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Class 4: Finding the People to Heal


The war created a huge demand for health workers of all kinds, which allowed "marginal" practitioners to push boundaries heretofore closed. Many doctors were resistant to the presence of women in the hospital, while others recognized their importance and saw them as "natural" nurturers and nurses. The sectarian divisions of the pre-war years continued into the war, but by 1863 the Union army was so desperate for doctors of any sort that they were taking medical students and others without a medical degree, at least in the black regiments. Some black doctors were commissioned or hired as contract surgeons. In the south the problem of deciding who should work in the hospital was complicated further by the great shortage of labor for all jobs. Black slaves and free blacks were impressed (forced) into hospital work, but then others sought their labor as well, and tried to "steal" them from the hospital and take them to work, for example, on the fortifications.


Flannery, Michael. "Another House Divided: Union Medical Service and Sectarians during the Civil War." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54 (1999): 478-510.

Green, Carol. Chimborazo: The Confederacy's Largest Hospital. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004, 41-63.

Harris, J. D. "A Sketch of Autobiography." Autobiography and Examination, Personal Papers of Medical Officers and Physicians, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917, Record Group 94, National Arichives. Washington, D.C.

Humphreys, Margaret. Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 57-79.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004, 12-44.

Discussion Questions:

  • Did women belong in the Civil War hospital? Why or why not? Did it matter if they were black or not? Again, try to escape from modern perspectives (well, of course, because "we've always seen them there") and imagine the world in which, at least for the middle class, the glance at a woman's ankle was an exciting sight. Here, women would see strange men completely undressed, and touch their bodies in the most intimate ways.

  • Should the Union have taken sectarian practitioners (botanics, homeopaths) as commissioned surgeons in the army? Harris had only one year at Western Reserve and then probably no time at all at the Iowa school where he bought a degree; would you have allowed him in, given his examination paper?

  • While many black southerners escaped to Union lines upon the first opportunity, others stayed with the southern army or in the southern hospitals, even when the opportunity for escape was nearby. Imagine and discuss what would be a conversation among slaves or impressed free blacks at a southern hospital on whether they should stay where they are, or try to escape.