The following is a guest post by Karen Chittenden, Cataloging Specialist in the Prints & Photographs Division.
National Nurses Week recognizes the contributions of professional nurses, and this year we’d like to do the same by highlighting recently acquired photographs of wartime nurses who marshaled resources, medical skill, and courage to offer help in dire circumstances.
The annual salute to nurses is timed to coincide with the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth on May 12, 1830. Nightingale is credited with being the founder of modern nursing for her role in caring for wounded and dying soldiers in the Crimean War as well as establishing a nursing school in England. She also made contributions in the fields of public health, statistics, and hospital design.
When the Civil War broke out in the United States in the following decade, extraordinary American women followed in Nightingale’s footsteps. Some applied their organizational skills. For instance, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, set up training for women serving as nurses for the Union Army. Clara Barton was one of the first women to volunteer at the Washington Infirmary and later on the battlefield, delivering supplies paid for by herself or from donations she raised.
Dorothea Dix served as Superintendent of Female Nurses of the Union Army, an appointment created by Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. Dix quickly acquired supplies and recruited and trained women to serve as nurses in Washington, D.C., hospitals.
Dix required that the nurses she selected be between 35 and 50 years of age, of serious disposition, and dressed plainly. When Helen L. Gilson traveled from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., in 1862 in her quest to help wounded soldiers, she applied for a position with Dix but was rejected for being too young at 25 years old. Gilson was not deterred and found ways to assist as a volunteer in hospitals and on numerous battlefields with the Sanitary Commission. She noticed that conditions for wounded African American soldiers were even worse than for white soldiers so she organized the Colored Hospital Service, despite receiving no assistance from her colleagues and being advised against it. Gilson’s service was so greatly appreciated by the many soldiers she had served that they erected a monument to her after she sadly died in childbirth in 1868. She was remembered as “… brave as she was loving. I have seen her sit unmoved and silent in the midst of a severe cannonade while soldiers were fleeing for refuge …, an angel of mercy, loving and loved.”
Before the Civil War, untrained family members had traditionally cared for the sick in their homes. When epidemics broke out, however, medical needs were greater and Catholic nuns fulfilled that role by treating the sick in hospitals. By 1861, 28 Catholic hospitals run by nuns had been established in the United States. The Sisters were accustomed to contagion and disease and their experience was valuable in treating wounded and sick soldiers. More than 600 Sisters from over thirty religious communities served as nurses during the Civil War. Sister Ann Alexis Shorb was affiliated with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Boston and ran the St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum there. At some point between 1862 and 1865, Sister Ann Alexis made her way to Philadelphia to serve as matron at Satterlee General Hospital, the largest Union hospital, probably before she became the first administrator of Carney Hospital in Boston in 1863. During the three years that Satterlee Hospital operated, a total of 91 Sisters cared for more than 80,000 sick and wounded soldiers.
Freed slaves also played a role in nursing soldiers during the Civil War. Although officially labeled a laundress, Susie King Taylor spent most of her time working with the 33rd United States Colored Troops (USCT) as a literacy instructor and nurse. She had secretly learned to read and write before the war and was asked by Union commanders to operate a school for freed slaves at the young age of 14. Her primary focus, though, was nursing soldiers in the 33rd USCT. Nurses in these regiments carried a heavy load caring for the soldiers. In spite of being highly valued by Lieutenant Colonel C.T. Trowbridge, commander of the regiment, Susie King Taylor was never paid for her three years of service: “I most sincerely regret that through a technicality you are debarred from having your name placed on the roll of pensioners, as an Army Nurse; for among all the number of heroic women whom the government is now rewarding, I know of no one more deserving than yourself.”
Less is known about the role that women played as nurses in the South because records were destroyed in the Richmond fire of April 1865. It is conservatively estimated that more than 1,600 Confederate women were paid as nurses during the Civil War but the number who worked without pay may be far greater. Because the war was fought in the South, it is likely that many women nursed soldiers in their own homes. Otelia Butler Mahone worked as a nurse in a Richmond hospital while her husband, William Mahone, served in the Confederate Army as a Major General. She is depicted here with her daughter, Otelia.
These and other photographs of Civil War nurses are in the collection of the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress thanks to the collecting interest of Chris Foard and the generosity of Tom Liljenquist. Foard is a registered nurse who has been acquiring these photographs for over 30 years. He enjoys “putting a face with a name and learning more about their struggles, hardships, obstacles and how they coped.”
Tom Liljenquist has been collecting Civil War artifacts, especially photographs of everyday soldiers, since happening upon a bullet in a local creek with his young sons in the 1990s. He and his sons began donating their photographs in 2010 and have been adding to the collection ever since.
- View images of these and other nurses in the Liljenquist Collection. We are also sharing a set of the photos in Flickr, where you can view them along with Flickr members’ comments and contributions.
- Explore additional images of nurses across many time periods and places in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Learn about the many facets of the Liljenquist Collection. And if you enjoyed learning about the lives of these nurses, you may be interested in learning more about individual men and women who participated in the Civil War through our guide, “Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography.”
- Delve into the life of Clara Barton and the many challenges she faced through the Clara Barton Papers. You can also assist in transcribing documents in the papers through the Clara Barton: “Angel of the Battlefield” crowdsourcing project.