Military nursing in 1861 was a brutal and haphazard affair. Performed by convalescent veterans, regimental musicians, or those soldiers "least effective under arms," nursing involved little or no formal training and was stigmatized as a sign of inability or cowardice. Capable soldiers shunned the work and hospital observers emphasized the absence of any meaningful system of nursing care. Afflicted soldiers sometimes concealed their wounds to avoid being taken to hospitals they saw as little better than prisons or morgues.
At the outbreak of the war, reformers from a wide range of social organizations met at the Cooper Institute in New York to establish a training program for military nurses. That meeting, led by Elizabeth Blackwell, resulted in the formation of the Women's Central Association for Relief, the core of the United States Sanitary Commission, later headed by Henry Bellows. In addition, Dorothea Dix was appointed "Superintendent of Female Nurses" and charged with recruiting women for an army nursing corps. "[O]ur Florence Nightingale," as Louisa May Alcott called her, Dix transformed military nursing into an organized profession and her ideas about nursing, medicine, disease, and hospital design were drawn from Nightingale's work in the Crimea.
Although he held an appointment from the Christian Commission, a branch of the YMCA, Whitman took pride in his status as a volunteer nurse and "consolant" of the wounded. Like Mary Ann Bickerdyke and Clara Barton, Whitman worked outside of any agency or institution and saw himself as an advocate for the private soldier. Working in the crowded, chaotic wards of Washington hospitals like the Armory Square, the Judiciary Square, and the Patent Office, Whitman wrote letters for afflicted soldiers, dressed wounds, distributed gifts of money, clothing, and food, and read aloud from Shakespeare, Scott, Miles O'Reilly, and the Bible. Whitman's hospital visits strengthened his belief in the dignity of common people, the crucial issue of his Civil War. Profoundly moved by the courage and comradeship of wounded soldiers on both sides of the line, Whitman felt that he had glimpsed in the military hospitals the very expression of a democratic America, and he cherished that glimpse as a turning point in his own life, what he later termed "the very centre, circumference, umbilicus, of my whole career" (Whitman 15).
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Fredrickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Greenbie, Marjorie Barstow. Lincoln's Daughters of Mercy. New York: Putnam's, 1944.
Murray, Martin G. "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 8.2 (1996-1997): 58-73, 92-93.
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Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's Civil War. Ed. Walter Lowenfels. New York: Knopf, 1960.
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