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