Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Can Two 19th Century Cartoons Reveal About Disease and Hysteria?

By Medicine and Science Intern Kayla Reddecliff , 12-16-14

Every few years, we read the headlines about a new, or resurgent, disease that threatens global health. Fears of transfer erupt and hysteria sets in, at least in the initial months. If someone coughs in public, I'll recoil in concern; who knows if they have this year’s contagious disease? Every stranger becomes suspect. Of course, a more rational version of myself would realize that a cough could be caused by anything.

When it comes to disease, fear of air quality and of strangers has historical roots. One of the first epidemic diseases to excite worldwide hysteria was cholera. According to Dr. Margaret Linley, cholera became "a media disease," through the explosion of widely disseminated writings and images that intensified fear of the disease. Likewise, the historian Christopher Hamlin, explains, "it was the magnitude of the reaction to it that cholera stands out as the signal disease of the 19th century." Despite its extensive media coverage, cholera was far from the greatest killer of the 19th century (compared to malaria and tuberculosis) and rarely visited western nations.

We now know that the Vibrio comma is a marine organism that spreads through infectious vomit and fecal matter (that can contaminate food, water supplies, and even linen), but cholera remained a mysterious disease throughout much of the 19th century. When it first reached Europe and North America in 1832, cholera came as a shock to 19th century sensibilities as fluids streamed uncontrollably from both ends. Dehydration turned skin a deathly blue, made eyes appear sunken, and thickened the blood. Its onset was sudden and it could kill within hours. This initial visit would kill thousands and "King Cholera" returned to western nations four more times during the century.

While researching cholera for my advisor at the museum, I found two seemingly humorous cartoons dating to the 1830s in the museum's Medicine and Science collection. These images were first loaned to the museum—when it was still the National Museum of History and Technology—in 1945 as part of a collection of European pharmaceutical artifacts from the 15th to 19th century. Both titled "Cholera Prevention Man," they depict a man covered from head to toe in protective layers in an attempt to safeguard himself from the oncoming cholera epidemic. Germ theory had not been developed, nor was the cause of cholera understood, but bodies were still in danger. Medical writings and images were internationally exchanged, as Western nations tried to find cures and explain the horrifying disease.

The first image illustrates many 19th century remedies and preventatives for cholera. Wrapped around his waist is a grey "cholera belt" (a thermal remedy primarily used by British soldiers in order to keep the body warm), while a mask and container of camphor or vinegar vapors envelope his face in an effort to neutralize any cholera miasmas that tainted the atmosphere. He stands in a doorway made of boxed medicinals (such as calomel, cayenne pepper, and laudanum) as well as other treatments for cholera: a clyster and hot water bottle (to administer enemas) and a commode. The words roughly translate to "a well stocked home to prevent cholera." However, the ghostly apparition of cholera still lurks behind the man. Desperate people stocked their “medicine cabinets” with numerous treatments and remedies from both medical men and quacks alike that ranged from sadly ineffective to wildly dangerous.

The second cartoon (published both in German and English) is a satirical comment on the effectiveness of the overabundance of protective items that were sought out as fear of the approaching cholera pandemic grew. In the English version of this cartoon, the caption warns: "By exactly following these instructions you may be certain that the cholera… will attack you first." Early theory established that cholera was not contagious because filth and overall poor sanitation that produced miasmas in the air were attributed to its cause.

Both cartoons express this miasma theory through their concern with purification and sanitation (the man has both a juniper bush and vapor mask to purify the air). Yet, in mocking the effectiveness of the protective items, the cartoon expresses a widespread uncertainty regarding cholera's contagiousness since it was known to travel along trade routes over land and sea. This uncertainty of the disease's contagiousness is reflected in the ex-mayor of New York's, Philip Hone's, personal writings on September 20, 1832, "It is stated that forty-nine thousand five hundred and sixty-nine emigrants have arrived at Quebec… a large proportion find their way into the United States destitute and friendless. They have brought the cholera this year, and they always bring wretchedness and want."

