The Civil War nurse was a welcome sight to the injured and dying soldiers on the 19th-century battlefields. Women like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix were a fierce and silent presence on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Civil War nurses had several things in common: most desired no pay, they wanted to help and they had uniforms. The uniforms were not supplied by the Army, and convenience trumped fashion for these unsung heroes of the Civil War.
In 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed superintendent of nurses for the North's side of the Civil War. Part of her duty, was to decide how the nurses needed to dress. Nurse Dix required that her women be over 30 years old and plain looking. She commanded that their dresses be either brown or black and unadorned. This meant no hoop skirts, bows or ruffles, as was the fashion of the 1860s. The result was a plain dress with no definite waist covered by a plain white apron. The nurses wore simple hats to keep their hair out of the way. The uniforms were not supplied by the Army, so one nurse could be dressed slightly different from another as long as she followed the dress code outlined by Dix.
There were no organizations defining the uniform of a Confederate nurse during the Civil War. Confederate nurses were usually war widows and quintessential southern belles who felt the patriotic urge to serve the Confederacy. However, they did take a cue from their northern counterparts. They dressed in a simple fashion. They also rid themselves of hoop skirts in favor of clothing that was easy to work and breathe in.
There were several groups of organized nurses that served both sides of the war equally. These women dressed in the traditional manner. Clara Barton was a Union nurse when she first enlisted under the direction of Dorothea Dix. By 1862, she had organized a group of women who would deliver medical supplies and tend to wounded Confederate and Union soldiers. Clara Barton would be the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881, and design the cross insignia that identified field nurses.
Sisters of Mercy
Other organizations were formed by order of Abraham Lincoln to nurse Union soldiers in the south and to care for Confederate prisoners. These groups of women were Catholic nuns called Sisters of Mercy. Since they dressed in habits, they were easily recognized as nurses. The habits moved fluidly, and were not cumbersome on the battlefield or in the hospitals.
Impact on Future Military Nursing
Civil War nurses such as Clara Barton helped change the way military nurses dressed. By World War I, nurses were easily identifiable on the battlefield. Unlike nurses during the Civil War, future war-time nurses were recognized as being part of the U.S. military force and uniformed accordingly.