Civil War Era,  Women's History

Angels of Mercy


For American women in the mid 1800s, few domains existed outside of the traditional domestic sphere. Teaching was an acceptable occupation by period standards, but nursing was still far from being considered proper for a lady. With the onset of war in 1861 and men being consistently drawn into the escalating conflict throughout the next four years, women took action, expanded their field of influence, and joined the fight as volunteer nurses in both the Union and the Confederacy.

Though male nurses outnumbered their female counterparts five to one in both the North and the South, approximately 3,000 women served as officially appointed nurses in the North throughout the duration of the Civil War, and thousands of others volunteered without official recognition on both sides of the conflict. Women’s motivations for service were as varied as their duties. Aside from setting up and staffing hospital kitchens, female nurses wrote letters home for wounded soldiers, read to others, aided patients as they learned to use crutches, helped some cope with loss, listened to the confessions of the dying, supported their patients’ mental health, and entertained with musical instruments.

Many women, inspired by the efforts of Florence Nightingale in Eastern Europe’s Crimean War (1853-1856), volunteered after reports circulated of poor conditions. Women who had fought for women’s rights viewed the war as a moral crusade – a chance to prove themselves – and viewed their service as a way to demonstrate their power in a man’s world.

On June 10, 1861, the Secretary of War appointed Dorothea Dix as Superintendent of Female Nurses. She served throughout the war, selecting women thirty years old and above who were considered unattractive to provide assistance in hospitals and on battlefields. Shortly after her hiring, Dix, in an attempt to organize the mass of females already following field regiments, ordered that only appointed service women be allowed to stay with the troops. Though some women defied the order and remained, most were sent to hospitals under supervision after approval. In the South, no such organization existed. However, this did not deter women from volunteering.

For the women chosen for service, conditions were less than ideal. Many faced long hours and were at high risk of contracting the illnesses borne by their patients, and many succumbed to the conditions. Even among those who remained healthy, women nurses often found themselves fighting male authorities who did not see them as capable of holding such positions.

Through their efforts in the Civil War, American women were able to open up the field of nursing as a viable and respectable career for females. Their insistence on stricter standards of cleanliness and organization helped to establish a blueprint for the modern hospital. Though their impact was great, women nurses of the Civil War went largely unrecognized until the rise of women’s history, and not until the last twenty years have historians begun to consider the topic as significant within the larger context of the Civil War. An overview of the limited scholarship available which illuminates the contributions of women nurses from this era can finally bring about the celebration of service they deserve and can help to identify related areas of study which remain unexplored.


It is clear the historiography of Civil War women nurses has advanced greatly over the last 150 years, yet there remains much work to be done. Individual biographies of the more well-known women, such as Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott, are numerous, as are the published memoirs, letters, diaries, and journals of the women who served. However, critical interpretations of and scholarly insights into the topic are a fairly new creation and continue to be rare.

Beginning with Seigel’s exploration of Indiana’s Civil War nurses in 1990, scholarship evolved from heroic tales and empowerment monologues to legitimate examinations of the work of women nurses. More current literature draws largely from the women’s individual experiences rather than their collective affairs, but considerable gaps have emerged as a result. Jean Schultz’s article, “Race, Gender, and Bureaucracy,” raised important questions into the experiences of African American women nurses but failed to fully explore the topic. Likewise, due to the difficulty in locating appropriate resources, Hilde’s book is the only known scholarship of its kind focusing solely on Confederate nurses. Both of these areas deserve further examination.

There is undoubtedly untapped potential in many repositories across the nation. Furthermore, recently digitized collections of papers, letters, and diaries, such as those held by Duke University, that have been largely neglected in favor of the more well-known published works, offer compelling insight into women’s perspectives of the Civil War and present an opportunity for greater research into those women who may have performed work as nurses without the official status.

With so little scholarly literature in existence, the opportunities for future research on the topic are boundless. A comparative approach, such as Schultz attempted in her 1994 article, could provide intriguing insight into the experiences of a variety of women. Drawing on the influence of gender history, historians could compare the experience of male nurses to that of female nurses in order to gain a clearer picture of the extent to which women were viewed negatively within the medical profession of the period. A more scientific approach might demonstrate the detailed manner in which women nurses improved upon existing medical practices to bring about lasting changes in healthcare. Even within the limited historiography currently in existence, many authors and historians have begun to ask new questions with regards to the Civil War’s female nurses and have introduced new avenues of research which provide unlimited possibilities for future scholarship.

[Excerpt from “Angels of Mercy in a Thousand Terrible Situations”: A Historiographical Essay of Women Nurses in the Civil War”]

  • Barton, George. Angels of the Battlefield: A History of the Labors of the Catholic Sisterhoods in the Late Civil War. Philadelphia: The Catholic Art Publishing Company, 1898. Google Books.
  • Culpepper, Marilyn Mayer, and Pauline Gordon Adams. “Nursing in the Civil War.” American Journal of Nursing 88, no. 7 (July 1988): 981-984.
  • Hanson, Kathleen S. “Down to Vicksburg: The Nurses’ Experience.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 97, no. 4 (Winter 2004/2005): 286-309.
  • Hilde, Libra R. Worth a Dozen Men: Women and Nursing in the Civil War South. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012. https://ebookcentral-proquest-
  • Intravartolo, Cindy. “St. Mary’s Goes to War: The Sisters of the Holy Cross as Civil War Nurses.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 107, nos. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 2014): 370-391.
  • McNeil, D.C., Betty Ann. “Daughters of Charity: Courageous and Compassionate Civil War Nurses.” U.S. Catholic Historian 31, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 51-72.
  • Moore, Frank. Women of the War; Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. Hartford, CT: S. S. Scranton & Co., 1867. Google Books.
  • Oates, Louise. “Civil War Nurses.” American Journal of Nursing 28, no. 3 (March 1928): 207- 212.
  • Schultz, Jane E. “Race, Gender, and Bureaucracy: Civil War Army Nurses and the Pension Bureau.” Journal of Women’s History 6, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 45-69. 10.1353/jowh.2010.0384.
  • ——–. “The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 363-392.
  • Seigel, Peggy Brase. “She Went to War: Indiana Women Nurses in the Civil War.” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 1 (March 1990): 1-27.
  • Silber, Nina. Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. https://search-ebscohost-
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  • Wood, Ann Douglas. “The War Within a War: Women Nurses in the Union Army.” Civil War History 18, no. 3 (September 1972): 197-212.

* Featured image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images