Thursday, March 15, 2012

Civil War Medicine

Patriotism aside the majority of women serving in union and confederate hospitals were working classes, and they were paid for their work as cooks, laundresses, matrons, waitresses, seamstresses, chambermaids, and the occasional nurse. In Southern hospitals alone at least 20% (if not more) of the hospital personnel were slaves hired out by their owners to care for the wounded. Typically in the North and South literate, well-connected women who entered service were referred to as nurses while working class women lacking literacy were given less impressive job tittles. Certainly, working class women felt compassion for the ill and wounded, but they also needed to sustain themselves and their families in their men’s absence, or because they were widows seeking respectable employment. (source: Civil War Medicine Museum)

Susie King Taylor: Courtesy East Carolina University

As a young slave girl, Susie King Taylor had been secretly taught to read and write. Her abilities proved invaluable to the Union Army as they began to form regiments of African American soldiers. Hired by the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers as a laundress in 1862, her primary role was nurse to wounded soldiers and teacher to those who could not read or write. Taylor served for more than three years working alongside her husband, Edward King, a sergeant in the regiment.

Susie King Taylor's memoirs are the only known published recollection of the experiences of an African American nurse during the Civil War. In a letter to Taylor, reproduced in her book, Lt. Colonel Trowbridge, commander of the regiment, praises her "unselfish devotion and service through more than three long years of war in which the 33d Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the great conflict for human liberty and the restoration of the Union."

With a nation divided, the American Civil War was a war to preserve the Union. For African Americans, it was a fight for freedom and a chance for full participation in American society. As all Americans sought ways to participate and contribute to the war effort for the Union, African Americans moved beyond the prejudices they faced to serve as soldiers, nurses, surgeons, laundresses, cooks, and laborers. Their participation challenged the prescribed notions of both race and gender and pushed the boundaries of the role of blacks in America.

African Americans who served as surgeons and nurses for the Union Army found themselves in both new and familiar roles as healers and caretakers. Surgeons were in positions of authority, which had never occurred in the United States while nurses received paid wages for their work. These men and women came from different backgrounds and life experiences, but their desire to participate in the cause for freedom transcended class, education, and social position. (source: Binding Wounds Exhibit)

John Van Surly DeGrasse, c. 1863 [Massachusetts African American Museum, Boston & Nantucket, MA and the Massachusetts Historical Society]

Most African American surgeons during the war were assigned to military hospitals or recruiting stations since many white surgeons would not serve alongside black surgeons in the field or be their subordinates. John V. DeGrasse, one of only two African American physicians who received a commission in the army, was the only black surgeon to serve in the field with his regiment. A physician from Massachusetts, DeGrasse received his medical degree from Maine Medical College and served as an assistant surgeon with the 35th United States Colored Infantry.

William P. Powell, Jr., August 1863 [National Archives, Washington, D.C.]

William P. Powell, Jr. was one of thirteen African American surgeons who served during the Civil War. Powell, a resident of New York City, received his medical education in England. In May 1863, he was hired as a contract assistant surgeon at Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C., a medical facility that cared for emancipated slaves known as contraband. Assuming the duties of surgeon-in-charge six months after his appointment, Powell remained at the hospital for one year during which time he hired several black nurses and made requests for camp improvements including perimeter protective fencing.

Relief Workers in front of United States Christian Commission storehouse in Washington, D.C., April 1865 [Library of Congress]

African American women and men joined the war effort working at hospitals, on the battlefield, and with relief organizations such as the United States Christian Commission. Their service was critical to the care and comfort of wounded soldiers.


  1. Thanks for posting this. The content comes from the National Library of Medicine's traveling exhibition, "Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine." You can find more information at the exhibition website at:



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