The Civil War is considered the bloodiest and deadliest wars in the history of the United States. It began in April 1861 when Confederates opened fire on the Union soldiers at Fort Sumter. The war would go on to last four more long years until May 1865.
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According to American Battlefield Trust, about 2% of the population, or estimated 620,000 men, were lost in the line of duty. As the battle began, there was a shortage of war time labor and an increased need for women in white collar positions (Forner, pg. 547). Many of the roles that women were thrust into during the wartime labor shortage were short lived, but due to the number of ill and wounded soldiers, nursing was not. The Civil War made a significant impact on role of nursing and revolutionized the development of nursing as a profession for women.
During the Civil War, most nurses were male. In fact, they outnumbered female nurses four to one (Women Civil War Nurse Facts). The male nurses were usually recuperating male soldiers. Males were thought to be better fit to serve on the front lines dealing with combat injuries and women were thought to be better suited to work in hospitals or clinics (Stein, Alice). During this time in American Society, it was thought that women were not capable of performing important duties like nursing or government work. It was no easy feat to bring women into a male medical system. This was a challenge all its own.
As more and more soldiers died during the war, there was an increased need for labor in the work force. This led to there being an acceptance of women in the work place even in occupations that were previously male dominant. Women during the time of the war felt the need to help in any way they could, many of them became nurses. According to Forner, the majority of men had the understanding that the work that women were performing during the war was a display of their natural capacity for self-sacrifice (Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! 5th ed., W W Norton, 2017. Chapter 14, Pg. 547).
Because of their capacity for self-sacrifice, women fit right in to the role of nursing. Even when women were told to go home because they were in danger, they insisted that they stay and help the soldiers. For example, an excerpt from the Reminiscences of the Hospitals of Columbia S.C., is a personal account of a female nurse. She states We will not go home until we have found shelter for our sick soldiers (Campbell). Their courage and determination is an essential component to the development of nursing during the Civil War.
In the beginning of the Civil War, the United States had no organizations of trained nurses in the United Sates. Dorthea Dix was a pioneer for women in nursing. She put together an all-female volunteer nurse corps. She was also named superintendent of the women nurses assigned to the United States Army. The nurses under Dorthea Dix were paid. They were not paid as well as male nurses but this was a start to paving the way for women to make nursing a career. According to Stein, female nurses only made forty cents per day while male nurses made about twenty dollars per month with better benefits. Although, they pay and benefits was not as great as that of male nurses, this gave women the ability to earn their own money and hold a profession.
The Civil War also had a significant impact on the improvement of overall healthcare. This improvement in organized health care helped keep women in the nursing field. The development of medicine and hospital systems progressed quickly to meet the demands of those who were ill or wounded due to the war (Dixon, Ina). Makeshift hospitals were replaced by field or pavilion hospitals. We began to keep medical records and started to spread good medical practice to doctors and nurses.
The Civil War was cause for new methods of prevention and treatment of disease and infection. This meant more formal training for doctors and nurses. Nurses became more familiar with treatment and prevention of various diseases, numbing medications, surgical practices, and medicine that created better care for soldiers. The development of advanced medical practices during the war helped shaped the profession of nursing.
The Civil War led to a greater respect for nurses. In 1892, congress passed a bill that would provide pensions to nurses of the Civil War (Weatherford, Doris). The war caused the profession to move from the home, where women typically cared for sick family members, to hospitals and clinics. This led to an increase in nursing schools after the war. The women would live and work at the hospitals. During nursing school, the women were expected to live a strict and disciplined life.
Doctor Marie Zakrewska was one of the first female physicians during the Civil War. She saw the importance and need for professional nurses. Doctor Zakrewska founded a medical school for women in Boston and in about 1872, a decade later, she began the nation’s first nursing school (Weatherford, Doris). This created a way for women to formally attend training and become credential nurses. This helped develop nursing into a respectable career for women.
In conclusion, the Civil War had a significant impact on the development of nursing as a career field for women. If not for the war, women would not have proved that they belong in the nursing field. They have the skills, talent, and natural capacity for nursing. Many women leaders in healthcare emerged when put to the test during the war. These women helped create organizations like the American Red Cross and develop organizations like the Army Nurse Corps. Women made a significant impact during the war by helping many sick and wounded soldiers. Women and the Civil War have helped shape nursing into a respectable career field today.
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