Bucklin’s Record: “A systematic course of ill-treatment toward women nurses” (Part 5)

Sophronia E. Bucklin

In Hospital and Camp, A Woman’s Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War by Sophronia E. Bucklin

It’s Week 5 of our read-along with extra historical notes and images. If you want to catch up on the chapter notes, just click here for the collection in the archive. This week we are looking at chapters 9 and 10.

Chapter 9

Nurse Bucklin was sent to Wolf Street Hospital in Alexandria. Located at 510 on Wolfe Street, the building had been a private residence belonging to Francis L. Smith before confiscation for military use as a hospital. It had at least one hundred beds for sick or injured soldiers, and was sometimes called a model for such hospitals. However, Bucklin gave a very different account of neglectful hospital staff who had an extreme prejudice against female nurses, even to the point of limiting their food.

Wolfe Street Hospital as photographed by Matthew Brady

The Mansion House Hospital where Bucklin said another nurse went was located at 121 North Fairfax Street. Its history and setting inspired the television series Mercy Street.

Here’s a map showing the locations of Forts Lyon and Ellsworth, both part of the network for the Defenses of Washington.

Much of this chapter details the inequalities endured by female nurses at Wolfe Street Hospital during the spring of 1863. One point I’ve been pondering while reading this memoir: did post-war writing and publication give women their only real chance to publicly call out the inequalities and patient neglect that their endured or witnessed during the war? Would anyone have believed them during the conflict? In most cases like this that I’ve read about, surgeons were pretty good at frightening, punishing, or finding other ways to suppress the truth getting out. Or if it did they would try to spin the story as “another example” of why women should not be involved in military medicine, in their view.

Many surgeons, at this date of the war, were determined, by a systematic course of ill-treatment toward women nurses, to drive them from the service. To this class the surgeons in Wolf-street Hospital belonged, without any shadow of doubt.

Take notes! Family members visiting hospitals put strain on the care system, staff, and nurses. Most Civil War hospitals did not have “guest rooms” and not all family could afford to stay at hotels if there were ones nearby. One of my pet peeves in Civil War historical fiction is not taking into account where family members stayed on those emotional and sudden visits or the stress and strain it could put on a hospital in reality. In Bucklin’s example, the visitors needed to eat, stretching the nurse’s already limited food supply.

Chapter 10

The spring of 1863 dotted the roadsides with dainty ?owers, studding the grass like myriads of stars, and seemingly unconscious that the dust, which blew over them from the neighboring high ways, was thrown from the advance of armies, which were to contend to the death for mastery.

This chapter has a sense of waiting and expectancy, probably increased because Bucklin was not allowed to do any actual nursing or management at the Wolfe Street Hospital. Relegated to sewing and minding the linen closet, she felt powerless to aid the wounded from Chancellorsville and dreaded the next large battles that everyone knew would happen.

Bucklin recorded the explosion of the powder magazine at Fort Lyon. This occurred on June 9, 1863. Twenty-five soldiers died, and she wrote about dead and injured civilians also. In the aftermath period of the explosion and at later times, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton visited the fort which was repaired.

This sketch depicts Ellsworth’s death in 1861. Also, note Mr. Jackson’s death at the same time. Bucklin recorded that Widow Jackson returned to Alexandria in 1863 to collect money for her support and then returned south.

Since Bucklin had very limited duties in Alexandria, she spent time exploring the area and particularly noted visiting the Marshall House. ECW’s Meg Groeling has researched and written extensively about Colonel Ellsworth and the Marshall Family, and here’s what Bucklin observed in spring 1863:

The Marshall House, within which Col. Ellsworth fell, one of the ?rst to die for his country, I explored to the very loft, from which he was bearing the rebel ?ag, when the traitor’s hand directed at him his death shot. I also stood on the landing, where the avenger smote the murderer, and memory bore me back to that May day, when the tidings of the death of the lamented young Colonel were borne through the whole land with electric speed, inciting others to catch up the fallen sword. It seems well, at times, to go back, even for a moment, in memory to the glorious acts of the brave men who gave their lives for the nation. It is our duty thus to honor them. History may write their ‘names upon its pages—yet we, who are blessed through the sacri?ce, should engrave their names upon the tables of our hearts, and be pleased to ponder upon their immortal deeds.

She also visited the slave auction site, noting the evidence of violence in the slave trade and how the place was used for a military prison or holding cell during the occupation of Alexandria by Federal troops. Since Federal troops held the city, it was a place of freedom for the enslaved and they could seek liberty within the line and become “contraband of war.” As previously noted, this did not guarantee a good or safe experience, but they would not be returned to enslavement.

Once again, surgeons found a way to force Nurse Bucklin from the hospital. Discouraged and waiting for a new placement, she volunteered to assist the Sanitary Commission and through one of their agents learned about an opportunity to help at Gettysburg—a tiny Pennsylvania community overwhelmed with thousands of dead and wounded after the fierce battle.

Days passed, and we knew they needed help. We knew they needed more than could be gathered from the surrounding country, and we besought Miss Dix to allow us to go. I could make one, I thought, in the scores which were needed. But, “No, you are too young for ?eld duty,” was the constant reply, and I chafed under the command which I dared not openly disobey. At last the gate was opened for me, and I passed through. Two weeks had gone by, and, one day, Mr. Knapp, of the Sanitary Commission, said to me, as I was tarrying in my restlessness at the Home, “ Miss Bucklin, will you go to Gettysburg, and help distribute stores?”

Having made up her mind and got permission from Miss Dix on her way out the door, Nurse Bucklin headed for Gettysburg, starting a new chapter of her Civil War nursing: battlefield and field hospital service.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to Bucklin’s Record: “A systematic course of ill-treatment toward women nurses” (Part 5)

  1. I wonder if she and Cornelia Hancock ever crossed paths at Gettysburg. Cornelia received a similar rejection from Miss Dix, if I remember right.

  2. Pingback: Week In Review: April 19-26, 2020 | Emerging Civil War

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