During the Civil War, almost five thousand women served as Army nurses. This pictorial essay looks at the "uniforms" worn by Northern women while working in the hospital, field, or camp.
In June 1861 Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Women Nurses. Dix held the respect of the public because of her leadership in the reform of prisons and insane asylums.
Her commanding physical presence dispelled any sense of impropriety. "Miss Dix was the stateliest woman I ever saw," Ann Wittenmyer wrote, "Her dress was always exceedingly clean and her linen collar and cuffs always immaculate." Dix extended her personal fastidiousness to the standards for nurses at the beginning of the war, writing,
"No young ladies should be sent at all, but some who ... are sober, earnest, self-sacrificing, and self-sustained; who can bear the presence of suffering, and exercise entire self-control of speech and manner; who can be calm, gentle, quiet, active, and steadfast in duty."
Their clothing should reflect their mature sensibility: "All nurses are required to be plain looking women, Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoopskirts."
The leadership's insistence on mature women caused a stir among the younger generation who seemed most ready to head to war. Jane Stuart Woolsey wittily remarked that, "Society just now presents itself the unprecedented spectacle of many women trying to make believe that they are over thirty." Georgeann Woolsey, Jane's sister, applied for a nursing post, although she was twenty-eight. To her pleasant surprise, she was accepted "by dint of taking the flowers out of my bonnet and the flounce off my dress; by toning down, or toning up, according to the emergency, I succeeded in getting myself looked upon with mitigated disapprobation."
Katherine Wormeley complained that her dress, sans hoops, was "rather medieval." Jane Grey Swisshelm described the ideal dress as "entirely destitute of steel, starch, whale-bones, flounces, and ornaments of all descriptions; should rest on the shoulders, have a skirt from the waist to the ankle, and a waist that leaves room for breathing." The outfit, she said, "led most people to mistake me for a nun."
The stricture against hoops was a practical matter, since hospital aisles were narrow. Jane Grey Swisshelm watched over a young man, who had burst an artery. After halting the flow of blood, the surgeon-in-charge insisted that the soldier be kept in absolute stillness. Two women, however, entered the room and one caught her hoops on the iron cot of the soldier. The tug opened the wound and "the young, strong life ebbed steadily away in a crimson current which spread over tile floor." Still, Swisshelm wrote, "Not one in a hundred of the women who succeeded in getting into hospitals would dress so is not to be an object of terror."
Mary Gardner Holland gave her hoops to the cause, so to speak. She wrote,
"It was fashionable at that time to wear immense hoops. I had worn one for some time, and really felt it a sacrifice to leave it off. Other requirements were agreeable but I felt I could not go without a hoop. I said, 'If I can't walk without it, I will crawl; for I must go, and will do the best I can."
Dix, and other leaders, envisioned a carefully selected corps of nurses patterned after Nightingale's Crimean mission. But the scope of the war soon overwhelmed them. Nightingale took thirty-eight women with her to a distant land. In the United States, the war was never far from home, and many women simply appeared at the front.
Following the war, Jane Stuart Woolsey wrote about the "system of women-nurses,"
"There never was a system. Hospital nurses were of all sorts, and came from various sources of supply; volunteers paid and unpaid; soldiers' wives and sisters who had come to see their friends and remained without any clear commission or duties; women sent by State agencies and aid societies; women assigned by the General Superintendent of Nurses; sometimes, the wife or daughter of a medical officer drawing rations."
As the war progressed, the nurses adapted their clothing to the conditions. During the Peninsula campaign, the United States Sanitary Commission stationed hospital transports on nearby waterways to care for the wounded. The harsh conditions and the crowded passages left their clothing in shambles. Katharine Wormeley wrote,
"This matter of dirt and stains is becoming very serious. My dresses are in such a state that I loathe them, and myself in them. From chin to belt they are yellow with lemon-juice, sticky with sugar, greasy with beef-tea, and pasted with milkporridge. Farther down, I dare not inquire into them. Somebody said ... that he wished to kiss the hem of my garment. I thought of the condition of that article and shuddered."
As her wardrobe deteriorated, Wormeley complained to Georgeanna Woolsey, who served with her.
"I know what I shall do," says Georgy, who ... suggests the wildest things in the calmest way. "Dr. Agnew has some flannel shirts; he is going back to New York, and can't want them. I shall get him to give me one." Accordingly, Santa Georgeanna has appeared in an easy and graceful costume, looking especially feminine. I took the hint, and have followed suit in a flannel shirt."
Woolsey described the "Agnew" as "a delightful black and white flannel shirt." The women walked a fine line between respectability and freedom, and reveled in it. Wormeley's loss of restraint in clothing spilled over to her diet, as she admitted that she now drank "coffee in excess and whiskey."
The two best-known Civil War nurses -- Mary Bickerdyke and Clara Barton -- headed to the front without official commissions. When challenged, Bickerdyke claimed, "I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty." Given this informal chain-of-command, a standardized uniform was impossible to require.
Clara Barton wore a plain black print skirt with a jacket. "She wished to dress," said a friend, "so that she could easily get about and not consume much time dressing."
"Mother" Bickerdyke's simple calico dress, heavy boots, and sunbonnet came to symbolize her work.
Helen Gilson, from Chelsea, Massachusetts, was turned down by Dorothea Dix because she was a mere twenty-five at the beginning of the war. Gilson served throughout the war and became a beloved figure in the hospitals. Katharine Wormeley said that Gilson was "part nun, part soubrette."
Some women donned trousers. Amanda Farnham came to an interview with Dorothea Dix in a bloomer-type outfit with full pants buttoning over the tops of her boots, skirts falling a little below the knee, and a jacket with tight sleeves. Dix looked the candidate over. "Mrs. Farnham," she said, "the dress you wear is ... a most abominable dress, and I do not wish any of my nurses to dress in that manner, but you came highly recommended, and I have long known of your work, but I didn't know you wore such a dress. However, you may wear it if you choose."
The insistence of plainness of dress and asexuality was not uniformly applauded. A correspondent for the Chicago Times complained that the nurses were "not much in the line of attraction."
"They seem imbued ... with the idea that there is nobody to look at them, and the customary attire is a faded calico loose gown, straight from top to bottom, ignoring waist and personifying the theory of the shirt on a bean-pole. The wildest imagination could not induce the divine admiration.... I think Miss Dix made a great mistake when she prescribed gaunt females, over thirty, for the sick soldiers."
One group of nurses wore a distinctive uniform -- the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Some three hundred (approximately thirty-four percent of the total membership) cared for the sick and wounded of both sides.
In the years following the Civil War, nursing training schools opened in several large cities. The New York Training School for Nurses at Bellevue Hospital was the first to adopt a standard uniform for student nurses.
Image: Camp Letterman, Gettysburg. Many nurses wore plain work dresses. (USAMHI)