Immigrant women struggle to be recognized as nurses after Civil War

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Immigrant and African American women did not fit into the neat stereotypes of mid-19th Century respectable femininity.
Immigrant and African American women did not fit into the neat stereotypes of mid-19th Century respectable femininity.

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In 1886 Canadian immigrant Sarah Emma Edmonds was awarded a veteran’s pension for her service as a nurse in the Civil War. Women nurses were not eligible for pensions at that time, but Edmonds had disguised herself as a man and served as a male nurse so she received $12 per month.  Had she been a female nurse she would have received nothing.1

The stories of immigrant womenThe stories of immigrant women have largely been forgotten, but Sarah Emma Edmonds is the subject of children’s books and popular biography.

Immigrant women were an important part of the nursing corps of both armies in the Civil War. From Catholic nuns to the single daughters of middle class immigrant families, they served in every corner of the war.2

In addition to serving formally as nurses, many immigrant women filled the role of nurse without the formal recognition. The title nurse was often reserved for well-to-do or middle class native-born white women. Black women and immigrants who performed the same tasks might find themselves with the lesser designation of “matron” or “laundress.” This meant less prestige and pay.3

Other women accompanied the men from their communities as “regimental women.” Though sometimes falsely impugned as prostitutes, these women were often the first to care for a soldier taken ill and they followed their men into battle and nursed the wounded and comforted the dying. Unfortunately, while the men in the ranks relied on these women, the commanders viewed them as disposable appendages.4

A letter home from a soldier that was found by historian Jane Schultz gives an example of the vulnerability of such women:

I overtook a young Irish woman that had come away here from Pennsylvania at Pitsburg [sic] to see her husband willing to follow him as he fought for his country try but when his regiment came to embark at Alexandria to go farther South they would not let her go any farther[,] drove her back[;] she was but poorly thinly clad she & an infant some nine or ten months old in her arms, both mother & child shivering & crying with the cold…. She had nothing but the charities of the soldiers and warm womans love to cheer and sustain her passage sage back to her desolate home, such cases are not rare I know of many of [sic] Irish women that have shared the privations and hardships of a winter in camp with their husbands that are now drove back alone to their homes.5

After the end of the Civil War, veterans fought for, and won, pensions for their wounded comrades and for the widows of the war dead and their orphaned children. Next they agitated for pensions for all Union veterans as they aged. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a beneficiary of this effort. But these pensions did not apply for women who had served the army as women. It was left for these women to struggle for their own pensions.6

Women nurses, often from powerful families, were able to win the fight for pensions in 1892. But, they struggled only for pensions for themselves. They left behind the black and immigrant women who had been classified as regimental women, laundresses, matrons, and cooks, whose war work would not entitle them to the care of the nation.7

Post-war acknowledgement of immigrant women’s service as nurses was particularly tough for any who were not part of the recognized nursing corps. They had been classified in subordinate roles, but they had often performed the life-saving work of nurses. Many of them had spent more time caring for the wounded than those formally recognized as nurses.8

laundressWomen who washed laundry on the morning before a battle often spent the night nursing the wounded and dying.

In 1894, Margaret O’Donnell, whose position with the army had been classified as “laundress”, challenged the discrimination that excluded lower class women from pensions. She had served during the war with the 22nd New York Artillery Battery. In her claim for a pension she wrote “I been the onley woman with the Battry[.] I was called on to Perform the dutis of Nurse in most capasity and done it cheerfully … I done all that any one woman could Do in the way of Nurseing..” She introduced testimonials from six offices and a private in verification of her work, which included the dangerous task of caring for smallpox patients.9

Margaret O’Donnell’s application was denied, but she did not give up the fight. She filed an appeal and won. The decision awarding her a pension set a precedent for other overlooked women. The pension bureau commissioner wrote in his decision on the case that “the fact that [O’Donnell] was carried on the rolls or drew rations and transportation as laundress, will not defeat her right to pension as an army nurse … if the evidence discloses she performed the actual services of a nurse in attendance upon the sick or wounded … and is now unable to earn a support.”10

German immigrant Catherine Oliphant was also classified as a laundress by the army. She presented evidence to the pension bureau documenting her real duties. An officer, Major Junius Turner vouched that “while she was enrolled as a laundress, she served, in fact, as an army nurse” and “rendered … arduous and unstinted attendance upon the sick and wounded.” A letter signed by the officers in her regiment certified that she had “endured hardship and privation with the stoutest soldier and [was] ever ready to be useful to all who needed the gentle care of a woman..”11

Immigrant and black women were responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Union men. They would finally get a small allotment of money to support them in old age.

Resource:
You can read Sarah Emma Edmonds’s pension file here.

1. Sarah Emma Edmonds’s pension file
2. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)
3. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)
4. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)
5. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007) (Kindle Locations 6659-664)
6. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)
7. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)  (Kindle Location 152)
8. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007)
9. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007) (Kindle Locations 2354-2355)
10. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007) (Kindle Locations 2358-2360)
11. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2007) (Kindle Locations 2362-2367)

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

164. Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

165. Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman As “Male Nurse”

166. Immigrant Women Struggled to be Recognized as Nurses After the Civil War

167. Prelude to a Reconstruction Riot: Irish and Blacks in Memphis 1866

168. The Memphis Massacre of 1866: A Race Riot Pits Irish Immigrants Against Newly Freed Slaves

169. The 14th Amendment, the German Immigrant Carl Schurz, and the Assault on White Superiority Part of The Coming of the 14th Amendment

170. Black Citizenship, Frederick Douglass and German Immigrant Professor Francis Lieber Confront President Andrew Johnson Part of The Coming of the 14th Amendment

Cultural

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