Prior to the Civil War, no professional nursing schools existed in the United States, and males occupied the vast majority of all nursing positions, with the “Catholic Sisters of Charity” representing the only professionally trained group of female nurses at the outset of war. During the conflict, this newfound vocation for women, also provided opportunities for free persons of color, slaves, and convalescent soldiers. At war’s end, more than 20,000 women provided angelic care to wounded soldiers.
Many female nurses came from middle and upper-class families, so income probably did not serve as the prime factor, which motivated them to risk their own health while tending to the needs of others. In the North, white nurses earned $12 per month, while African American nurses received $10. In the South, where inflation ran rampant, a nurse working in early 1865 earned a monthly salary of $40. In 1892, Congress approved a $12 per month pension for those women who served in Federal hospitals.
Clara Barton, an employee of the U.S. Patent Office prior to the war, began her nursing career after the July 1861 Battle of Bull Run/First Manassas. Throughout the war, she followed the Federal armies from Virginia to South Carolina, instilling a level of professionalism and introducing standard practices and procedures for nurses. After the war, she assisted family members in locating their loved ones – men fallen on some distant field or incarcerated in one of many Southern prisons. In 1881, she formed the American Red Cross.
Alabamian Kate Cumming served as a nurse for the Confederacy in the western theater from April 1862, until the termination of hostilities. She experienced many of the same emotional struggles as nurses elsewhere, as witnessed in a September 1862 diary entry: “There is a good deal of trouble about the ladies in some of the hospitals of this department. Our friends here have advised us to go home, as they say it is not considered respectable to go into one [hospital]. I must confess, from all I have heard and seen, for awhile I wavered about the propriety of it; but when I remembered the suffering I had witnessed, and the relief I had given, my mind was made up to go into one if allowed to do so.”
In April 1863, after almost one year spent tending the wounded, Cumming lamented, “It is sad to see so many dying with no kindred near them to sooth their last moments and close their eyes. What a sacred duty is here left undone by our women! I do not say all are guilty of this neglect, for I know there are many good women who have their home duties to attend to, and others who have not strength physically…”
A poem, which Cumming penned after the war, perhaps captures the essence of the trials Civil War nurses endured North and South.
The wounds I might have healed –
The human sorrow and smart;
And yet it never was in my soul
To play so ill a part:
But evil is wrought by want of thought
As well as want of heart.
 Kate Cumming, Kate, the Journal of a Confederate Nurse. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), 65.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 4.
Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.