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Working for Freedom: A Family Affair


For many, the cause for freedom was a family affair. Nurses often served alongside their husbands, wives, sons, and brothers committed to the bonds of family, community, and country. Charlotte Forten and Charles Burleigh Purvis were cousins. Freeborn of affluent, black abolitionist families in Philadelphia, they were inspired to serve during the Civil War by a shared family tradition of social activism and a strong desire to work for freedom. Forten and Purvis joined the war effort and served as nurses, teacher, and surgeon.

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For their country.

These former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, may
have been among those taught by Charlotte Forten in 1862.

Black and white image of a large group of African Americans standing in front of two wooden buildings on a plantation. Courtesy Library of Congress
Former slaves on a plantation
in Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862

Courtesy Library of Congress

Black and white photograph of Charlotte Forten sitting in a chair with an open book in her lap. Courtesy Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
Charlotte Forten, n.d.
Courtesy Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

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…she felt it to be her duty to go along with her husband, not merely on account of the love she had for him, but also for the love which she had for her country. James H. Payne, 27th United States Colored Troops, 1865.

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Freedom.

Charlotte Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1837 and was the first African American to travel south in 1862, to teach former slaves during the Civil War. Spending much of her time in South Carolina, she volunteered as a nurse in the summer of 1863, caring for wounded soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry after their defeat at Fort Wagner.

Although her time as a nurse was brief due to illness, she understood the impact nurses made on wounded soldiers. While capturing her hospital observations in a daily journal, she noted this about a nineteen year old soldier, "He is very badly wounded…in both legs…this poor fellow suffers terribly. But he utters no complaint, and it is touching to see his gratitude for the least kindness that one does him."

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Charlotte Forten captured her experiences during the war in daily entries in her journal. This open page tells of her experiences while working as a nurse. Read the transcript.

Color photograph of two handwritten pages from Charlotte Forten's journal, July 23, 1863. Courtesy Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
Pages from Charlotte Forten's journal, July 23, 1863
Courtesy Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

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Seven of the thirteen African American surgeons worked at Contraband Hospital, later known as Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., including Charles Purvis. Freedmen's Hospital moved to the site of Campbell Army Hospital in 1864 where Charles B. Purvis worked as a nurse and surgeon during the war.

Black and white photograph of a group of wooden buildings with trees and tents in the background and a flagpole in front of one building. Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Campbell Army Hospital, 1861-1865
Campbell Army Hospital, 1861-1865
Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Black and white photograph head and shoulders, left pose of Charles Burleigh Purvis, M.D., with a mustache and sideburns wearing a suit. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.
Charles Burleigh Purvis, M.D.,
c. 1900

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Charles B. Purvis was born in Philadelphia in 1842, the son of famed abolitionists Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten. As a medical student, Purvis began volunteering as a nurse at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., a year after his cousin Charlotte had joined the war effort. He was one of several male nurses at the hospital. After graduating from Wooster Medical College in 1865, Purvis accepted a position as a contract assistant surgeon at the hospital.