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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): Nursing and Benevolence

by Elizabeth A. Novara

Nursing and Benevolence

Interestingly, the role of the nurse has traditionally been the main area where women have found a niche in Civil War history.  Almost everyone is familiar with Clara Barton and her role as a Civil War nurse, but there is certainly more to the history of nursing during the Civil War than Barton.  Nursing as an occupation outside one’s own family during the nineteenth century was almost unheard of until the Civil War.  Several of the books mentioned earlier in this essay touch on the subject of nursing, but the following works elaborate more on this topic.

To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War by Mary Denis Maher introduces readers to how women’s religious communities defied gender roles and began to build the practical skills necessary for the nursing profession.  In Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America, Jane E. Schultz breaks new ground by looking at nursing from a very broad standpoint, including women who served in hospitals in other roles, such as laundresses, custodial workers, cooks, and administrators.  Schultz’s broad interpretation allows her to study women across race, class, gender, regions, and other dividing lines.  She disagrees with previous scholarship that posits hospital workers as working toward professionalizing nursing and other types of hospital support work.  Libra R. Hilde provides another perspective in Worth a Dozen Men: Women and Nursing in the Civil War South.  Hilde looks discerningly at the roles of Confederate women in hospital work.  Her interest is specifically centered on “matrons”: those middle- and upper-class white women who administered and coordinated services such as laundry, cleaning, nursing, and supply requisitions in Confederate hospitals.  Elite women did not often take on this type of work because many privileged women did not believe wage work or work outside the home was proper for women of their class.  Margaret Humphreys positions her Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War around the argument that the Civil War was the worst health crisis the United States ever faced.  She examines health care more generally and investigates gendered approaches to health care in the nineteenth century.  Two very good document collections related to nursing include Jean V. Berlin’s A Confederate Nurse: The Diary of Ada W. Bacot,1860–1863, and Jane E. Schultz’s This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton.

In addition to nursing, women also provided relief to soldiers through benevolent societies.  Several historians look more closely at the nature of these societies, which mainly developed in the North.  Anne Firor Scott’s Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History provides one chapter on women’s war efforts in both the North and South.  She demonstrates how women entered the public sphere to assist with wartime benevolent activities without worrying as much about society’s constraining roles for women.  In Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War, Jeanie Attie looks at how men invaded women’s domestic sphere by calling on their support through the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC).  She argues that men in the USSC assumed that women would support the war effort because of their inherently altruistic nature, but in reality this was not always the case.  Judith Giesberg also delves into the history of the USSC in her work Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition.  Giesberg strongly ties together antebellum evangelical activism, Civil War benevolence, and women’s later reform efforts.  She argues that women developed discipline and efficiency, and above all created lasting bonds with other women organizers.

Another useful source for investigating women’s benevolence during the Civil War is the website and subscription database Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000.  The website makes some materials related to the Civil War freely available, including lessons plans for teachers, but most sources, especially primary source documents and the document projects, must be accessed via the subscription database.  The main document project in the subscription database that is relevant to the topic of this essay is Carol Faulkner’s “How Did White Women Aid Former Slaves during and after the Civil War, 1863–1891?”  As more primary source documents and document projects become available, there may be additional resources available related to women and the Civil War.

Works Cited