Civil War Nurses

By: Kathy Boccella

The nurses of the Civil War helped make nursing a respected occupation. Before the Civil War, nursing was limited to mothers nursing their family members. At the start of the Civil War most nurses were uneducated women who volunteered their services. As the war progressed the nurses were trained and received minimal pay and army rations for their services. They feed the soldiers, dressed their wounds, helped with amputations and did what they could to comfort the soldiers (Roper, 2009). Walt Whitman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Nancy Hill and Sally Louisa Tompkins are just some of the nurses who made a difference in the Civil War.

Walt Whitman saw the need to care for the wounded soldiers when he found his brother shot on the battlefield. He stayed with his brother for a week and became aware of the soldier’s suffering. Moved by what he saw on the battlefield, Whitman decided to be a volunteer nurse in a Washington hospital. He had no formal education in nursing, he learned by watching the other nurses. He spent a lot of his time comforting the soldiers and writing condolence letters to their families. Whitman not only cared for the soldier’s physical wounds, but also their psychological wounds. He took a holistic approach to nursing by caring for the whole person. During his seven years of service, Whitman cared for over 80,000 soldiers. Many of Walt Whitman’s poems, including “Drum Taps”, were written about his nursing experiences in the Civil War. In 1870, Whitman left nursing because of symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Until his death 20 years later, Whitman continued to suffer psychological consequences because of the horror that he experienced during the war (Roper, 2009).

Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. She was the first female to hold that position. Dix was in charge of Armory Square, one of Washington’s largest Civil War hospitals. The most seriously wounded soldiers were brought to this hospital. Dix was a strong willed person who often ignored orders. Her perseverance gave her the nickname “Dragon Dix”. She recruited over 2,000 female nurses. Nursing was greatly improved and her nurses were taken care of under her appointment. After the war, Dorothea Dix became an advocate for the mentally ill (Raatma, 2005).

Nancy Hill was known for her sound judgment and bravery. In 1864, while working at Armory Square Hospital in Washington, Hill ignored Army orders and admitted 250 wounded soldiers. The soldiers did not have the proper paper work and they were not allowed to enter the hospital without it. Hill escorted the soldiers into the hospital and began treating them. The next day when the soldiers’ paper work arrived, Hill was commended for her actions. During the Battle of the Wilderness, Hill nursed the wounded soldiers on the battlefield. She was lady nurse of Ward F and continued to nurse wounded soldiers until the end of the war. Hill later received her medical degree. She helped to establish the Industrial Training School to educate unwed mothers, which evolved into the Hillcrest Family Services that continues to help families today (Cherba & Deckert, 2006).

Clara Barton is probably the most famous Civil War nurse. She wanted to join the Department of Female Nurses in the Union Army, but knew that she couldn’t tolerate Dorothea Dix. Barton began working for a charity that fed and comforted the soldiers. Independently, she gathered medicine and supplies and delivered them to the battlefields. Soon Barton began staying on the battlefields and nursing the wounded soldiers. She nursed with skill and empathy. Towards the end of the war, Barton would search for and identify missing Union soldiers (LaFantasie, 2005). After serving in the International Red Cross, she began the American Red Cross, which continues to feed and shelter people today.

Although there are many Confederate nurses, there is little attention focused on them. Sally Louisa Tomkins used her inheritance to establish and supply Robertson Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Robertson Hospital attended to 1,333 Confederate soldiers. It had a 94.5 percent survival rate (Raatma, 2005). Tomkins’s generosity and good care saved the lives of many Confederate soldiers.

Without the bravery and compassion of the Civil War nurses many more American lives would have been lost during the war. They truly wanted to help the wounded soldiers, regardless of their stipend. In 1892, Nancy Hill and other volunteer nurses were awarded a twelve dollar per month pension. Walt Whitman, Dorothea Dix, Nancy Hill, Clara Barton, and Sally Louisa Tomkins are just a few of the Civil War nurses who made nursing a necessary and respectable occupation. Their tenacity continued after the war to serve the less fortunate.


Cherba, C., & Deckert, E. (2006). Nancy hill-Civil War nurse, pioneering doctor. Civil WarTimes,   5(8), 15-20. Retrieved from http:/

LaFantasie, G., (2005). Clara Barton. America’s Civil War, 18(2). Retrieved from                                                                                                                                                                 http:/

Raatma, L., (2005). Great Women of the Civil War. Minneapolis,MN:Compass Books.

Roper, R., (2009). Collateral Damage: The Civil War only enhanced George Whitman’s soldierly satisfaction; for his brother Walt, however, the horrors halted an outpouring of great poetry. American Scholar, 78, 75-82. Retrieved from http:/web.


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