Monday, May 23, 2016

As a Civil War Nurse

As part of my job working in historical interpretation at Ella Sharp Museum, I got to take part in a 2-day Civil War event. I got to play the role of a Civil War nurse and I couldn't have thought of a better post for me. Having recently watched the PBS original show Mercy Street, I was excited to be able to live like one of my Civil War sisters, just like the women in the show. This was a time when I got to truly, time travel.

As I dressed for the first morning of the event, I found myself already taking on a different persona. I had a few extra minutes before I had to leave so I found myself just sitting quietly waiting to go. The way I sat was just like a true lady would. Maybe I felt constricted by the clothes or maybe I was really becoming my character.

Over the past several weeks I researched Civil War nursing and the Civil War in general. I re-watched Mercy Street and read a couple of books on the subject. With my knowledge ready to go I had a table full of medicines and instruments to show. I presented nine times to different aged school groups. I really enjoyed sharing my passion with them, answering their questions, and helping them to understand how far medicine has come since the Civil War. The following day I presented to mostly adults. I could see the women in the audience who were either nurses or nursing students were very interested in what I had to day. 

I decided to try my hand at write a letter from the perspective of a nurse in the Civil War. From my research this is how I would have expected the experience to be.

Dearest Mother,                                                   September 20, 1862
It's been now just three weeks since I have arrived here in Alexandria to work at Mansion House Hospital at the orders of Miss Dix. The conditions in which I live are worse than I could have imagined, but I fear all my complaining has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps writing this letter to you can help me gain some of the sympathy I desire. 

Firstly, is there any news of Father? I am saddened by his desire to fight, even in his old age, and think about the discomforts he must be feeling daily because of his bad knees. I hope he will not have to endure the fighting too much longer, as well as the rest of us. 

Until I came here, I didn't realize my skills in nursing were nothing but those of a novice. Having cared for brother James through tuberculosis, merely prepared me for placing cold compresses on someone's forehead and making someone comfortable. Nothing could have prepared me for the horrific sights, smells, and sounds I've experienced these last three weeks. The boys have been coming in with holes in their bodies, blood mixed with dirt dried on old bandages, and minds that are completely broken or gone all together.   

I have been carrying around a bed roll to find a soft place to lie after each grueling day. I've had a proper bed only one night, but the others I just sleep usually on the floor of my ward. My diet is suffering tremendously, and I find myself struggling to find food for my sick patients, let alone feed myself. Miss Dix requires us to wear plain gowns, I have just two of my own. I hear of some women who wear men's work shirts over their skirts because of the filth they must work in.

My role consists mainly of cleaning boys as they arrive, ensuring proper wound dressing, and tending to emotional needs when I can. Many boys are unable to write letters to their family, so when they find out I am an educated woman they ask me to pen, sometimes what is their dying wishes home. 

Most days I am too busy to contemplate what this cruel war even is. I know I am only experiencing a tiny portion of it and the greater picture of preserving the Union is at hand, but watching these young boys suffer doesn't seem to be God's plan. 

Despite all the discomforts I have mentioned, I feel truly in my place here. To be of use to the Union and to the boys fills me with pride and joy. 

Your daughter,