Welcome back Suffragette Kitty fans!
I’m very excited about today’s post which will focus on military nurses in honor of Memorial Day. This is a subject close to my heart, as I served as a nurse during the Civil War during my first iteration. My values as an abolitionist overrode my otherwise pacifist nature. My adrenaline shot into overdrive as I watched the men in my hometown of Concord, Mass., gather at the obelisk in Monument Square, the site where troops meet before marching off to war.
I wanted nothing more than to join them. But the same “misfortune” that forbade me from becoming a member of the Saturday Club, prevented me from joining the sons, brothers and fathers of Concord who set off to help abolish slavery that day. I was not born male. So, my war efforts were directed to sewing circles where we gals mended and made socks and such for our “boys.” Again, no offense to a stitch and bitch, but I was antsy for more. I knew the outcome of this war would change the face of the United States forever and I wanted in on the action.
I heard there was a need for “girls” and “unmarried ladies” to work as nurses near the battle zones. I turned 30 in November 1862, with no marriage prospect in sight, so I was well qualified. Nursing then meant comforting the soldiers before and after surgery. Bachelor degrees were not required, nor any medical experience really, just compassion and – as I would learn – a strong stomach. Apparently, many other “girls” and “unmarried ladies” had the same urgency to be part of the action, so I had trouble securing a position. My father, Bronson, helped me network, and I was assigned to a makeshift medical facility in Georgetown.
Coincidentally, my first day on the job was the first day of the Battle of Fredericksburg. During my first moments as a military nurse, I witnessed bloodied teenage boys and young men – many missing more than one limb – praying for either survival or death. My life changed forever. Six weeks into my stint, I contracted typhoid fever, which sadly, was the beginning of the end for me. I had to return home. In those days, a mercury-based medication was used to treat typhoid fever. Once injected, the mercury perpetually poisoned me until my death, a true case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Though my nursing stint was short, I gleaned many stories and wrote about them in “Hospital Sketches,” a fictionalized autobiography taken from letters I wrote home that was published first in Boston Commonwealth, an abolitionist magazine. I disguised myself as protagonist Tribulation Periwinkle. (I toyed with Trial Ann Tribulation Periwinkle, but it’s a little much, don’t you think?) This book both brought the reality of a war hospital to those who have never been, and helped ease a little of my family’s debt. It’s still in publication and a quick read. Why don’t you check it out?
So, this weekend, being Memorial Day Weekend, which was first celebrated as “Decoration Day” in 1866 following the Civil War, I’d like to send a shout out to all the military nurses, which like the soldiers now, come in both male and female.
And before closing, I want to refer you to an excellent post highlighting my military nursing days. It is from the blog historical digression, which truly raises the bar of blogs. Host Patrick Browne wrote a piece about “Hospital Sketches” in late 2010 and it includes many excerpts and other interesting facts. I know you will enjoy it.
I also want to re-recognize (is that a word?) nurse extraordinaire Jane Delano. She is the one who made the battle cry for nurses at the onset of World War I. Besides being a skilled nurse, Jane served helped the profession become esteemed. Thank you Jane and Thank You military nurses everywhere!