Did Civil War nurses have uniforms?

A Brief Commercial: I will be speaking about Civil War nurses at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia on Thursday, February 4. (Here’s the link to the details–please note the snow date. I’m hoping Alexandria has had it’s share of snow for the winter, but you never know.) If any of you live in the area, I’d love to see you there. If you have friends in the area who might be interested, please spread the word. For that matter, spread the word about the program the night before as well. Civil War medical historian Von Barron is speaking on the medical knowledge of the period. I’m looking forward to it.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post and the question of nursing uniforms:

If you poke around the Internet looking for pictures of Civil War nurses for any length of time, you find pictures of youngish women in identical dresses with white caps and aprons identified as Civil War nurses. Every time I see them I want to pound my fist on my desk and say “No! No! No!”

The pictures are wrong in so many ways. For one thing, the dresses have the wrong silhouette for the period.* The dresses are frequently white. And in a few egregiously wrong cases, the women are wearing Red Cross armbands. (As a reminder, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881–fifteen years after the end of the war.)

The fact of the matter is that, with the exception of the several hundred nuns who served, the women who volunteered as nurses did not wear uniforms. They definitely didn’t wear spiffy white dresses.**

Instead they looked more like this:civil war nurses

Dorothea Dix had a strict dress code for her nurses. They were to wear brown, gray, or black dresses: practical choices given the inevitable exposure to blood, pus, vomit, and other filth in a hospital of that day and the heroic efforts required to do laundry in the nineteenth century.*** Bows, curls, jewelry, and especially hoop skirts and crinolines were forbidden. Again, a practical requirement. Hospitals were crowded and the aisles were too narrow for women in fashionably wide skirts to walk through them. In at least one case, a wounded soldier is reported to have bled to death when the crinoline worn by a female visitor caught on his cot and tore open his wound. ****

Nurses who served on the United States Sanitary Commission’s hospital transit ships weren’t bound by Dix’s restrictions, but they soon recognized the practical value of her rules given the realities of life on the ships. Many of them arrived wearing the ribbons and ruffles typical of women of their class, but they soon abandoned frilly dresses in favor of a skirt and a man’s flannel shirt, worn with the collar open, the sleeves rolled up, and the shirttail out. They dubbed the shirts “Agnews,” after the doctor from whom they stole the first shirt.

Even the “Agnew “was a long way from the practicality of this:

Modern nursing field uniform, courtesy of US Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History


My guess is that Miss Dix would have approved.


*Leg o’mutton sleeves were popular in the 1830s and again in the 1890s, but not in the 1860s.

**And speaking of spiffy white dresses, I cannot believe that Emma Green in the first episode of Mercy Street got out of the hospital with that white wedding cake of a dress untainted except for a little blood on the skirt. Just like I don’t believe Mary Phinney von Olnhausen could get through her first day the hospital with every hair still in place. (Of course, that may be because I can’t get through a quiet day at my desk without my hair standing all anyhow.)

***Perhaps the subject of a future blog post. What say you, Margin-ites?

****This may be a nineteenth century urban legend: I’ve seen many accounts of this incident, all phrased in similarly cautious terms and none of them attributed to a specific contemporary source.

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