Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.
Can you imagine being shot during a battle? Hurt and confused, you would be searching for help.
During the American Civil War, soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy required medical care to survive gruesome injuries. Unlike today, patients were treated by doctors and nurses who oftentimes had no experience in medical care. Most had never performed surgery or even treated a gunshot wound. Soldiers were often treated right on the battlefield or at a makeshift hospital at a church, school, or barn near the battlefield.
What was nursing and medicine like in the Civil War? Let's find out.
Prior to the Civil War, the conditions of military and battlefield hospitals were not viewed as proper places for women. Oftentimes, soldiers who had recovered would help doctors take care of the other patients. With the start of the war, however, more help was needed.
In 1861, the Union appointed Dorothea Lynde Dix to be the Superintendent of Women Nurses, who created qualifications for Union nurses. Women who were 35-50 years old and of good health and character were paid 40 cents per day and required to serve at least three months. Over 3,200 women served as Union nurses.
In the Confederacy, about 1,000 women served as nurses in formal hospitals. On or near the battlefield, countless other women became nurses as the battles neared their homes. Can you imagine hearing a battle near your house and leaving to treat the wounded?
Professionally trained nun nurses from the Catholic hospitals also served the Union and Confederacy. These religious women had already been trained to provide emergency care and respond to disaster situations.
One of the most famous nurses was Clara Barton. She set up her own organization separate from the Union and Confederacy, which delivered supplies to the battlefield. Called the 'Angel of the Battlefield,' Barton's efforts at the Battle of the Wilderness made her a national hero. She later founded the international aid organization the American Red Cross, which helps countries and people during times of disaster or need.
Other famous nurses included:
- May Ann Ball (Union) served in 19 battles and was famous for walking the battlefields at night, searching for soldiers who were still alive.
- Sally Louisa Tompkins (Confederacy) was known as the 'Angel of the Confederacy' and used her own money to open a hospital in a mansion in Richmond.
- Phoebe Yates Levy Pember (Confederacy) ran the largest Confederate hospital, Chimborazo Hospital.
Nurses were important in helping a patient recover. They had many responsibilities including:
- Assisting with surgeries
- Passing out food and medications
- Writing letters for the soldiers
Unfortunately, becoming a patient was oftentimes more dangerous than being on the battlefield. Doctors and nurses did not understand the importance of hygiene or the practices needed to prevent disease. They would not wash their hands in between patients and would reuse tools and medical supplies. Imagine having the blood of another soldier on the hands of the nurse treating your injury! Gross! As a result, typhoid, dysentery, and diarrhea killed more soldiers than injuries from the battlefield.
Medicine was also scarce, especially in the Confederacy. Union patients would often receive medicine to treat infections or as an anesthetic to help them sleep during surgery. In the Confederacy, however, patients were treated with herbal medicines, medicines stolen from the Union, or none at all. Without lifesaving medication, many soldiers died despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses.
Nurses in the Civil War were often untrained and learned on the job. Famous nurses included Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Despite the care of doctors and nurses, lack of hygiene and medicine contributed to many deaths.
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