Love and Pain in Civil War Hospitals

For the full newspaper clipping, check out this link here to download the PDF.


A late-war depiction of a wounded Federal soldier telling a story to a group of visitors in a hospital ward. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“The pain of my wound was forgotten. I drank in the sound of her voice greedily, until at last the words lost their meaning and I fell into a sound sleep, the first I had enjoyed since I received my wound,” recalled a Federal captain in 1863 as he laid in a hospital bed after receiving a painful wound in his side.[1] This young officer was so apparently star struck by a beautiful young nurse from Washington, DC, that he had to share the story with one of the country’s most popular, pro-Democrat newspapers, The New York Herald. What made for an interesting story about love can certainly reveal more about how the Northern public perceived medical care, particularly towards the surgeons.

Firstly, the article itself depicted surgeons and nurses largely as “inexperienced.”[2] This was a common theme among wartime, and even post-war, representations of medical personnel, that they desired to cut off limbs or cause pain. At the beginning of the war, indeed were these doctors inexperienced in emergency medical care, but they did learn quickly on the job, resulting in faster, less painful surgeries and operations. According to historian Brian Craig Miller in his study of amputation in the Civil War South, “some doctors did perform ill-advised operations and produced an immense amount of suffering, chronic pain, and unnecessary death.” [3] Rumors from soldiers who underwent painful procedures spread throughout both armies, causing most soldiers to be fearful of “sawbones,” or the doctor. The surgeon in this tale was depicted in the same manner:

After the Captain is transferred from an undisclosed battlefield to a Washington DC general hospital, where he steadily recovered as a result of, “the ladies of Washington visited us regularly, supplied us with all those little comforts which go far towards rendering the endurance of pain easier.” [4] One day, this young officer felt “a dampened cloth” on his forehead from “a fair, beautiful girl.” [5] Named Miss Alice, the lady who tenderly cared for the Captain nearly killed him after administering the wrong medicine:

Even in this example, the surgeons were portrayed to be too busy and rude to care for one person.

In another part of the article, the Captain recalled after feeling significantly better: “our doctor pronounced me in a fair way to a very speedy recovery, and was rather disposed to boast about the efficacy of his treatment.”[6] As you can see, the surgeons were boastful and prideful about their own work, versus the work of the young lady that the Captain was giving credit to. He later writes, “confound your drugs, doctor, ’twas the young lady that did me so much good.”[7] In an article written by Jane E. Schultz of Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, “despite the hardening process that female nurse inevitably underwent, they could not always let go of patients whose circumstances had touched them in some profound way.”[8] It can certainly be said that the young Miss Alice had that sore attachment to the Captain, and vice-versa. More importantly, as seen with the Captain’s utter mesmerization in Alice, the “pain and discomfort made them childlike and utterly dependent on the people who reminded them of ministering mothers, wives, and sister […] in turn, female relief workers reacted with pity and pathos at the sight of men’s physical and psychological vulnerabilities.”[9]

In just one small newspaper clipping, we historians can get a better sense of how hospital scenes were depicted during the Civil War. With “A Wound That Was Very Slow to Heal,” we can see how attachments between nurses and their patients grew stronger from simple friendships to romance, as well as how surgeons were commonly portrayed as inexperienced and uncaring.


Sources:

  1. “A Wound That Was Very Slow to Heal,” The New York Herald, 1 July 1863.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Brian Craig Miller, Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 18.
  4. “A Wound.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Jane E. Schultz, “Sore Attachments,” Mercy Street Revealed Blog, 9 March 2016, http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/sore-attachments/.
  9. Ibid. 
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