The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War. Previously, nursing had been the responsibility of family members. The Army had no trained nurses. In military outposts, nursing duties were performed by soldiers’ wives, or by convalescent troops. By the time these men had developed useful nursing skills, they were usually deemed well enough to be sent back to active duty.
Convalescent soldiers were frequently joined in nursing tasks by volunteers, by troops called “malingerers”, or by men who had proven difficult in the field. Most had no formal training, but some adapted well to the task,. One of the best known of the male volunteer nurses was the poet Walt Whitman.
When the war began, the lack of trained nursing care became swiftly evident. The number of wounded soldiers multiplied, and epidemic diseases ravaged the troops.
Women began to appear in administrative and leadership roles. Mary-Ann Bickerdyke was a widow living in Galesburg, Illinois at the start of the war. Known variously as “Mother Bickerdyke” or the “Cyclone in Calico”, she received some training in nursing and hospital management from a physician friend.
Moving to the front, she procured equipment and supplies through the Northwest Branch of the United States Sanitary Commission, organized a support staff of “contrabands” and established diet kitchens and laundries for soldiers.
Women were sometimes called to assist in male-dominated jobs, but they were employed more frequently in the traditional roles of cooking, cleaning, laundry and nursing.
Men weren’t accustomed to encountering women in the hospitals. The many Catholic nuns who served as nurses were a new and unfamiliar sight to many of the patients.
The Confederate Congress passed a bill in 1862 allowing for the enlistment of women into the Confederate army as army nurses. Southern women flocked to the battlefields and hospitals. They served as volunteer nurses, provided bandages, food and clothing, and frequently took the wounded into their own homes. As in the North, many society women traveled great distances to serve their troops. Some of them published memoirs and autobiographies and wrote letters to newspapers and congressmen, bringing public attention to the plight of the sick and wounded.