- Worth a Dozen Men: Women and Nursing in the Civil War South by Libra R. Hilde
Libra Hilde’s Worth a Dozen Men gives us our first modern look at the Confederate nursing experience of women, a subject that has received little dedicated attention before now. Works on war nursing and relief work tend to privilege Union examples, given the comparatively large number of northern accounts and their wider circulation. After the war, many southerners could not locate publishers in the ravaged land, and as Alabama’s Kate Cumming and South Carolina’s Phoebe Yates Pember poignantly learned, northerners were not buying Confederate literary wares. The northern archive prospered because of a meticulous Union medical bureaucracy, whereas the decentralization of the Confederate surgical corps, the localization of hospitals and wayside homes, and the destruction of medical records in the 1865 conflagration in Richmond have obliged historians to reconstruct their stories from a spottier archive. Hilde insists that despite these disadvantages, it is clear that Confederate benevolence was no less systematic than its northern counterpart, as scholars of the U.S. Sanitary Commission have sometimes implied, and that women’s decision to nurse was a distinctly political act that ultimately gave them the status of soldiers. Based on an excavation of local and state records, as well as private sources, Hilde’s study thus provides a welcome addition to more general histories of nursing and relief work like Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades (1966), Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (1996), and my own Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America (2004). [End Page 601]
Organized in nine chapters that emphasize sites of care and relational differences among personnel, Worth a Dozen Men examines how healthrelated mobilization on the Confederate home front “gave women a platform from which to develop a particular type of political involvement that emerged from and expanded the importance of routine domestic duties” (12). If there was general consensus among hospital matrons that home production and Confederate independence were worthy objectives, there was also disagreement about what form nationalism should take in an environment where elites clashed with women of lower status and where slaves were “less than ideal” hospital employees because they understandably lacked “commitment to the Southern cause” (9).
Hilde’s reading of rebel soldiers’ preference for women attendants (like its Union counterpart, the Confederate medical service impressed convalescent men as nurses) goes hand in hand with their favoring smaller hospitals staffed by familiars. Even as women in both sections understood that their personal aid led to happier convalescents, Hilde detects greater reticence in southern women’s leadership aspirations. She asserts that while Union nurses “actively sought out and relished” medical tasks like wound dressing and “more willingly encroached on the domain of surgeons,” Confederate matrons hesitated to throw down administrative gauntlets, preferring instead to cultivate individual bonds with patients— what Hilde terms “unofficial nursing” (45, 49). Another Mason-Dixon line of divergence was visible in southern women’s anxiety about “the impropriety of . . . salaried work” (60). Northern elites also wrung their hands over the unseemliness of waged labor, but slaves and working-class laundresses, many of whom were illiterate and did not leave paper trails, might have expressed gratitude.
Hilde’s extensive discussion of nurse-patient bonds offers insights into wartime renegotiations of masculinity in homes and hospital wards. Confederate caregivers alleviated amputees’ angst by convincing them that their martial valor could be enhanced by their “patient endurance of pain to form a new definition of masculine strength that incorporated some feminine elements” (55–56). Hilde notes that over time such intimacies loosened the rigid etiquette of social address and “most profoundly convinced women of their importance in hospitals” (92). Soldiers themselves expressed admiration for their attendants by claiming that “one woman is worth a dozen men,” applauding women’s skill as morale boosters. However, women were as good at shaming wounded warriors...