Cholera became intertwined with the anxieties over the health of the social body. Not surprisingly, poverty and immigrants seemed to attract the disease. Cholera did strike its victims disproportionally from the poor; however, in the 19th century a life of filth and ruined morality was largely seen as a personal choice, instead of a result of poverty, poor infrastructure, and a lack of resources. Both cholera and immigration influenced newly forming cities. While Western nations became increasingly involved in the global world in the 19th century, there were increased global movements of people, especially from non-Protestant and non-white backgrounds. In America, the threat of cholera was one of the biggest concerns proposed by those who supported restricted immigration. Two of the earliest International Sanitary Conferences (the predecessor to the World Health Organization) grappled with the issue of cholera's contagiousness as well as with the attempt to coordinate measures to prevent cholera's spread from India (as it was regarded to be the home of cholera) into Europe.

In Western nations, huge capital investments in water sanitation created cholera-free cities while other measures within cities began under public health movements in order to track the disease and prevent its spread. However, the stigma of filth as a cultural choice is still prevalent as countries in Africa, South Asia, and South America deal with the seventh pandemic that has been raging since the 1960s as a result of a lack of infrastructure and resources.

Kayla Reddecliff is an intern in the Medicine and Science department. One of her favorite areas of study is the history of fashion, so disease prevention costumes were a perfect fit.

Image 1: The Cholera Prevention Man. Moritz Gottlieb Saphir, Germany and England, ca., 1832. Thousands of copies of this image were produced and disseminated. Image from the museum's Medicine and Science collection.

Image 2: The Cholera Prevention Man. Wundet, Germany and England, ca., 1830s

From: americanhistory.si.edu

CSS St. Philip

From: navsource.org

In the Civil War, there was steamship "Star of the West" which was used by the Confederate States Navy as "CSS Saint Philip", serving as a naval station and hospital ship.

Awards, Citations and Campaign Ribbons: Civil War Medal

Sidewheel Steamer:
Built in 1852 as the brigantine=rigged sidewheel steamer SS San Juan by Jeremiah Simonson, Greenpoint, N. Y. for $250,000
Renamed SS Star of the West, date unknown, operated passenger service between New York and California
Chartered by the Federal Government in January and April 1861 to carry reinforcements to Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C. and to carry troops from Texas to New York
Captured by the Confederate Army steamer CSS General Rusk, 17 April 1861, off Indianola, TX.
Renamed CSS St. Philip employed by the Confederate Navy as a receiving ship at New Orleans
Sunk by Confederate forces to obstruct the channel of the Tallahatchie River, March 1863
Displacement 1,172 t.
Length 228' 4"
Beam 32' 8"
Depth of Hold 24' 6"
Draft unknown
Speed 11.5 kts
Complement unknown
two 68-pdrs
four 32-pdrs
two vertical beam steam engines

Contributed By Tommy Trampp

Image: Engraving of SS Star of the West underway with Fort Sumter Charleston S. C. in the background, circa 1860.

Disease in Arkansas during the Civil War

By David Sesser, Henderson State University, 4-5-16

Disease was a major problem among the armies serving in Arkansas during the Civil War. Large numbers of men living in close confines made the spread of illness likely. As many as 700,000 members of the military across the country lost their lives during the war, and approximately two-thirds of them died from disease.

Outbreaks of disease were common in the state even before the beginning of the war. In 1855, a yellow fever epidemic struck Helena (Phillips County), and minor outbreaks of other diseases such as cholera and typhoid were common. The lack of major centers of population and difficulty of travel, however, prevented many large-scale epidemics before the Civil War. The state had a number of doctors in the antebellum period, but, while they did undergo some training, these men were not required to obtain any formal certification or standardized education.

With the outbreak of war in 1861, thousands of men began to gather in towns across the state to create military units. The close proximity of these men made the spread of disease much easier, as many were from rural areas and had never been exposed to common illnesses such as measles. Both a lack of trained medical professionals and little understanding of how cleanliness impacted health led to large-scale outbreaks of disease during the war. Camp Nelson near Cabot (Lonoke County) housed thousands of Confederate troops from Arkansas and Texas in 1862 before being struck by a number of epidemics. Measles, mumps, typhoid, and other diseases ran through the camp, leading to the deaths of around 1,500 men, including Brigadier General Allison Nelson. The camp was soon abandoned.

