When Mary Phinney was hired to work as a nurse in the Civil War in 1862 without any previous knowledge or training in the nursing field, her only experience included taking care of sick family members. Her first letter is dated August 1862 and she consistently writes these letters throughout the entirety of the Civil War as she describes her experiences and interactions with her boss, wounded soldiers, and fellow nurses. She is thrown into a chaotic world where it was rare to see the soldiers overcome their illnesses and injuries, and at some points she could only provide comfort and a friendly face for the dying men.
Mary Phinney was recruited as a nurse by Dorothea Dix, who was appointed Superintendent of the Female Nurses of the Union Army in 1861 by the Secretary of War.1 Dix was given the job to recruit a group of eligible female nurses that fit into her strict list of requirements. Although there were no education requirements, Dix insisted that all her nurses were above the age of thirty and very plain looking.2 Because of the male-dominated nature of the medical field, Dix wanted her nurses to be very average in appearance to prevent the male surgeons from being distracted. In the second half of the nineteenth century, rates of free women in the workforce were about 11%.3 Women did not have a place in the workplace, especially the medical field. The everyday life of a woman revolved around cooking, cleaning, and making sure the house was presentable while their husbands were out working. When the Civil War started in 1861, the traditional gender roles adapted and adjusted to life during war. Many women volunteered and helped by donating canned food and sewing clothes for the troops. Since many men were off at war, the women now had to handle home responsibilities while still providing for the family.
Phinney’s transition to working as a nurse did not come easy as she had to adapt to unsuitable living conditions, intolerable food, and being one of the few females in a male dominated work environment. She was thrown into a surgical ward consisting of rooms full of wounded soldiers that it was almost impossible to walk in-between them. On her first day as a nurse she writes in her letters, “I was horribly ignorant, of course, and could only try to make the men comfortable.” 4 Despite adjusting to a completely new environment, she also faced unwarranted opinions from her male coworkers due to her being one of the few female nurses. Majority of the Civil War nurses were men and the male to female nurse ratio was five to one for both the North and the South.5 Due to the overall lack of working women, she was one of the first females in her medical ward. Because of her gender appearance, she was exposed to negative opinions given by her male counterparts strictly because she wasn’t fitting the stereotype of a woman in the house. In her opening letter, she writes that the surgeon told her there was “no room for me” and he would “make the house so hot for me I would not stay long.”6 She was deemed incapable of her work due to her gender and due to the lack of female representation in the workforce during this period.
Phinney spent the majority of her time working under Miss Dix in the surgical ward and treated a variety of diseases including typhoid, shaking palsy, and paralysis. The influx of wounded soldiers was overwhelming, which led to many of the patients lying multiple days without being treated. She did not have her own room and spent most of her nights sleeping on the floor of the other nurses’ bedrooms. Miss Mary, as the soldiers called her, became a comfort to the wounded soldiers. She was known to stay by their sides the entire night and provide comfort to the dying men. On November 9, 1862, she wrote “I never leave a man to sleep or to eat when I think he will die soon; it seems at least as if a woman ought to close these poor fellows’ eyes; no mother or wife or sister about them.”7 She prioritized her patients’ needs over her own, which led to her great impact on many of the wounded soldiers. Phinney continued to write letters after the end of the Civil War and up to her death in 1902. Her dedication to her work and patients despite the conditions is an inspiration to all women in and out of the workforce.
Charlotte Lassiter is a sophomore at Wake Forest from Winston-Salem, NC.