A long-range effect of the American Civil War, aside from development of weapons and feeding and movement of troops, had a less visible, but dramatic change in society. Military nurses in the American armies had always been male members of fighting forces. But out of necessity, this would change forever.
Dorothea Dix was a woman with a mission. Arriving at the White House she presented herself to presidential secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay.
“…the arrival of Miss Dix, who comes to offer herself and an army of nurses to the government gratuitously for hospital service.” It was on June 10, 1861 when she received a parchment, unlike any that had been issued before. The nation—for the first time—had a female superintendent of U.S. Army nurses.
Mother Dix—as they came to call her—wasn’t enthusiastically embraced by veterans of military medicine. With no general army hospitals, accommodations for women nurses were non-existent.
In revolt, twenty-four members of the U.S. hospital corps resigned and joined the Confederacy. But even so, many felt there were enough men left to man the hospitals, since most militia members had initially signed up only to serve ninety days. The war wasn’t expected to last much beyond that. They couldn’t understand “what had influenced U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron to establish a corps of female nurses.”
As the first Federal casualties from the Manassas battlefield reached Washington, the tide had turned in what was expected to be a short war. “…changing attitudes guaranteed that women would be welcomed to the nursing vocation.”
Besides nursing, the war opened other doors for women. They were appointed as clerks in the U.S. Treasury Department, as well as in the Patent Office and the U.S. War Department.
Tens of thousands of women worked for the government by 1865.
Large corporations begrudgingly opened their doors to women, if they considered them exceptionally capable. It seems the American Civil War took a big step toward the foundation of the modern women’s movement.