Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War

Nursing Book Club

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War

A band of nurses

By Pamela D. Toler, Ph.D.
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

According to the jacket of her new book, Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War, author Pamela D. Toler, Ph.D., “has a fascination with historical figures who step outside the constraints of their time.” That description definitely encapsulates the story of Civil War nursing, and Toler’s vast research vividly brings that period to life.

Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers for the Union Army shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861. Although nurses were not specifically included in that entreaty, reformer Dorothea Dix set out to create a band of nurses to care for wounded and ill soldiers, following a model that had been established by English nursing leader Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.

Nursing in the mid-19th century was generally done by family members, not by strangers. There were no professional nursing schools. (During this period, there weren’t even any licensed U.S. medical schools.) However, the Civil War brought a demand for military medicine on a scale that until then had been unimaginable. When the war began, there was little precedent for battlefield hospitals, ambulances or onsite surgeries — all of these were yet to come.

Dix called for volunteers “of a certain type.” She preferred middle-aged, educated single women of strong health. Nurses, she said, should have “habits of neatness, order, sobriety and industry” and should “dress plain without ornament of any sort.” Ideally, they should also be plain-looking so as not to be a distraction to their patients.

Much of what Civil War nurses did could easily have been done by anyone and didn’t require professional training. Nurses found themselves cooking, cleaning, writing letters home or just sitting with homesick and ailing youths. More importantly, the nurses came together for a common cause: caring for soldiers the nurses thought of as their men.

The story of Dorothea Dix and fellow pioneer Mary Phinney von Olnhausen parallels many of the challenges facing nurses of later eras. The nurses back then had to learn by experience, carve out areas in the hospital for themselves and their work, struggle for supplies and payment, and argue with doctors over proper care and patient diet.

Civil War nurses advanced the cause of modern nursing in ways we can still appreciate today. Both during and after the war, nursing became work to aspire to. It was something that even delicate, well-brought-up ladies could learn — and it offered a career path for single women that was not farming or becoming a schoolteacher.

By 1862, the New England Hospital for Women and Children had opened the first U.S. nurse training school, which provided six months of practical training. By 1873, there were schools in New York (Bellevue), Connecticut (New Haven) and Boston (Massachusetts General). By 1900, there were 432 schools of nursing across the country. Before I read Heroines of Mercy Street, my entire knowledge of nursing during this period was the fact that Walt Whitman was a nurse — and I only knew that because my husband is a lover of poetry and once took me to Whitman’s home in Camden, N.J.

It was amazing to me that I have worked as a registered nurse for nearly 40 years and had never learned anything about the history of nursing in the United States. Toler’s well-researched book should be required reading and possibly the source of a few questions on future NCLEX exams.

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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