Worth a Dozen Men
Women and Nursing in the Civil War South
Publication Year: 2012
In antebellum society, women were regarded as ideal nurses because of their sympathetic natures. However, they were expected to exercise their talents only in the home; nursing strange men in hospitals was considered inappropriate, if not indecent. Nevertheless, in defiance of tradition, Confederate women set up hospitals early in the Civil War and organized volunteers to care for the increasing number of sick and wounded soldiers. As a fledgling government engaged in a long and bloody war, the Confederacy relied on this female labor, which prompted a new understanding of women’s place in public life and a shift in gender roles.
Challenging the assumption that Southern women’s contributions to the war effort were less systematic and organized than those of Union women, Worth a Dozen Men looks at the Civil War as a watershed moment for Southern women. Female nurses in the South played a critical role in raising army and civilian morale and reducing mortality rates, thus allowing the South to continue fighting. They embodied a new model of heroic energy and nationalism, and came to be seen as the female equivalent of soldiers. Moreover, nursing provided them with a foundation for pro-Confederate political activity, both during and after the war, when gender roles and race relations underwent dramatic changes.
Worth a Dozen Men chronicles the Southern wartime nursing experience, tracking the course of the conflict from the initial burst of Confederate nationalism to the shock and sorrow of losing the war. Through newspapers and official records, as well as letters, diaries, and memoirs—not only those of the remarkable and dedicated women who participated, but also of the doctors with whom they served, their soldier patients, and the patients’ families—a comprehensive picture of what it was like to be a nurse in the South during the Civil War emerges.
Published by: University of Virginia Press
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I owe a profound debt of gratitude to William E. Gienapp, the mentor of the original dissertation, without whose guidance this project would never have been conceived or completed. After taking a Civil War history seminar my first year of graduate school and writing the paper that eventually became my thesis,...
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Over 620,000 American men died during the Civil War. The enemy killed only one-third of those lost; two-thirds fell victim to disease.1 This book examines the experience of Southern women who nursed sick and wounded soldiers during the war—their contributions and sacrifices, their relationships with...
1. State and Private Hospitals
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The Confederacy lacked even a rudimentary medical system in April 1861. In the midst of creating a functioning government, the South was grossly unprepared for the inundation of sickness and casualties early in the war, creating an emergency situation that necessitated state and civilian involvement in medical care. State governments sponsored hospitals in Richmond to treat their own...
2. Matrons’ Work
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The staff of a modern hospital (excluding various physicians and medical specialists) includes nurses, nurses’ aides, technicians, chaplains, psychologists, nutritionists, therapists, social workers, and support staff such as janitors and kitchen workers, not to mention various levels of administrators and record keepers. In Civil War hospitals, female nurses often supervised and performed...
3. Becoming a Nurse
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As the Civil War quickly became a more protracted and engulfing conflict than most Americans had predicted, the scope of the medical emergency led to extensive civilian involvement in medical care. Because the war was fought by elected governments and citizen recruits, public opinion remained crucial for the maintenance of the war effort. The military precedent of using detailed and...
4. Ideal Nursing
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Prewar medical care was usually administered within the household; therefore, home became the standard against which wartime care was measured. Nurses, soldiers, and citizens began with preconceived attitudes about hospitals. Although female nursing, both within institutions and in private homes, was an established and growing occupation, hospitals remained either luxurious accommodations...
5. Civilian Women and Confederate Medical Care
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Women on the home front contributed to the care of sick and wounded men in two important ways. Those distant from the fighting created relief societies and raised supplies that helped keep hospitals stocked with food and other essential items, frequently forwarding those goods to official matrons. Women living near hospitals and battlefields often engaged directly in volunteer hospital...
6. The Hospital Labor Dilemma
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The need for nurses and other attendants to staff Civil War hospitals surpassed expectations. The antebellum practice of detailing able-bodied men or using convalescent soldiers in military hospitals proved inadequate but remained in effect throughout the war. Military officers, loath to lose good men, generally relinquished their undesirables and recalled details when they pleased. Although a handful made good nurses, many convalescents were physically...
7. Conflict and Cooperation
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Potential female nurses entered military institutions run by men on behalf of male patients. Their initiation into this masculine world initially occasioned two opposite responses. Soldiers immediately welcomed women, but surgeons, who held the power, regarded women with suspicion at best. Because soldiers viewed female nurses as a reminder of home in an otherwise bleak setting,...
8. Nursing and Personal Growth
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Civil War matrons changed as a result of their work. For most women, the war brought profound alterations to their sense of themselves and expanded their social connections and realm of experience, but it did not change the paramount importance of marriage and family. Following the war, Southern women had more pressing concerns than reflecting on the meaning of their...
9. Aftermath and Social Change
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According to Lost Cause literature, men emerged from the war with honor and women with renewed purity. White Southerners thus reconstructed their world and values through an embellished memory of the war. Individual hospital organizers and matrons became known as heroines, and as the Lost Cause solidified, nursing became a vital aspect of the general memory of Southern...
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Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012
Series Title: A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era
Series Editor Byline: Aaron Sheehan-Dean