Nurses in the Civil WarBy: Cami Fitzgerald

Nurses and Officers in Virginia
Nurses and Officers in Virginia


Although the men did all of the fighting, women contributed a lot to the Civil War as well. They were known as “the angels of the battlefield,” by helping the hurt soldiers and generals as nurses. Although many nurses enlisted, there were not a lot of them in comparison to the amount of soldiers that got hurt, as throughout the whole Civil War there were a total of about two thousand women who were volunteer nurses in the military hospitals. In addition, the nurses were some of the true hero’s because they helped many men and they were the ones to experience all of the “grim,” first hand. They dealt with disease, mutilated bodies, deaths, and had to amputate limbs along with much more. They were committed to their jobs almost every hour of the day and did their best to keep the men alive.

Environment Around the Nurses

The environment around the nurses was a very unpleasant site. Medical Health Reports they had to deal with all of the casualties, diseases, and more. They also rarely got a break, fore they needed to provide the aid to the soldiers at all times. During the day, they sometimes even had to travel out to the battlefields and search for any wounded soldiers that were still lying on the ground unattended. They then would bring the soldiers back and try to tend to them the best they could, but it was a challenging task seeing that there were not a lot of nurses available in comparison to the amount of soldiers that got hurt.

Average Day as a Nurse

The great women who were nurses during the Civil War were some of the greatest hero’s known. Their days were packed and filled, as they were always busy doing something for the soldiers. They had such a hard job to complete, as it was not just giving medicine to the patients. The nurses would also have to feed meals to the soldiers, comfort the people who were dying, and assist the doctors during operations such as amputations. They would even have to write letters for the soldiers when they wanted to write back home if they weren’t able to. In addition, they had to transport and deliver supplies, oversee various facilities, and manage all of the medications. These are just some of the many tasks the nurses had to attend to, as there are even more that have not been mentioned here. Without all of the help and aid from the nurses, the men would have died much quicker and the army's would not have been as stable as they were.

Union Nurse

In order to be a Union nurse, you had to be at least thirty years of age. The nurses also had to be able to cook “low diet” foods, and they could not wear hoops, colored dresses, jewelry, flowers on their bonnets, or curls. Also, they couldn’t associate with their patients or surgeons socially, even though many did. In addition, they had to pass a personal interview with Dorothea Dix. The nurses were all scared of Dix and did not like her because she had so many strict rules, so they called her “Dragon Dix” behind her back. In June of 1861, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was established. The commission would monitor camps in the field availability of medical and clothing supplies, and the quality of hospital food. The purpose was to advise the officials and investigate on the hygiene and sanitation. By the end of the war, the commission had distributed nearly $15 million dollars worth of supplies. Besides that, most of the volunteer nurses had no idea about the emotional impact that would hit them from being so close to war, so they were very unprepared. They endured hard, physical labor, and were supposed to be the “mother figure” to all soldiers by serving meals and caring for the patient’s family and the patient himself.

Southern Nurse

The Southern nurses mostly had to nurse within their own families. Because the South had a different living structure than the North, the nurses in the South acted a lot differently. Pretty much every wife was a nurse in the South, as they were expected to take care of their children, husband, and slaves. Also, most women were not as shocked with what they saw because they already had to nurse their families on a daily basis. However, still not many women wanted to volunteer as a nurse for war, and still felt unprepared when people began to shoot on Fort Sumter. Because of this, some women formed their own volunteer groups, such as the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers, and the Ladies’ Soldiers’ Relief Society. In addition to just taking care of the patients, the nurses also had to bath them. They had to fix the patient’s are by beating the air out of their straw mattresses and scrub the floor. Every month they even had to change the straw in the mattresses. Some nurses even went to the hospitals merely as cooks.

This is an approximate amount of people that were injured during the battle of the Civil War.

Clara Harlowe Barton

This is where Clara Barton was born.

Clara Barton was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, into a middle-class family on December 25, 1821. She was the youngest of five children. She was home-schooled and very bright, as she began to teach at a school at the age of fifteen. Another achievement Barton was able to accomplish was establishing a free public school that was built in Bordentown, New Jersey. Clara Barton was devoted to America and only wanted to help the people and make a difference in the world. Because of this, when she saw that the sixth Massachusetts Regiment came into Washington, D.C., where she was living at the time, she began to organize a relief program for all of the soldiers. She later found out that many men who had gotten wounded at the First Bull Run had suffered from medical supplies she immediately went into action and advertised for any donations in Worcester, Massachusetts. Because she was so successful, the next year U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond gave her the permission to travel with all the army ambulances “for the purpose of distributing comforts for the sick and wounded, and nursing them.” From there she moved onto helping the hurt and wounded during the Civil War. This was a great accomplishment as well, seeing that before she traveled with the troops the military had never before allowed any female nurses into the army hospitals or camps. She cared for the Union troops where she mostly stayed in Virginia. In one battle, she had to go through something most people never want to have to go through. She was tending to a wounded man as someone took a shot and shoved the bullet right through her sleeve of her dress. That bullet killed the wounded man, and she got typhoid fever. Luckily, she was able to recover from the illness; but she was not able to recover fully from the memory.

Clara Barton.

Barton was later able to become the leader and founder of the American Red Cross that was established in 1881. Besides just aiding people during wartime, her mission was to also be of assistance whenever there was a natural disaster such as a flood or a hurricane. She turned out to be very successful, including helping the yellow fever in Florida of 1887, Illinois earthquake in 1888, and a Pennsylvania flood of 1889 in Johnstown. She then retired after running the Red Cross for many years in 1904. After all of her many accomplishes, her story sadly came to an end on April 12, 1912 in Glen Echo, Maryland, where she passed away.

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay." - Clara Barton

This is a video about Clara Barton (she was actually born on December 25, 1821, not 1812 like the video says).


During the Civil War, the doctors did not have much medical knowledge. Most of the instruments they used would hurt you more than it would ever help you. However some medicines were okay to use. Mercury, for example, was something they used a lot. Any time a patient felt sick, they would get mercury. Chloroform was also a good and beneficial substance to use. However, the doctors did not really know what was poisonous and what was not, even though some patient’s developed digestive problems, brain damage, and tooth loss. The most common tool they used was the bone saw, which was the instrument doctors used to cut off limbs. In fact, about seventy-five percent of the surgeries that took place during the Civil War involved amputations.
Nurse Kit during the Civil War

Click for my notes!


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