One great misconception many people have regarding nurses in both the Union and Confederacy is that they assisted the surgeons in medical procedures. This was for the most part not the case, except in rare situations in the field. During the Civil War women of both sides confined their duties to fit within the domestic sphere including providing religious counsel, aiding the mortally wounded soldier to face a “good death,” and writing about that death to his family.
Here are some interesting facts about Northern Civil war Nurses/Matrons:
Women hospital workers were classified into job categories, but usually soldiers referred to any hospital worker as a nurse or matron. Formal union hospital worker classifications using the term “matron” referred to the woman who had the responsibility of supervising the ward nurses in a general hospital. Union soldiers referred to regimental women (camp followers) who were hired to nurse, cook and do laundry in the field as “matron.” The term “matron also referred to someone who was a chamber maid.
- Over half of the hospital workers were not formally appointed or paid, but volunteer workers.
- Contrabands (African-American slaves who fled into Union lines) were put to work in Union camp hospitals doing various menial jobs such as cooking and laundry.
- Women of all classes worked as hospital workers (very rich, working women, middle-class, Northern free African-Americans, African-American contrabands).
- Working as a nurse or hospital worker was not considered a reputable job for a woman.
- The Union hospital system and paid women nurses di not exist until late 1861 after the First Battle of Manassas.
- Nursing was not a profession prior to the late 1800’s