Federal units were also susceptible to outbreaks of disease. After the Battle of Pea Ridge, the Army of the Southwest marched across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas in an effort to take Little Rock (Pulaski County). Unable to do so, the army instead captured Helena, which had a strategically important location along the Mississippi River. As the Federal army crowded into the town, it was joined by hundreds of newly freed slaves. The close proximity of thousands of people in the riverside location quickly led to outbreaks of disease. Many waterborne illnesses that were spread through mosquitoes swept through the army due to a lack of sanitation in the camps. Hospitals were established in the city but could not treat the growing number of sick men. Federal military surgeons were trained to handle battlefield casualties but were ill-prepared to handle the large numbers of soldiers suffering from diseases.

The large number of sick troops hampered Union operations in eastern Arkansas for the remainder of the war. In the summer of 1863, a force under the command of Major General Frederick Steele moved from Helena in an effort to capture Little Rock. In the short march from Helena to Clarendon (Monroe County) on the White River, thousands of troops fell ill from various maladies. Steele was forced to transport his sick troops to DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), where a new hospital was established. As the expedition continued, hundreds more troops became ill crossing the Grand Prairie. After Little Rock fell to the Union army, men who had fallen ill were housed at St. Johns’ College. Confederate forces left about 1,400 sick men in the city when they retreated.

As Federal forces moved across the state and created outposts at strategic locations, they were joined by countless slaves who fled their masters. By the end of the war, Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Helena, and Little Rock all had large populations of former slaves. Union authorities struggled to provide basic services for these freedmen but were unsuccessful in preventing numerous outbreaks of disease that quickly spread through the encampments. The former slaves commonly suffered from smallpox, as well as diarrhea caused by any number of illnesses. Some estimates put the number of deaths suffered by freedmen at twenty-five percent in their first weeks in the camps. In March 1864, Quakers in Indiana sent two missionaries to Helena to establish an orphan asylum to provide for the children who had lost their parents to disease in the city. With such large numbers of sick former slaves, white troops continued to fall ill even in the face of better healthcare. Eventually, Union authorities responded to this medical crisis by establishing military farm colonies for former slaves in the Arkansas Delta. This allowed the freedmen to become self-sufficient and lowered the population inside Helena and other towns.

Men who were former slaves also enlisted into the Federal army. Stationed at Helena and other Union strongholds, these men continued to suffer from high rates of disease. This was in part due to both continued poor sanitation, as the United States Colored Troops (USCT) units often received the worst camping locations within the city, as well as resulting from a continued shortage of qualified medical professionals willing to serve in African-American units. A single general hospital operated in Helena, while the nearest medical facility for USCT soldiers was located in DeValls Bluff. Little Rock and Memphis, Tennessee, also had hospitals open to soldiers in Helena.

The large numbers of sick troops affected Union military operations and prevented commanders from continually launching large-scale operations. In Arkansas, more than 182,500 white Federal troops became infirm during the war. Only about 4,450 were directly related to wounds, accidents, and other injuries, and the remaining was from some type of illness. Some 2,348 Union men suffering from illness died in the state during the war. The number of USCT troops that became ill in the state cannot be precisely determined, but the national mortality rate for USCT troops due to disease was 148 per 1,000, compared with 88 per 1,000 for white troops.

Confederate troops continued to suffer from disease during the war, although seemingly not in as large numbers as did their Union counterparts. After the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the Confederate government organized a medical department in Little Rock. This organization used a medical board of local physicians to examine applicants for commissions as surgeons and assistant surgeons. This system effectively weeded out inferior doctors. A facility for the manufacture of medicines was established in Arkadelphia (Clark County).

Outbreaks of disease continued throughout the war in southwestern Arkansas after the fall of Little Rock to Union forces in 1863. Treatment of these men was often exacerbated by dwindling supplies of medical supplies. Reliable numbers on the number of Confederates who suffered from disease in the state are not available.

The end of war saw the rate of disease in the state slowly lowering. With a major reduction of troops in the state, coupled with freedmen no longer being forced to live in confined quarters, outbreaks of disease in Arkansas dropped to prewar levels.

For additional information:
Adams, George W. Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War. New York: Collier Books, 1961.

Bell, Andrew. Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Finley, Randy. “In War’s Wake: Health Care and the Arkansas Freedman, 1863–1868.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 51 (Summer 1992): 135–163.

Foster, Gaines M. “The Limitations of Federal Health Care of Freedmen, 1862–1868.” Journal of Southern History 48 (August 1982): 349–372.

Freemon, Frank R. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

Hacker, J. David. “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead.” Civil War History 57 (December 2011): 307–348.

