a few months before the War ended, Blunt writes, “The 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.” She goes on to say, “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 born for some use in the world.”
Letter from Sarah Blunt to her mother. March 11, 1865. AHMC – Blunt, Sarah. New-York Historical Society.
Raised in Pennsylvania as a Quaker, Rebecca E. Frick temporarily put aside some of her religious beliefs to volunteer her services as a nurse during the Civil War. Frick felt very strongly that she needed to help those who were suffering. Among the various Union Army hospitals to which she devoted her attention, Frick spent months helping sick and wounded soldiers during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, in Virginia. Her nursing skills and stamina were put to the test during the Battle of Cedar Creek, in 1864, where she was the only Union Army nurse available to men on the front lines. After the War Department’s General Order #143 established the United States Colored Troops (USCT), Rebecca E. Frick was the first to respond to the call for nurses to care for these brave soldiers. She continued to be involved with veterans’ organizations throughout her life.
Portrait of Rebecca E. Frick. 1905. MS 670.9, David E. Cronin Papers. New-York Historical Society.
Just as important as the provision of medical assistance, nurses were known for offering a friendly smile and unwavering emotional support. Years after the war, many veterans recounted their experiences and had fond memories of nurses who held their hands, mended their wounds and warmed their hearts.