After Pamela D. Toler’s book Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses in the Civil War was published, she began giving talks about nurses during the Civil War as a spin-off. Toler, a freelance writer with a PhD in history and, as she says, “a large bump of curiosity,” is currently working on a global history of women warriors. She took some time to talk with us about Civil War Nurses.
You give talks about nurses in the Civil War. How did you get into doing this?
In some ways, I just fell into the project. PBS was looking for a writer to produce a work of historical non-fiction as a companion for their historical drama, Mercy Street. I had the right skills and was in the right place at the right time.
At the same time, the subject was made for me. I was that nerdy kid who hung out at the local Civil War battlefield on the weekends, learned to shoot a muzzle-loading rifle, participated in living history programs, and read and re-read the biographies of women like Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Writing Heroines of Mercy Street allowed me to return to my first historical love: the Civil War in general and the involvement of women in the war effort in particular.
Today, nursing is female dominated. But back then, women had to try and crack into nursing because men were doing it. How did they go about it? How did they break through the male-dominated war and get accepted? Who were the key players?
In the mid-nineteenth century, nursing as a skilled profession barely existed and most people didn’t consider it a job for a respectable woman. Before the Civil War, the Army’s Medical Bureau depended on convalescent enlisted men who were not yet well enough to return to their duties to work as nurses.
Even after Congress approved the formation of the army nursing corps, women experienced a great deal of resistance from Army doctors. They argued that women didn’t have the upper body strength to do the job. They complained women didn’t have the training to do the job—not that convalescent soldiers had any training. They were worried that women would suffer indignities in the rough atmosphere of the military hospitals. And some of them thought that the only women who would volunteer would be husband-hunters.
Civil War nurses won acceptance the only way women have ever won acceptance in male dominated fields: by changing the opinions of one man at a time. The longer a nurse was on the job, the more likely she was to conquer the prejudices of the doctors she worked with. By the end of the war, most army doctors had come to believe that the nurses they worked with were indispensable.
What are some of the most surprising things that everyday people don’t know about these nurses?
At some level, the question is what isn’t surprising about these nurses?
The most important thing is that there were no nursing schools in the United States before the Civil War. With a few exceptions, these women had no formal training as nurses. Most women of the period had some experience nursing a relative or neighbor, but taking care of someone with measles or a broken leg was no preparation for working in military hospital. When you read the letters and memoirs written by women who served as nurses, their first experiences of hospital work often made them ill and sometimes caused them to faint. They learned how to take care of patients on the job.