Kellum, Rachel M. “Surgeons of the Severed Limb: Confederate Military Medicine in Arkansas, 1863–1865.” MA thesis, Jackson College of Graduate Studies, 2014.

Pitcock, Cynthia DeHaven, and Bill J. Gurley. I Acted from Principle: The Civil War Diary of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon in the Trans-Mississippi. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.

Steiner, Paul E. Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare in 1861–1865. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1968.

United States Department of the Army, Office of the Surgeon General. The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War. 12 vols. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1870.

From: encyclopediaofarkansas.net


From: fisher.k12.il.us

Amputations were a common surgery performed in the civil war. Doctors said that it saved many more lives than it killed. Survival rate for amputations done in the first 24hrs. After an injury was very good with mortality. If they were done after the first 24hrs -mortality rate doubled to 50%. Surgeons tried to go as fast as possible. It’s generally a myth that most operations were performed without anesthesia with only a bullet to bite.

Their procedure:

1st-they cut off blood flow with a tourniquet.

2nd-after that he’d take a scalpel and slice through the outlying tissue and flesh.

3rd-Then he’d use a hacksaw-like tool called a capital saw to saw through the bone. (It had replaceable blades.)

4th-after bone and flesh was all sliced off the surgeon would take silk sutures in the north and cotton sutures in the south and sew the major arteries and veins together. This limb would be dropped on a pile that got thrown out on the platform. This would take about 15 min.

Amputation tools

Proving an amputation or surgical kit was used in the Civil War is difficult. There were two types of amputation blades, The circular blade which would more than likely be earlier then the Civil War, and the straight blade about the time of the Civil War.

Walter Reed and Armory Square: Saying Goodbye to 2 Historic D.C. Military Hospitals

By Diane Wendt, NMAH, 7-29-11

Editor's Note: This is the fourth post in a series featuring additional context about "So Much Need of Service": The Diary of a Civil War Nurse, a joint exhibition with the National Library of Medicine that documents the experiences of those who contributed to the Civil War effort, such as nurses Amanda Akin and Anna Lowell.

As I read in the papers about the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I am reminded of the closing of another military hospital in Washington, D.C., nearly 150 years ago.

From the last issue of the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, August 21, 1865:

Last Monday it was decided to close Armory Square Hospital, at once. This announcement was not wholly unexpected, vague rumors having been in circulation for a week or two past. We had hoped that our hospital would be the last to close . . .

During the last three years, thousands of our brave soldiers have been inmates of Armory Square . . . One cannot conceive of a gun-shot wound that has not been treated here. Of nearly every disease in the catalogue we have had examples. Such an opportunity for the practice of surgery, or the study of pathology and the treatment of disease, will not probably occur again soon. God grant that the stern emergency of a bloody civil war, which rendered so many asylums for our wounded and sick soldiers a necessity, may never again arise to curse with its mildew blights our native land.

We now bid adieu to Armory Square—but not without some regrets . . . Within its walls we have learned many a lesson of wisdom, of patience under suffering—of the keenest grief—of faith, forgiveness, of true manhood . . .

Armory Square Hospital was built in the second year of the Civil War on land adjacent to the Smithsonian Institution, approximately where the National Air and Space Museum stands today. The hospital is the subject of a small display showcasing the diary of a woman who served as a nurse there. Armory Square was open for only three years (1862-1865), but in that time it administered to over 13,000 wounded and sick soldiers. In addition, the hospital employed individuals from privileged backgrounds as well as newly freed slaves, and served as a temporary home for a staff of several hundred people, including surgeons, clerks, attendants, nurses, cooks, laundresses, and guards.

Diane Wendt is Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.

Image: Interior of Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, 1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

From: americanhistory.si.edu

Harriet Tubman USA: Underground Railroad "Conductor", Nurse, Spy, 1820/1821 - 3-10-1913

From: civilwar.org

Perhaps one of the best known personalities of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery as Araminta Ross, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, sometime in 1820 or 1821. As a child, Tubman was “hired out” to various masters who proved to be particularly cruel and abusive to her. As a result of a head injury caused by one of these men, she suffered from seizures and “visions” for the rest of her life, which she believed were sent from God.

In 1840, Tubman’s father was freed as a result of a stipulation in his master’s will, but continued to work for his former owner’s family. Although Tubman, her mother, and her siblings were also supposed to be freed, the law was ignored and they remained enslaved. Tubman married a free black in 1844, and changed her first name from Araminta to Harriet.

