Meeting of June 28, 2011

Dr. Libra Hilde on “Healing Bodies, Morale, and Memory: Female Nursing in the Civil War South”

Meeting description provided by Gary Yee:

Prof. Hilde’s book is being released by the Univ. of Virginia this coming February. There’s already another book on CW nurses, but the author whose name escapes me covers mostly the North. There’s a lot of presumption that the South did the same. That’s where Libra differs.

In the South, it was largely a political movement. In 1861, the young Confederacy was too busy just trying to organize for the war. It ignored nursing and hospitals so women, especially upper class women moved in to fill the gap. Women had served as nurses before, but they were largely camp followers and of the lower classes. In the North, there was a lot of reluctance to allow women to become nurses because of the stigma of the camp followers. In the South, there was no initial resistance because the South was too busy with other things.

So the first hospitals in the South were set up by women. Many were by railroad junctions were they were close to transportation or roads. By 1862 however, the Confederacy was better organized and ordered those hospitals closed. Doctors/surgeons were reluctant to have women working with them and nurses were generally convalescent soldiers. The other source of nurses were freemen (or slaves). Many blacks didn’t care to nurse soldiers who were fighting to keep them in bondage and the South resorted to carrot and stick. The carrot was that if one volunteered, they would be paid good wages, get good food and be treated well. If they had to be impressed, they would be treated as an impressed individual. Even with blacks and convalescent soldiers, there was not enough so Southern doctors/surgeons reluctantly took in women nurses.

Southern soldiers preferred women nurses over black men or women. It’s not that black men or women couldn’t do the job, but the southern soldier had his racial prejudices. Additionally, they believed that they would receive better care at the hands of a white woman than they would from a black man or woman (there are exceptions like where a personal servant had a pre-existing bond to his master and would nurse his master back to health).

Once the doctors/surgeons began working together with women, the women became trusted and the doctors/surgeons would even want the women to accompany them when they moved to a different hospital. Nursing in those days were of two types. One was the bedpan changer, drudge worker who may be changing bandages or clean out wounds. The other could change bandages or cleanse wounds, but they also nurtured or consoled the injured. She may cook for or feed a wounded soldier. She may wipe his forehead, read the bible to him, write home for him, read his letters or even advise his family where he was buried.

They would send lockets of the deceased’s hair home or his personal effects along with writing a consoling letter to the family.

Confederate doctors/surgeons found that sick or wounded soldiers responded better when there was a woman around. It was their connection to home, to the mother or sister or girlfriend or wife they left behind. Morale was better and the mortality rate was half of what it was when there were no women present. Some soldiers would break down and cry if the woman left the hospital for vacation. As southern women proved their worth as nurses, they were entrusted with greater responsibilities. They became matrons and were offered a salary by the Confederate government.

Upper class women looked down on receiving a salary. After all, it was their contribution to the war effort. However, some began drawing a salary but they used it to buy provisions or other things for the wounded. Money became so scarce late in the war that they were lucky to receive it at all. As matrons, some even ran the hospital as an administrator. They received money with which they bought food or other necessary supplies to keep the hospital going. They also supervised the ward attendants (drudge nurses) who worked to higher standards in the presence of a woman.

Post war the southern woman was responsible for preserving the memory of their men and for defending their manhood. Before Jubal Early and others came along to promote the lost cause, southern women started it first. During reconstruction, women could say or do things that a southern man could not. Women were instrumental in creating cemeteries which also served as sanctuaries where ex-confederates could meet. Southern women were firebrands that their men could not be. It was concurrently a means of empowerment for them in an era when women could not hold office or employment outside of the married home. While men could be in charge of committees, it was the women who raised the money and did all the legwork for having memorials and Monument Blvd in Richmond built. The second revival of the K K K was largely due to women who used the movement as a means of empowerment. Some of the most vicious racists were southern women.

The Civil War was largely responsible for the feminization of nursing. Women in the form of camp followers had always been nurses, but the war legitimized women as a professional nurse.