The year is 1775, and the American Revolution is in its earliest days. The United States, a fledgling nation, is unprepared for the brutal realities of war. However, even in a well-established country, it’s impossible to predict the course of a war and the resources that will be needed. The Revolution was no different, and from the beginning, a shortage of nurses plagued the Continental Army.
Within the first year of the war, American General Horatio Gates noted that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Yes, you read that correctly – female nurses! When taking into consideration the gruesome details of the job, along with gender roles and dynamics of the 18th century, it may come as a surprise that many nurses were women! Nursing during the American Revolution was not only the dirtiest job in the medical field, it was also extremely hazardous, as nurses were exposed to all kinds of deadly diseases. Nurses worked in hospitals, which were unsanitary, overcrowded, and not ventilated.
The duties of a nurse were incredibly important, ranging from housekeeping to hygiene. Nurses emptied chamber pots, changed bedding, swept the floors and sprinkled them with vinegar several times a day to disinfect them. Nurses also kept patients clean, bathing them when they came into the hospital, then washing their face and combing their hair every morning. When patients died, nurses would deliver their belongings to the ward master. Occasionally, when surgeons were unavailable, nurses would dress patients’ wounds and administer medication. One Maryland nurse, Alice Redman, described the exhaustion she faced from the job: she was “oblige[d] to be up day and night with some of the patients and never has been allowed so much as a little tea, or coffee.”
Each nurse was supposed to care for ten patients, although Redman had sixteen patients at one point. They were supervised by a matron, also typically a woman, who worked on the managerial and administrative side. Each matron supervised about ten nurses, and performed work such as making sure supplies and food were properly distributed.
The hospital department hired both men and women to serve as nurses, although every woman who worked meant one more man could join the battlefield. Nurses were often military wives, men or women recruited from military camps, or may not have had any previous connection to the army. The army preferred volunteers for the position, but coerced women and men when needed, “first, by promising full rations and an allowance for volunteers and, second, by threatening to withhold all rations from those reluctant to take on the duty.”
A nurse’s work was hard, and their pay was bad. With a wage of $2 a month at the beginning of the war, nurses made on average less than than one-third the amount that soldiers were promised. On top of that, some nurses were expected to use their own money for hospital supplies. Officers also often used their own money for army expenses, but they were paid significantly more than nurses, and were also members of the gentry, so the financial strain often wasn’t as severe. Nurse Alice Redman wrote in a petition that “out of that two dollars per month [she] is oblige[d] to buy brooms and the soaps [they] wash with.” Although their pay increased during the war, so did inflation.
As another form of payment, nurses were sometimes given rations for themselves, though rarely for their children who had accompanied them to be closer to their father or other fighting family members. Rations typically consisted of some sort of meat, bread, vegetables, rice, beer, molasses, candles, and soup. Although the pay was low and the rations were unreliable, they were often the reasons women decided to serve.
Although there were several motives, it’s impossible to determine why each woman decided to serve. Whether it was the money, the rations, feelings of patriotism, or another reason, it is unquestionable that the nurses’ role was one of utmost importance and necessity.
Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution, (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999).
Petition for Salary Increase, Maryland State Papers, Series A, 1779, box 15 item 174, MdHR 6636-15-174 [MSA S1004-18-107, 01/07/03/033].