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Today the nursing profession is predominantly associated with women. During the first 150 years of the United States, this was not the case.
Around the time of the American Revolution, the many women in and around soldiers' encampments were typically wives, daughters, and mothers who followed the military because they were unable to otherwise support themselves after men left home. Their presence made it possible for General George Washington to act on a request by General Horatio Gates for women to care for his wounded soldiers in 1775 – work until that point done by fellow male soldiers. In July 1775, a plan was created that provided one nurse for every 10 patients and became the first instance of an organized nursing system in the military.
Although a similar system was developed for the War of 1812, it relied primarily on camp wives, who were paid for this service, as opposed to an organized system of nursing professionals. Women traditionally did not have the opportunity to train as nurses and doctors. Women were not sought-after as professionalized nurses and allowed to serve in hospitals until the Civil War, a shift due to the shortage of male medical practitioners.
During the late 19th century, well-known nurses like Dorothea Dix, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton became essential to the professionalization and advocacy of the nursing field. But lesser known women, made advances as well. These women were the unsung heroes of wartime, providing care and comfort to soldiers who were in hospitals. Here are a number of those "healing heroines" that are worth inscribing on your memory.
Mary Ann Cole served as nurse for the United States during the War of 1812. Just as they had been during the American Revolution, women who followed the camp were employed in this capacity. The women were chosen by lottery system; six wives were chosen for every 100 soldiers. Cole was present during the Siege of Fort Erie, Ontario, from July to October 1814. She cared for those sick in the hospital – preparing their meals and dispensing medications — and keeping medical records for the Regimental Surgeon. She became the Matron of the American hospital during the Battle of Lundy's Lane, which saw 1,800 casualties.
Susie King Taylor was an African American woman born into Georgia slavery in 1848 and secretly educated. When she was 14, the Union navy attacked Fort Pulaski and many slaves escaped to the federal lines. She was married in 1862 to Edward King, who was a soldier in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, (later the 33rd United States Colored Troops) one of the first all African American Union regiments, so she signed on as a nurse for the regiment. She cared for the wounded, cooked for the regiment, did the regimental laundries, and even taught the soldiers of the regiment how to read and write. Taylor served as a nurse at a hospital for African American soldiers in Beaumont, South Carolina, where she met and worked with Clara Barton. For four years and three months, she served the Union military without pay.
Of more than 3,500 Medals of Honor awarded, only one has ever been given to a woman, Dr. Mary Walker. And it was rescinded just before her death, but has since been restored. Walker was born in New York to abolitionist parents who encouraged her learning. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College as a doctor in 1855 and, after running a private practice with her husband, joined a Union medical camp in 1862. While working with the army, Walker went against conventional dress and wore a bloomer outfit, made up of a skirt worn over trousers as well as an overcoat, in order to better treat her patients. was lauded for her willingness to go behind enemy lines and serve all those in need, even if it meant imprisonment. During her time as a prisoner of war, she continued treating those around her. In 1916, Congress made the decision to revoke 900 Medals of Honor distributed to civilians. There had been no equivalent civilian award at the time of the Civil War, but one had been created subsequently and Congress sought to rescind what it now felt were invalidated recognitions. Walker and others fought this decision, and she continued to wear the Medal for the two years until her death. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her Medal of Honor.
Due to the widespread belief that people of African descent were immune to tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, the medical community sought out nurses of color. This was seen as early as the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, and continued to be practiced well into the 19th century. Namahyoke Sockum Curtis served as a nurse during the Spanish-American War. Curtis, who was of African American and Pueblo descent, was married to the Superintendent of Freedman's Hospital (now the Howard University Hospital). She was already hired by the Army as an "immune nurse" during the war and was tasked with hiring other African American nurses. Curtis and the 32 nurses she hired went to Santiago, Cuba in July and August 1898 and cared for Americans effected by outbreaks of typhoid and yellow fever. At least two women she hired died of typhoid fever. Despite the scientific community identifying mosquitos as the cause of yellow fever in the 1880s, the practice of using African American nurses and soldiers, identified as "immune" continued as seen in the Spanish-American War.
Anita Newcomb McGee, is considered the founder of the Army Nurse Corps. In 1892 she received a medical degree from Columbian College (now George Washington University). In 1898, during the Spanish American War, McGee became the acting assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Army, and, thus, the only woman then authorized to wear an officer uniform. Even today, she remains the only woman to have held the position of assistant surgeon general. McGee recognized the lack of male nurses available and suggested recruiting female nurses through the Daughters of the American Revolution, of which she was a member. She required her nurses to have graduated from an accredited nursing training program and wrote the manual for Army Nurses in 189. McGee also helped draft much of the legislation that established the Army Nurse Corps on February 2, 1901, under the Army Reorganization Act. She went on to establish the Society of Spanish-American War Nurses, and passed away in 1940. She was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery.
Not only did these women help advance the medical field, they contributed to the U.S. military and showed that non-combatants play a vital role in the war effort. March is Women's History Month, and in recognition of the important roles women have played in the development of the United States, the American Battlefield Trust seeks to present their oft untold stories. Be sure to join us our page on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @Battlefields, and Instagram at @AmericanBattlefieldTrust for more historic content. Additionally, check out our "Women in War" page, as well as our many biographies.