Civil War Nurse from New York
Georgeanna Woolsey was young and single when the Civil War began. Shortly thereafter, the Woman’s Central Relief Association – part of the U.S. Sanitary Commission – began organizing a nursing staff. In May 1861 Woolsey was one of one hundred women selected to become a volunteer nurse for the Union Army.
With no prior medical training, she was sent to New York for what she called in her diary, “a month’s seasoning in painful sights and sounds.” She was assigned to Washington, DC in July 1861. As fighting intensified, a hospital was set up in Washington, where ‘Georgy’ worked as a nurse. While she was there, she lived with her married sister Eliza Woolsey Howland, whose husband was serving in the Army of the Potomac.
When the Army of the Potomac was ordered to leave the capital, Georgeanna and Eliza wanted to travel with it. They tried several times to get permission but were unsuccessful until the Sanitary Commission gave them positions on the hospital ship Daniel Webster. They sailed after the army in April 1862.
The women on these steamships took care of the diets of patients, assisted in dressing wounds and comforted the soldiers. Woolsey was in service throughout the war, whether in charge of hospitals or at depots for wounded near the front. The work she did at hospitals included acting as assistant superintendent of the Portsmouth Grove General Hospital in 1862. She was also in the field following several battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the battles that were part of General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign of 1864.
In May 1862, Woolsey wrote:
We are changed by all this contact with terror, else how could I deliberately turn my lantern on his [a wounded soldier’s] face and say to the Doctor behind me, “Is that man dead?” and stand coolly, while he listened and examined and pronounced him dead. I could not have quietly said, a year ago, “That will make one more bed, Doctor.”
Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Woolsey rushed to Pennsylvania to care for the wounded. She wrote of her experiences:
Twenty-four hours we were in making the journey between Baltimore and Gettysburg, places only four hours apart in ordinary running time; and this will give you some idea of the difficulty there was of bringing up supplies when the fighting was over, and the delays in transporting wounded.
Knowing the need would arise, the Sanitary Commission had set up several large tents near the railroad depot. Here the Union and Confederate wounded waited for the next train to take them to hospitals in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Georgy nursed and fed them, and saw them off to hospital or home.
The wounded either hobbled on crutches or were brought to the railroad siding by ambulance. For the first few days the worst cases only came down in ambulances. Many hired farmers’ wagons, as hard as the farmers’ fists themselves, and were jolted down to the railroad, at three or four dollars the man.
As soon as the men hobbled up to the tents, good hot soup was given all round, and that over, their wounds were dressed—for the gentlemen of the Commission are cooks or surgeons, as occasion demands—and finally, with their blankets spread over the straw, the men stretched themselves out and were happy and contented till morning, and the next train.
Twice a day the trains left, and twice a day we fed all the wounded who arrived for them. Things were systematized now, and the men came down in long ambulance trains to the cars; baggage-cars they were, filled with straw for the wounded to lie on, and open at either end to let in the air. A government surgeon was always present to attend to the careful lifting of the soldiers from ambulance to car.
The surgeon in charge of our camp, with his most faithful dresser and attendants, looked after all their wounds, which were often in a most shocking state, particularly among the rebels. Every evening and morning they were dressed. Often the men would say, “That feels good. I haven’t had my wound so well dressed since I was hurt.” Something cool to drink is the first thing asked for after the long, dusty drive.
After the men’s wounds were attended to, we went round giving them clothes; had basins and soap and towels, and followed these with socks, slippers, shirts, drawers, and those coveted dressing-gowns. Such pride as they felt in them!, comparing colors, and smiling all over as they lay in clean and comfortable rows ready for supper, ‘on dress parade,’ they used to say. And then the milk, particularly if it were boiled and had a little whiskey and sugar, and bread, with butter on it, and jelly on the butter—how good it all was, and how lucky we felt ourselves in having the immense satisfaction of distributing these things.
Georgeanna Woolsey praised the local Gettysburg women for their aid and compassion for the wounded:
One woman we saw lived in a little house close up by the field where the hardest fighting was done, a red-cheeked, strong, country girl. “Were you frightened when the shells began flying?” she was asked. “Well, no; you see we was all baking bread round here for the soldiers, and had our dough a rising. The neighbors they ran into their cellars, but I couldn’t leave my bread. When the first shell came in at the window and crashed through the room an officer came and said, ‘You had better get out of this,’ but I told him I could not leave my bread, and I stood working it till the third shell came through, and then I went down cellar, but I left my bread in the oven.’
Our three weeks was coming to an end; the work of transporting the wounded was nearly over; twice daily we had filled and emptied our tents. The men came in slowly at the last, a Lieutenant, all the way from Oregon, being among the very latest. He came down from the Corps Hospital, having lost one foot, poor fellow, dressed in a full suit of the Commission’s cotton clothes, just as bright and cheerful as the first man, and all the men that we received had been.
Later, Georgy wrote:
No one knows who did not watch the thing from the beginning, how much opposition, how much ill-will, how much unfeeling want of thought, these women nurses endured. Hardly a surgeon whom I can think of received or treated them with even common courtesy. Government had decided that women should be employed, and the Army surgeons – unable therefore to close the hospitals against them – determined to make their lives so unbearable that they should be forced in self-defense to leave.
After the Civil War, many of the women volunteers found work that was previously open only to men. Some procured jobs based on their experiences with the Sanitary Commission. Many expected to find more and better opportunities for women after the war. When employment was denied them, many women became activists for women’s rights.
The cat had been let out of the bag!