During the War of the Rebellion, some would like to paint a picture of the male nurses being “thoroughly incompetent, and some of them brutal and indifferent,” while the women were “kindly and sympathetic.” [quote from “Under the Red Cross Flag,” by Mabel Thorp Boardman]. To paint a picture of men or women as unilaterally at one end of the compassion spectrum or the other, would be a great disservice to history and the people who were part of it.
“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter
Back on his pillow the soldier blends with curv'd neck and side-
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
And has not yet look'd on it.”
—- Walt Whitman: in “Leaves of Grass,” 1897.
According to most Civil War accounts the male nurse ratio to that of women nurses was five to one. And yet why is it generally thought that nursing was exclusively the occupation of women? Hospital attendants sometimes wore a band of white cloth on their left sleeve to indicate their status. Civilians were also hired to assist with medical duties. According to “American Civil War Armies,” by Philip R. N. Katcher, after 1862 these orderlies were required to wear “privates' uniforms that included a green half-chevron on the left forearm.” Most women nurses were restricted to hospitals and were not allowed on the battlefield.
Among those men who served as nurses were Walt Whitman, the famous poet, and also my 2nd great-grandfather, Aaron Webster.
.Walt Whitman. He first became aware of the horrific plight of the wounded soldier when his younger brother George Whitman was wounded in at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He hastened to the battlefield to find him. Then for three years Walt spent much of his time as a nurse, caring for the wounded in Washington D.C. hospitals. [The photograph above was taken in 1851, see link for source].
My 2nd great-grandfather, Aaron Webster, served as a private and nurse in the Union Army during the Civil War (in Company B of the 93rd PA Regiment). He was 44 years old, and he began serving on 12 November 1864. His official service documents state that he was a nurse-hospital attendant at City Point Virginia and the Defense of Washington D.C. He was mustered out 27 June 1865. [photograph immediately above]
My 2nd great-grandfather and Walt Whitman would have both been serving in Washington, D.C. hospitals at the same time. I can't help but wonder if their paths ever crossed.
“Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men,
But first I bend to the dying lad–his eyes open– a
half-smile gives he me;
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed for to
Resuming, marching, as ever in darkness marching, on
in the ranks
The unknown road still marching.” [–Walt Whitman, “Drum Taps,” p. 45]
**FAMILY TREES OF WALT WHITMAN and AARON WEBSTER**
Walt (Walter) Whitman, son of Walter and Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman was born at West Hills, Long Island, New York on 31 May 1819. He died at Camden, New Jersey on 25 March 1892.
Aaron Webster, son John Martin & Polly (Graves) Webster, was born 20 December 1819 in Smithville, Chenango Co NY and died 30 July 1911 in Harrison, Potter Co., PA. He was a farmer. He married 3/8 October 1841 in Mills, Potter Co. PA to Nancy Thompson, and had 8 children who were born in Harrison and in Ulysses, Potter Co. PA.
Interestingly, Walt Whitman was a distant cousin to Aaron's Webster's wife, Nancy (Thompson) Webster.