The Civil War Nurses

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
     and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier blends with curv'd neck and side-
     falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
     bloody stump,
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,
     Fall in;
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
     the darkness,
Resuming, marching, as ever in darkness marching, on
     in the ranks
The unknown road still marching.” [–Walt Whitman, “Drum Taps,” p. 45]



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.

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7 Responses to The Civil War Nurses

  1. Susan Marie says:

    I am very happy to read this account of the male nurses during the Civil War, including your great grandfather. Indeed, at the time the word “nurse” meant a man, especially in the context of the military. It is only in the 20th century that the default gender of a medical nurse came to be presumed female. Would you be so kind as to give me your source for the (estimated) statistic that the ratio of male nurses to female nurses was five to one? I present a Living History as Clara Barton, and often am called upon to answer questions about the war.

  2. Elaine Grant (Chesnut) says:

    Aaron Webster is my 4th great grandfather on my dad’s side. Hello relitive

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  4. My Great Grandfather, 1st Sergeant George T. Sherman of the 62nd NY Volunteers was wounded on May 3, 1863 at Maryes Heights-Fredericksburg, VA. He was shot in the left lung by a Mini-Ball and was transferred to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, DC. His Orderly was Walt Whitman.After a year, he recuperated and when back to NYC. Thanks to the care he received I am here!

    Paul Christensen
    Leesburg, Virginia

    • Janice Brown says:

      Wow Paul! What an amazing story. Male nurses greatly outnumbered the women on the battlefield and yet they have been neglected by history writers. Walt Whitman happened to become a famous writer but there were others, like my ancestor. How exciting about your great-grandfather. Did he keep a diary? How did you discover that fact?

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