If you’ve been hanging out here on the Margins for very long, you’ve read stories about nurses in the American Civil War. I am fascinated by their stories: the reasons they volunteered, the lives they left behind, the way they dealt with the common challenges that all nurses faced, what they did after the war.
Today I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share another story, thanks to historian turned novelist Carolyn Schriber, whose novel, Beyond All Price, is based on the fascinating career of one Nellie Chase. Let’s just say she didn’t fit the typical pattern of a Civil War nurse. (Sorry about the cliffhanger, folks.)
Take it away, Carolyn:
American women first tried their hand at nursing as a career during the Civil War. Of course, women had always done the nursing in their own families, but in America, there remained a moral prohibition against a woman viewing the body of a man who was not her husband or her son. It took the Civil War to convince doctors and other male medical workers that women had a place in battlefield hospitals.
As many as 3000 women may have helped with military nursing duties between 1861 and 1865, but they set out on an uncharted path—no training, no experience, no regulations to guide them. Dorothea Dix, already a crusader for better conditions in prisons and mental asylums, volunteered to oversee the administration of military hospitals. She drew up some rules to govern her nursing candidates. Nurses, she said, should be healthy, matronly (i.e., over thirty), and plain in appearance. They were expected to display exceptional seriousness, with evidence of their morality, integrity, and ability. They should dress simply (in black, gray, or brown) with no ruffles, bows, jewelry, or curls. I’ve always suspected that she wrote out her list of requirements while looking in a mirror.
In any event, Nellie M. Chase met none of these requirements. She was beautiful and more than a little vain. Barely into her early twenties, she had already run off with a man who turned out to be a drunkard, a gambler, a liar, a forger, and a thief. When she had enough of staying one step in front of a local sheriff, she left her ersatz husband, moved into a shabby tenement, roomed with an opium addict, and went to work in a theater.
So, how did she become a nurse? She simply walked into a military encampment in Pittsburgh and announced she was there to serve. Nellie was not a person with whom it was easy to argue. She had no training beyond a lifetime of watching her grandmother apply folk remedies. She applied wet tobacco scraps to bee stings and crushed dogwood berries to substitute for quinine. She didn’t know about the soothing qualities of tannic acid or the pain-killing in those berries, but so long as her remedies worked, no one questioned her too closely. Nellie was also a quick study, keeping a small notebook where she recorded her observations of what medical treatments worked and which ones didn’t. Above all else, she was kind and gentle, with a knack for making her patients trust her.
As the war progressed, so did Nellie’s nursing career. In the year she spent with the Roundhead Regiment from Pennsylvania, she treated tropical diseases in South Carolina and helped with amputations on a swampy battlefield. Then she moved on to serve with a New York regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where she refined her triaging skills and saved at least one life. When the Army transferred her recuperating patients to Philadelphia, she traveled with them and ended up helping to administer a new and innovative medical facility. In the last year of the war, she served as the head matron of Hospital # 3 in Union-occupied Nashville.
As I followed Nellie’s career, I became fascinated with the way this unqualified young girl took on the very characteristics that Dorothea Dix had always espoused. She survived in situations where a weaker woman would not. She displayed a deep passion for helping anyone who needed her, all the while challenging any authority that threatened to curtail her need to serve. I loved observing the way her character evolved as I wrote “Beyond All Price,” but not even I expected her to end as she did. One reviewer wrote, “Loved the story; hated the ending.” So did I, even though I understood that Nellie herself would have been pleased with her fate.
Historian Carolyn Schriber knows most of the names and the dates, but she would rather tell her readers the stories behind the history. After her retirement from teaching at Rhodes College, she extended her career as a historian by using her training and talents to examine a little-known event at the beginning of the Civil War. Using her great-uncle’s letters as a starting point, she analyzed the strategic errors that turned the Battle of Secessionville into a rout. Then she researched the life of a nurse who was present at that battle, a missionary who came to care for abandoned slaves, and several civilians whose lives were forever changed by the events in South Carolina. She is now enjoying a second career as a writer of historical fiction. Her novels set in America’s Civil War are planted solidly in fact, but they explore the lives and events that history books don’t often reveal.