Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Diary of a Civil War Nurse: Hospital Routine and Turmoil


On most days Amanda Akin’s routine began at 6 a.m. with the sounding of reveille and ended at 9 p.m. when the night watch took over. Official duties included administering medicines and distributing the special diets prescribed for injured and ill soldiers. After dinner at noon, the nurses usually had several hours off to rest or go for walks. Much of their remaining time was filled with nonmedical tasks, writing letters for the men and attending to the many hospital visitors. Evenings were spent entertaining the patients, usually by singing and playing music.

Hospitals received an influx of patients following major battles, putting greater demands on all staff and confronting nurses with the severe wounds caused in conflict. On June 14, 1863, Akin wrote several entries in a letter to her sister, as soldiers from the fighting at Chancellorsville, Virginia, poured into Armory Square Hospital.

“It seemed to me this evening, as I sat at my table adding to the list of medicines—writing down name, regiment, list of clothing, etc., of the new arrivals, calmly looking at the poor maimed sufferers carried by, some without limbs, on a ‘stretcher’—that I had forgotten how to feel, … it seemed as if I were entirely separated from the world I had left behind.”

“Oh dear me, the cry is ‘Still they come’ and we are overflowing; they come now without order, and are received with but little ceremony.”
—Amanda Akin, 1863

Tokens of Remembrance
After a little over a year of service, Amanda Akin returned to her home in Quaker Hill. Before departing she purchased a cartes-de-visite photo album similar to the one shown here. These albums were intended for display within the home, and for sharing among friends and family.

Collecting carte-de-visite photographs (small studio portraits) became very popular in the 1860s. The relatively new medium of photography proved especially meaningful to people separated from their loved ones by the war. While at the hospital, Akin exchanged cartes-de-visite with coworkers as well as with those under her care. The images served as a remembrance of the many people who briefly shared in the community of the hospital during the years of conflict.

“July 20, 1864. The day has at last arrived to bid adieu to my ward and its absorbing duties, now realizing, reluctantly, how my life has been rounded within it….” 
—Amanda Akin

During the Civil War, hospitals sometimes published their own in-house newspapers, similar to the Armory Square Hospital Gazette. The Gazette was printed by two patients and edited by Mrs. Henrietta C. Ingersoll, a former nurse at the hospital.

The “soldier paper” consisted of contributions from staff and patients, as well as communications from distant friends. Amanda Akin submitted several pieces, including accounts of religious services and concerts, a verse on spring, and death notices for some of the patients patients under her care.

The Gazette was read in-house, also available by subscription, and sent to other publishers in exchange for their papers. During the war, newspapers of all kinds provided a way to keep up with the latest developments in the conflict and with news from home.

“The hospital is an episode in a soldiers life—sometimes a painful termination of it, which has many an event worthy of a chronicle. Such we propose this paper to be.”
—first issue of Armory Square Hospital Gazette, January 6, 1864

Image: Decorated Hospital Ward
Nurses worked to make their wards more cheerful and to provide special entertainments. At Armory Square, Akin noted: “Ward F was decorated with flags, evergreens, and hanging baskets of flowers” for the hospital’s first anniversary, similar to the ward shown here.


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