Monday, December 28, 2015

Navy Nurses in the Civil War

From:, 3-1-12

The Civil War was a time of many "firsts" for the Navy.  Now that it is the first day of Women's history month, it would seem poignant to talk about the historic first contributions of females in the Navy.  Like African Americans, these minority members of sea service exemplified the three tenets of the U.S. Navy: Honor, Courage, and Commitment.

Although nurses were not recruited in high numbers during this time period (especially for the Navy), effective clinicians would eventually become integral to the health and stability of any military.  It is no surprise then that disease, not combat, was the greatest killer of the American Civil War.

According to Susan H. Godson, the influx of nurses in the United States (Union) military grew early on as a result of  "the growing carnage on the battlefields."  Efforts were increased from newly created organizations like the Women's Central Association of Relief and the U.S. Sanitary Commission.  When fighting began on Virginia's peninsula in the spring of 1862, steamboats were converted into floating hospitals to transport the evacuated wounded.  The U.S. Sanitary Commission paid for the staffing of these ships with surgeons, dressers, and now male and female nurses.  Female nurses "prepared food, stocked shelves, and made the inform as comfortable as possible."   One of the more famous eastern transporters, the City of Memphis, was led by Mother Mary Ann Bickerdyke, perhaps the most famous nurse of the war.

In the West, ships did not have the luxury of swift transport to a shore hospital, so floating hospitals like the Red Rover were commissioned.  Commissioned on 26 December 1862, the Red Rover served with the Mississippi River Squadron for the remainder of the war.  The medical personnel included four nuns of the Sisters of the Holy Cross as well as five black women - Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell, Betsy Young, and Dennis Downs, who assisted the nuns.  These women were the very first women to serve on a U.S. Navy ship, and the predecessors to the Navy Nurse Corps of the 19th century.

Godson, Susan H.  Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy.  Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Image: Mary Ann Bickerdyke


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