Civil War Nurses

Clara Barton and other Angels of the Battlefield

Nurses of the Civil War

During the Civil War, thousands of women joined the armed forces as volunteer nurses. Prior to the war though, the nursing field had been dominated by men and was still in its infancy. Women were considered too weak and frail to handle the rigor of dealing with the sick. Eventually, the number of wounded and injured men prompted women to start taking the role of health care provider. They at first only appeared in military hospitals rather than military field hospitals. The ever increasing number of casualties broke down societal expectations of gender, and so women began taking all forms of nursing jobs, and even began proving themselves as pivotal to the success of soldiers on the battlefield.


  • Before the war, women were not usually nurses. In fact, the nursing career field was very young and mostly men took the job.
  • The number of casualties in the war prompted women to begin taking the jobs.
  • They were usually not allowed in field hospitals, but rather in normal military hospitals.
  • The amount of casualties actually broke down societal norms, and women became pivotal in nursing and the war itself.


Some very popular names you may have heard came from the battlefields of the Civil War. You hear of great generals like Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall and Lee, but you also hear about a certain few Angels of the Battlefield. Very few nurses kept records of their experiences on the battlefield, but some did. These names include Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix.

Clara Barton would eventually become the founder of the American Red Cross, a foundation that supplies help and resources to people in need throughout America. All of it began with one battlefield Angel. Clara took initiative and brought supplies and resources to the battlefield before relief organizations were organized to do so. She was completely solo in her mission, collecting everything the soldiers may need: food, clothing, etc. Barton also helped to organize the battlefield, enlisting able-bodied men to give first aid to men who needed it most. Barton herself even got sick caring for the sick men in trenches! President Lincoln appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners, and her job was to comfort friends and family of the whereabouts of their soldiers fighting a war many miles away from home. She also helped to turn unmarked graves into marked ones. As the culmination of a decade of hard work on behalf of Clara, she formed the American Red Cross in 1880.

Dorothea Dix was also imperative to the war effort. She started a march on Washington, in which she gathered a group of volunteer female nurses and demand that the union allow them to help the wounded soldiers despite their gender. She wasn't always a nurse, before the war she was a crusader for mental health care. Her march was successful, and she became the superintendent of female nurses in the Union Army. She had very strict requirements of the women who wanted to help the war effort. She demanded they be in their 30s, a very old age at the time, and very plain looking. Brown or black clothing, no jewelry or accessories and whatnot. She denied nuns to enter the nursing operation she hosted. As the war got worse, and more casualties occurred, she was forced to lighten up on her strict standards. She accepted anyone willing to work. She never took one day off in all four years of working. After the war ended, and she was relieved of her duty, she still continued to work for individual soldiers and their struggling families. She's now on a US postage stamp.


  • Clara Barton single-handed brought carts to the battlefield, filled with clothing and other necessities for soldiers.
  • Clara also helped to organize the war, and help it to be less chaotic, by coming up with systematic solutions to problems with patient management.
  • Lincoln personally chose Barton to be there for the families of missing veterans, and helping families find the whereabouts of their friends and relatives away from home.
  • Dorothea Dix never wanted her time in the war to be emphasized, but she was extremely important to the war effort.
  • Dorothea demanded women be able to hold positions of care for the wounded and sick soldiers, and succeeded.
  • Dorothea never took a day off from her civil war duties.
  • After the war, Dorothea continued to help in every way she could. Her fight to help the mentally ill, wounded soldiers, and soldiers struggling to adjust to daily life was a life long mission.