- This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton
In her prior work on female health workers in the Civil War, Jane Schultz has set a standard for understanding the role of women in that vast conflict. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America (2007) greatly expanded our knowledge of these women, revealing their varied purposes, functions, and aspirations. In this volume Schultz extends this focus, taking up the story of Harriet Eaton, a war relief worker from Maine who left us a wonderful, detailed diary.
While Schultz's first book might be briefly referred to as a "history of nurses in the war," Schultz herself was careful not to put the word "nurse" in her title. The role of "nurse" with all of its modern connotations did not exist in the 1860s, and instead women in hospitals acted in ways that extended their usual behaviors in the domestic sphere. Yes, they gave medicine, fed the bed-bound, helped the surgeon change dressings, and assisted in keeping the patient clean. But women hospital workers also cooked, did laundry, supervised convalescent soldiers who were detailed as nurses, distributed items of clothing, saw to housekeeping tasks, and comforted the men with reading, music, and writing letters home. In southern hospitals much of this work was done by slaves or freedwomen, further confusing the issue. Defining who a nurse was and what a nurse did in any given hospital is a complex task for the historian, and when Schultz calls her manuscript source for This Birth Place of Souls a "nursing diary" in the subtitle, she is somewhat overriding the very complexity that her own work has demonstrated.
Eaton herself proclaimed that "the work in which we were engaged differed materially from that of a nurse in the Army" (226). Most Union relief workers generally served under the auspices of the United States Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission. While the work of women within the USSC has been well explored by historians Judith Giesberg and Jeannie Attie, state relief workers have remained largely invisible. Thus Schultz's volume on Eaton writes a new chapter on women in the war.
In the fall of 1862 the Maine Camp Hospital Association hired Eaton, a forty-four-year-old widow from Portland, to help distribute relief supplies to the men in Maine regiments who were deployed in Virginia and Maryland. After Antietam word came back home of wounded and ill men suffering from inadequate food, clothing, and bedding; the society gathered supplies and sent Eaton and a colleague to northern Virginia to help. In her first seven-month tour Eaton traveled from regiment to regiment, [End Page 104] visited their field hospitals, and passed out supplies and facilitated communication with families back in Maine by writing letters for the men, or sending sad missives telling parents of their son's demise. Such "roving nurses" were unusual, as Schultz emphasizes.
After recovering from an illness, Eaton was back at war work in 1864, this time in the receiving hospitals at City Point, Virginia. By this point in the war the Union medical corps had become much more efficient at moving wounded and sick men from the battlefield and camp, and there was less need for aid workers in the field. Instead these volunteers were limited to transportation hubs such as City Point, which served as a gathering point for the transfer of incapacitated Union soldiers to the hospitals of the North.
Eaton's diary and letters provide ample fodder for historians interested in a variety of topics. Details on the foods distributed provide insight into the nutrition supplied for the ill soldier. Eaton made gruel out of canned chicken; distributed lemons, oranges, and apples; made drinks from condensed milk; lamented an unusual absence of sugar; and otherwise revealed the bounty and variety of foods available to the Union troops. Eaton, like other female hospital workers elsewhere, challenged the behavior of doctors who she felt maltreated...