Worth a Dozen Men
Women and Nursing in the Civil War South
Libra R. Hilde
In antebellum society, women were regarded as ideal nurses because of their sympathetic natures. However, they were expected to exercise their talents only in the home; nursing strange men in hospitals was considered inappropriate, if not indecent. Nevertheless, in defiance of tradition, Confederate women set up hospitals early in the Civil War and organized volunteers to care for the increasing number of sick and wounded soldiers. As a fledgling government engaged in a long and bloody war, the Confederacy relied on this female labor, which prompted a new understanding of women’s place in public life and a shift in gender roles.
Challenging the assumption that Southern women’s contributions to the war effort were less systematic and organized than those of Union women, Worth a Dozen Men looks at the Civil War as a watershed moment for Southern women. Female nurses in the South played a critical role in raising army and civilian morale and reducing mortality rates, thus allowing the South to continue fighting. They embodied a new model of heroic energy and nationalism, and came to be seen as the female equivalent of soldiers. Moreover, nursing provided them with a foundation for pro-Confederate political activity, both during and after the war, when gender roles and race relations underwent dramatic changes.
Worth a Dozen Men chronicles the Southern wartime nursing experience, tracking the course of the conflict from the initial burst of Confederate nationalism to the shock and sorrow of losing the war. Through newspapers and official records, as well as letters, diaries, and memoirs—not only those of the remarkable and dedicated women who participated, but also of the doctors with whom they served, their soldier patients, and the patients’ families—a comprehensive picture of what it was like to be a nurse in the South during the Civil War emerges.
Worth a Dozen Men is prodigiously researched, fills a gap in the historiography, and makes numerous contributions to the literature. The author’s arguments are sound, original, and significant.
Libra Hilde, a San Jose Universtiy history professor, presents arguments that counter long held assumptions that Southern women's contributions to the Civil War were less systematic and organized that those of Northern Women. Holde drew upon an impressive and extensive list of primary archival documents from several Southern state repositories during her research.
In this fascinating and much-needed study, Hilde brings Confederate nurses out of the shadows and into the war’s spotlight. Skillfully weaving together the home and battle fronts, she reveals not only Southern white women’s extensive involvement in the war effort but also their centrality to the cause of Southern independence.
Hilde (San Jose State Univ.) has carefully revised her dissertation to present here a "focus solely on Confederate nurses...." [An] excellent book for Civil War buffs and those with interests in women's history.... Recommended.
Libra R. Hilde is Assistant Professor of History at San José State University.