Dorothea Dix in the Civil War: History, Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses Dorothea Dix's contributions to the Civil War. Learn more about Dix and the first female volunteer nursing corps in the United States, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Dorothea Dix

Dix Answers the Call to Volunteer

Dorothea Dix was far from unknown when she arrived in Washington, D.C., in April 1861. Her advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill had already made her one of the most famous women in America. Never one to be idle, she responded when President Abraham Lincoln announced that 75,000 volunteers were needed to help fight the Confederates in the Civil War. Lincoln, like most people, incorrectly assumed 90 days would be enough to win the war.

Dix went directly to the White House and told Lincoln that she would like to create a corps of female volunteer nurses to help with the war effort. That was likely not the type of volunteer help Lincoln was expecting, because military nurses were men, not women. However, four days later, Dix received permission from Secretary of War Simon Cameron to begin setting up hospitals and recruiting nurses.

Dix Becomes Superintendent of Union Army Nurses

To say that Washington was unprepared to care for large numbers of wounded soldiers is an understatement. There was no shortage of hospitals. In fact, there were over three dozen of them in the city of Washington, D.C. It was nurses and supplies that were desperately needed.

Dix was a welcome sight as she immediately rented a house not far from the White House and turned it into the Union medical supply headquarters. She received any and all necessary supplies, including chickens, milk, nightshirts, and bandages. Dix used her influence to have buildings such as the Union Hotel converted to military hospitals. She advertised in newspapers for female volunteers and when new nurses arrived in Washington, they were told to see Dix. On June 10, 1861, Dix was named the superintendent of Union army nurses.

The Volunteer Nurses

Allowing women in a military hospital was considered an experiment. Many in the army were outright opposed to it. Some argued that women could not endure the horrific sights of an army hospital while others feared they would spend more time flirting than providing medical care.

Cameron made it clear to Dix that only women of good moral character could be army nurses. With that in mind, Dix created strict requirements for her nurses and personally interviewed each one before they were allowed to serve. She insisted that nurses be over the age of 35 and that they dress plainly, hoping to discourage the idea that an army hospital full of young soldiers was a good place to find a husband. Dix's close watch on her nursing corps did not endear her to many of them, earning her the nickname 'Dragon Dix.'

The End of Dix's Authority

Some considered Dix to be meddlesome and stubborn, but she was also a strong advocate for her nurses. Dix convinced the government to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the female nurses just as it did for the male nurses. The 40 cents a day the women received was considerably less than the $20.50 per month that the men earned, but it was better than nothing.

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