In 1849, Tubman became seriously ill with complications from her head injury, and her owner decided to sell her, but could not find a buyer. After her owner’s sudden death, the family began selling off all of the slaves. Not wanting to have her family separated, Tubman was determined to escape. A first attempt, in which Tubman was accompanied by her brothers, was aborted when they had second thoughts. Tubman decided to try again on her own, and she escaped via the Underground Railroad into Pennsylvania.

Tubman settled in Philadelphia and was able to support herself doing odd jobs. But in 1850, word came that her niece and her two children were to be sold. Tubman was determined to help, and went back to Maryland. With the assistance of her brother-in-law, Tubman was able to bring her niece and the two children back safely to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips that Tubman would make to lead family members and others to freedom. On one expedition, Tubman contacted her husband in the hopes that he would follow her to Pennsylvania, but he had remarried and preferred to remain in Maryland.

Over the course of 11 years, Tubman rescued over 70 slaves from Maryland, and assisted 50 or 60 others in making their way to Canada. During this time, her reputation in the abolitionist community grew, and she became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and John Brown. She also moved her base of operations to Auburn, New York, closer to the Canadian border. Tubman conducted her last rescue mission in November 1861, as the Civil War enveloped the nation.

Tubman offered her services to the Union Army, and in early 1862, she went to South Carolina to provide badly needed nursing care for black soldiers and newly liberated slaves. Working with General David Hunter, Tubman also began spying and scouting missions behind Confederate lines. In June of 1863, she accompanied Colonel James Montgomery in an assault on several plantations along the Combahee River, rescuing more than 700 slaves. Her deed was celebrated in the press and she became even more famous.

With the end of the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, NY and married a Civil War veteran. Although her service in the Union Army was much publicized, she had great difficulty in getting a pension from the government, but was eventually awarded a nurse’s pension in the 1880s. She did not stay idle in her later years, taking on the cause of women’s suffrage with the same determination she had shown for abolition.

Tubman established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged on a property adjacent to her own. After undergoing brain surgery to try to alleviate the symptoms from the head injury that had plagued her since childhood, and being essentially penniless, Tubman was forced to move into the home herself in 1911. She died there on March 10, 1913, surrounded by family and friends. She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.

Paddlewheelers And Hospital Ships

From: minecreek.info

When Robert Fulton designed the first working steamboat in 1807, he probably didn't realize that his invention would lead to one of the most interesting innovations of the Civil War. Steamboats revolutionized river travel during the 1800s: for the first time, people were able to travel up and down America's mighty waterways under motorized power, rather than relying on muscle or the wind. Steamboats became the fastest and most efficient way to transport people and goods up and down the United States rivers. St. Louis, Missouri, a major port on the Mississippi River, had more than 3,000 steamboat arrivals in 1850 alone.

When the Civil War erupted, control of the country's rivers became more important than ever. Both the Confederate and Union armies had flotillas of boats they used as floating barracks, supply ships, and gunboats for fighting against artillery units.

Contrabands to Freedom
For many runaway slaves in the South, the best chance for freedom was to get on board a Union boat like Red Rover as it steamed up or down the Mississippi River. These slaves were called "contraband," and many ships hired them to serve as cabin boys, carpenters, laborers, cooks, stewards, crewman, and nurses. Working on board Red Rover had many advantages, one being the pay: the ship's records show that several chambermaids were paid$20 a month for their work. In comparison, the base pay for infantrymen in the Union army was only $13 a month.

Confederate Paddlewheelers
The Confederate paddlewheeler Red Rover was on the Mississippi River near St. Louis when it was captured by a Union gunboat. The Confederates tried to sink Red Rover to put it out of use, but the Union was able to dredge it and repair it for service. And although the Union was desperate for more gunboats to patrol the Mississippi and its tributaries, it decided to try something new with the Red Rover, the army refitted Red Rover as a floating hospital.

Transporting wounded soldiers by boat was nothing new for either army, but it was usually a pretty terrible experience for soldiers who were already paddlewheelers—pros and cons:

One reason paddlewheelers became so prevalent during the 1800s was that they were ideally suited to river travel: most paddleboats had a draft of no more than 6 or 7 feet, and some had as few as 4 feet, which meant they were able to steam up and down the wide, shallow rivers of the American West much better than any deep-hulled boats. The problem with them, however, was that their flat hulls were very difficult to maneuver if the weather or water got rough, since steering a paddlewheeler was very much like steering a giant box.

