Dorothea Dix Volunteers

Dorothea Dix

“Dragon” Dix was a shadowy and controversial figure in the opening scenes of the PBS series, Mercy Street. The historical Miss Dix was just as controversial.

For those of you who don’t have the details of the American Civil War at your fingertips: the war began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, when troops of the two-month-old Confederate States of America fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost before the echoes of the first gun shots died away, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militia volunteers to serve for ninety days, certain that would be enough time to put down what he described as a state of insurrection. The public’s response was immediate and overwhelming. Men thronged the army’s recruiting offices. The first two Massachusetts regiments marched toward Washington and Fort Monroe two days after the president’s call; two more followed within the week. Individual states filled their recruitment quotas and offered more.

Citizen soldiers were not the only volunteers to respond to the president’s call. Even though Lincoln had said nothing about nurses—and had certainly not called for women to come to their nation’s aid—Dorothea Lynde Dix, a fifty-nine-year- old reformer dedicated to improving the treatment of prisoners, paupers, and the mentally ill, set out immediately to volunteer her services to create an army corps of female nurses to care for wounded soldiers.

By the time the Civil War began, Dix had spent twenty years working to change the way people thought about the mentally ill. She traveled almost continuously at a time when not many people traveled more than a few miles from home and women seldom traveled alone. Railroad companies gave her free passes, and freight haulers carried her packages to prisons, hospitals, and asylums at no charge. Most importantly, she had convinced politicians at every level of American government to support prison reform bills and to build insane asylums. She had even worked for reform at the federal level. In 1848, she lobbied for a bill to grant the states more than twelve million acres of public land to be used for the benefit of the insane, deaf, dumb, and blind. The bill passed both houses of Congress. President Franklin Pierce ultimately vetoed the bill, but Dix made important connections in Congress in its pursuit, a fact that meant her proposal for an army nursing corps got a fair hearing.

Dix was taking a well-deserved rest with friends in Trenton, New Jersey, when she heard the news that Sumter had fallen. Without hesitation, she packed her bags and left that afternoon for Washington, DC, on a trip that would be marked by troop movements, patriotic crowds, packed trains, wild rumors, and a secessionist riot in Baltimore.

When Dix reached Washington, the city was on high alert. Pickets guarded public buildings and bridges. Soldiers were billeted at the White House in anticipation of a Confederate attack before morning. A less determined woman might have have hesitated, but Dix went directly from the train station to the White House, where she volunteered her services and those of an “army of nurses,” yet to be recruited, to support the Union’s troops.

If any other woman had appeared unannounced at the White House with such a scheme, she might have been turned away. But Dix, soft-spoken and physically fragile but mentally tough, was preceded by her national reputation as a humanitarian, crusader, and lobbyist. She was used to working with powerful politicians, and they were used to working with her. Even with the threat of the Confederate army at the door, she and her proposal received a warm reception.

Dix’s offer to create an army corps of female nurses was revolutionary at the time. She envisioned a nursing corps of respectable women similar to that pioneered by Florence Nightingale but on a much larger scale. She shared Nightingale’s belief that a nurse should not simply be a doctor’s assistant but a patient’s primary advocate within the hospital, similar to the role she played for the mentally ill–an idea that would inevitably put Dix and her nurses in conflict with the doctors they worked with.

Three days later, Secretary of War Simon Cameron accepted Dix’s offer, without taking the time to define what her position would entail or how she would fit into the military medical bureaucracy. The Army’s Medical Bureau immediately began to attempt to undermine her authority, a process made easier by the fact that she lacked both administrative skills and tact.

Dix had always worked alone. As a lobbyist, she knew how to work the political system. As a reformer, she knew how to inspire action in others. But she had never run an organization, and she didn’t try to run one now. Instead she treated the nursing corps as a web of personal relationships with herself at the center. With no organization to back her up, she handled every detail herself, and was seemingly incapable of distinguishing between the important and unimportant. She had no system in place for finding and approving nurses. George Templeton Strong, definitely not a fan of “Dragon” Dix, summed up her personality accurately as “energetic, benevolent, unselfish and a mild case of monomania; working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her for [she] belongs to the class of comets, and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever.”

Despite her personal limitations and all attempts by the Army’s medical bureau, hostile surgeons or independent nurses to undermine or sidestep her authority, over the course of the war Dorothea Dix appointed more than three thousand nurses, roughly 15 percent of the total who served with the Union army, and more than any other person or organization involved with nursing in the Civil War.

Interested in learning more about Miss Dix, including her role in stopping an attempt to assassinate Lincoln on his way to Washington? I recommend Thomas J Brown’s Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer or, of course, Heroines of Mercy Street.

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