Civil War Nurses

by Corie Mikita 5/20/09

Tribute to Army Nurses in the Massachusetts State House


The Civil War was one of the most important events in American History. Every American at that time was affected by the war, and most people wanted to be involved to show their patriotism and earn glory. However only men were allowed to fight, and because of that, women’s sacrifices and devotion to the war are now barely thought of because they were shown in other, less noticeable and remembered ways. Women worked as spies, disguised themselves as soldiers, acted as attendants to family members who served as soldiers, and found many other ways to show their patriotism. One of the most common ways women contributed was as nurses to sick or wounded soldiers. Over 2,000 women worked as nurses during the war. At the start of the war there were no trained nurses, so both sides had to work quickly to organize care for the wounded. Sally Louisa Tompkins was a very prominent nurse in the Confederacy, and in the North, Dorothea Dix was organizer and Clara Barton a devoted nurse.

North and South

Juliet Opie Hopkins, Confederate Nurse
Juliet Opie Hopkins, Confederate Nurse

Nursing systems in the Union and Confederacy were very different. The South did not have an organized nursing system. At first, wounded soldiers who were not able to go back into battle acted as nurses to their fellow soldiers, but their injuries prevented them from providing the care their patients needed. Southern women began volunteer groups to take care of the sick and wounded. Slaves often worked with their masters when they volunteered, performing the more manual labor such as cleaning or mending. Volunteers used houses and donated buildings as hospitals, but because there was no organized system, the conditions were horrible, supplies were scarce, and the care was lacking.
Juliet Opie Hopkins opened a hospital in Richmond at the start of the war. She saw the need for places to care for the wounded, and took it upon herself to help. At that time, there were not many other hospitals, and most people did not recognize the magnitude of sick and wounded who would need care throughout the Civil War.

At the start of the war, Elizabeth Blackwell and Louisa Lee Schuyler founded the Ladies Central Relief Committee (LCRC) to begin an organized nursing system in the Union. The committee’s duties included:
  • Identifying nursing needs
  • Examining women who applied as nurses
  • Organizing medical relief efforts
The LCRC also began the earliest nurse training program in New York during the war. The committee, along with President Abraham Lincoln, appointed Dorothea Dix as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union. Dix tried to make the system more organized by creating a list of qualifications for would-be Union Nurses which included:
  • Being over the age of 30
  • Being of “good moral character”
  • Uniform of a plain black or brown dress
  • Having a plain face
  • Passing and interview with Dorothea Dix herself
    Dorothea Dix, Union Superintendent of Army Nurses
    Dorothea Dix, Union Superintendent of Army Nurses
The standards were high, but the nurses had an immense and stressful workload, and Dix had to make sure women who were appointed were up to it. Each nurse cared for at least 40 sick and wounded soldiers. Their duties included preparing food and feeding their charges, writing letters to their families, washing them, administering medication, and if they had the permission of the surgeons, changing bandages. Nurses also had the grim job of comforting and offering companionship to soldiers in their last hours. They usually worked for 12 hours at a time. The stress of the long hours, the gruesome sight of mangled soldiers, the deplorable conditions in the hospitals, and the exposure to illnesses caused many nurses to take ill and even die.


Nurses appointed by the Union were paid a fairly low wage for the hard work and long hours. They received $12 per month along with a daily provided food ration. Some nurses' and other Union women’s duties included cooking and cleaning laundry for which they were paid six to ten dollars a month. These wages excluded volunteer nurses who usually had to pay for their own supplies and hospital upkeep. Confederate nurses were paid much more that Union nurses. They had a monthly wage of up to $40. Slaves working with their masters did not receive pay. In 1892 the government recognized the nurses as veterans and paid a monthly pension to women who had worked for six or more months.

A Typical Nurse

An average Civil War Nurse was:
  • White
  • Middle Class
  • Unmarried or Widowed

Clara Barton

Clara Barton, Union Nurse
Clara Barton, Union Nurse

Clara Barton was born into a family of five children on December 25, 1821. At the age of fifteen, she began teaching, and before the war she founded a free public school in New Jersey. When the Civil War began in 1861, Barton was working at a patent office in Washington D.C. She met some of the soldiers when they came to Washington and was inspired to begin a relief program to help them. When she learned of the suffering caused by a lack of medical supplies after the first battle at Bull Run, she focused on that, and advertised for donations. Before the war, women were not allowed to work in hospitals, camps or battlefields. Barton had to battle through the prejudices and distrust of army officials to gain permission to treat wounded soldiers. She nursed only on the battlefields, and was present at sixteen of the gruesome sites. She worked tirelessly, and eventually earned the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield." In 1864, she replaced Dorothea Dix as the Superintendent of Army Nurses.

After the war, Barton devoted herself to locating missing soldiers. She later traveled to Europe and was inspired to start a Red Cross organization in the United States. Barton worked as head of the Red Cross for twenty two years before retiring. She died on April 12th, 1912.

Sally Louisa Tompkins

Sally Louisa Tompkins, Confederate Nurse
Sally Louisa Tompkins, Confederate Nurse

Sally Louisa Tompkins was born in Virginia on the 9th of November, 1833. After her father died, the family moved to Richmond, Virginia. Tompkins lived there when the war began, and like many others, she began a private hospital to help suffering soldiers. Her hospital was located in a house donated by Judge Robertson, and it was named Robertson Hospital for his generosity. Tompkins used her own inheritance to fund the Robertson Hospital. She treated 1,333 soldiers and only 73 died. Because of her high success rate, officers tried to send their most gravely wounded men to her hospital, and when Jefferson Davis gave the order that all private hospitals should be shut down, Robertson Hospital was allowed to continue. Davis appointed Tompkins as the first and only female officer in the Confederacy to get around the order that all hospitals be run by military officials. After the war, she continued her charity work, and spent all of her inheritance to help veterans, and others less fortunate than herself. Tompkins died in Richmond on July 26th, 1916.

The Big Picture

The image of the Civil War has always been of brave young men giving their lives for their country. Women’s role in the war has never been much thought of or documented. Anywhere from two to five thousand women served as nurses to wounded and sick soldiers from 1861-65. Nurses were barely documented, they never received acknowledgement for any accomplishments they may have made. All that was known of them was their name and the hospital in which they had worked. They had to work in awful conditions, and endure the damage to their reputation that the “unladylike” occupation of nursing caused. The war could have never gone on and turned out as it did if it were not for the tireless work of the nurses. Many soldiers were killed in the battles, but without medical attention, many more could have died. The work of nurses was equally as important as that of soldiers and should be equally recognized.

Fast Facts

  • 60% of all Civil War nurses were male because injured soldiers were recruited to care for their sick and wounded comrades
  • Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse in a Washington D.C. hospital and wrote about his experiences
  • Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, wrote about her experience as a nurse in her book Hospital Sketches

Hospital Sketches Audiobook:

Nurse Word Search

Hint: only names mentioned in this page appear in the word search

Civil War Nurse Video:

Additional Links

Civil War Medicine

Walt Whitman's poem the Wound Dresser which was inspired by his time as a nurse:


Clara Harlowe Barton. LSU Civil War Center. September 2, 2008. ****

Sally Louisa Tompkins. LSU Civil War Center. September 2, 2008. ****

Women's Role in the Civil War. Carnegie Mellon University. August 23, 2002. ****

Maclean, Maggie. Civil War Women. November 17, 2008. [[

Roder, Richard J. Nursing During the Civil War. In Waugh, Joan, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, vol. 5. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. (accessed May 19, 2009).