In bad shape: the boats were loud, dirty, and rarely had the supplies or personnel necessary to treat illness or injury. Transport ships usually picked up wounded soldiers at the port closest to the battle, brought them to the nearest friendly hospital, and dropped them off. Not a lot of medicine was being practiced on these ships, and the conditions were difficult.

Neither the Union nor Confederacy had ever created a complete hospital aboard a steamship before, and Red Rover was refitted with innovations never before found on a ship, all designed to help the sick and wounded. It had separate operating and amputation rooms, and the windows were covered with gauze to keep cinders and smoke from the smokestacks away from the know your slang patients. Rooms at the back of the ship had open walls to allow for better air circulation, and patients who had contagious diseases were put in these, as well as on several separate floating barges attached to the back of the ship. This helped keep the spread of very contagious diseases, such as measles and typhus, from infecting everyone on board. Red Rover also carried enough medical and food supplies for two hundred patients and the entire crew for up to three months—everything the hospital staff needed was on board, making the ship completely self-sufficient if it needed to be.

And while Red Rover was remarkable as the first complete floating hospital, what was more amazing was her crew: it consisted not only of the first women serving in the U.S. armed forces, but also the first African-American women hired by either side.

Red Rover's reputation as a hospital with conveniences, comfortable accommodations, and very caring medical staff grew quickly; so quickly, in fact, that fleet commander Charles Henry Davis had to issue an order to limit the number of patients being sent to the ship—it seemed like every sick or injured soldier wanted to be cared for on Red Rover. The order apparently didn't work all the time, since the ship's log shows that many patients came on without papers, or simply under the verbal approval of particular doctors or high-ranking officials.

Red Rover transported and cared for soldiers throughout the war, shuttling from port to port on the Mississippi River. Most of its hospital duties came to an end after the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, which gave the Union control over most of the waterways and marked the end of most of the river action on the western front. For the rest of the war, Red Rover was primarily used to transport supplies.

Civil War Facts & Trivia

*The women who served as nurses on Red Rover are credited with officially being the first women to serve on board a naval vessel. In most accounts, the nuns who served on Red Rover are given the credit for being the first U.S. naval nurses, even though the ship's records show that the contraband women were hired outright after being welcomed on board, making them the first paid women naval employees.

*From the end of the Civil War to 1908, women were not allowed to serve in the navy.

*The majority of Red Rovers crew was African-American: at one point, black sailors and crew outnumbered white crew by two to one. It wasn't until 1865 that white crewmen outnumbered black crewmen.

Nurses and the U.S. Navy, Prior to 1908

From: ibiblio.org

Nursing, in the sense of bedside attendance of the sick and injured, has existed in the Navy from the first. Performed by enlisted crew members, the function was increasingly formalized during the 19th Century as part of the duties of the emerging hospital corpsman rates.

Even in the early 1800s, there was a recommendation that women be employed as Navy nurses. Nothing much came of this until the American Civil War, when Catholic Sisters of the Holy Cross served in Navy facilities and on board the pioneer hospital ship USS Red Rover in the Mississippi River area. This was part of a great endeavor by Religious and lay women during the conflict, an undertaking that led to the post-war establishment of nursing as a real profession requiring formal training -- a profession both open to and dominated by women.

During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Navy employed a modest number of female contract nurses in its hospitals ashore and sent trained male nurses to sea on the hospital ship Solace. At the same time, the U.S. Army put women nurses on board ship, in its hospital ship Relief, and in 1901 obtained Congressional approval to establish the U.S. Army Nurse Corp (Female).

In 1902 the Navy's Surgeon-General proposed a similar arrangement for the sea service. Five years later, he reported to the Congress that "The Government supplies physicians and surgeons, splendidly equipped hospitals, and complete emergency facilities on every ship. The most serious omission in this excellent establishment is the want of that skilled nursing which civil institutions enjoy".

Image: Mother Angela Gillespie Founder of the Holy Cross Nursing Sisters. She was supervisor of the eighty Holy Cross Sisters who served as military nurses during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, 1965. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.


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