By Karen Rodgers
Whether you call them “angels of the battlefield” or “madams of mercy” there is no doubt that nurses from the civil war made a tremendous contribution to the health and well being of this nation as it struggled to remain unified. The American Civil war was a bloody and brutal conflict that tested the resolve of the union and put individual human beings through extraordinary circumstances. Nurses not only endured those circumstances, but created the profession of nursing and organizations such as the Red Cross through their sacrifice. Here is some of the history of the contributions that nurse made during this conflict.
Dorothea Dix had worked with the infirm and mentally challenged for a long time before the civil war started. When she recognized the need for battlefield nurses she challenged the military leaders to create an Army medical core for nurses. They did not comply immediately but she rounded up nurses and started training them “the army way” – even making uniforms herself. Finally, the army created the Military Medical Brigade and allowed Dix to work within the system to provide health care to soldiers. She eventually won the badge of honor.
Working outside of the military establishment, Clara Barton also saw the need for nurses to be organized and help both sides of the war to get necessary medical care and comfort. She worked to create an organization of nurses and health care providers who would work without political prejudice and serve the needs of those soldiers wounded in battle. Her efforts eventually became the American Red Cross.
More than Just Hand Holders
Civil war nurses and volunteers performed a variety of jobs. From battlefield clean up and surgical technicians to cooks and care providers, unit hospital workers saw it all. Many nurses were empowered to give medications such as morphine, and others used their skill not just in nursing but in reading and writing to help soldiers send last comments to loved ones. A civil war nurse followed up with soldier’s kin after their death and returned their goods to their families. They created the holistic approach of total care, as well as the hospice idea of allowing people to die with dignity.
Nurses at Home
With the men and the doctors off fighting the war, civil war nurses also had a job to maintain the health care needs of people in their home towns. Nurses began to work as midwives, chronic care providers, prescribers of local herbs and homeopathy as well as Physician’s Assistants. Their skills were needed and used in a myriad of ways as they sought to treat the health care needs of the elderly and infirm, the crippled coming back from the war (many with morphine addiction), and the grieving who lost someone or everyone in the war between the states.
Many of the things today’s nurses take for granted were fought hard for on the battlefields of this nation’s bloodiest conflict. It is good to take time and remember the civil war nurses and all they gave then and now.
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