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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Civil War

War Department pass, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, for travel on government transport to Newbern, N.C., April 4, 1865
Mary Ann Bickerdyke. War Department pass for travel on government transport to Newbern, N.C. April 4, 1865. Mary Ann Bickerdyke Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

When the Civil War broke out, pioneering doctors Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell were involved in the establishment of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and helped to select and train nurses for war work. As the repository for more than a thousand Civil War collections, the Manuscript Division holds extensive material relating to women's medical involvement in the war.18 For example:

  • Letters from convalescent soldiers and from Alden M. Lander, the superintendent of women nurses, are among the papers (515 items; 1856-67) of nurse-physician Esther Hill Hawks 1833-1906), who after the war established schools and distributed supplies for the National Freedman's Relief Association.
  • The papers of Sara Iredell Fleetwood (1811-1908), a teacher and nurse who was superintendent of nurses at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., are included among those of her husband Christian A. Fleetwood (400 items; 1797-1945; bulk 1860-1907), a free black soldier who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  • Catherine Oliphant (d. 1916) sought a pension for her services as a laundress and nurse in her husband Benjamin F. Oliphant's regiment (22 items; 1864-1916).
  • Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817-1901) was a nurse and agent for the U.S. Sanitary Commission whose heroic service on the field and in hospitals earned her the gratitude of countless Union soldiers. After the war, “Mother” Bickerdyke became an attorney assisting army veterans in securing military pensions. Her papers (1,800 items; 1855-1905) cover both phases of her life and include files relating to the Woman's Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic, Mary A. Livermore, and Lucy Stone.
  • Also an agent for the U.S. Sanitary Commission was nurse Lydia J. Stull, who reviewed court-martial cases of Union soldiers held in military prisons (25 items; 1865).

Many Civil War nurses and physicians later recorded their reminiscences.

  • Physician Harriette C. Keatinge (1837-1909) wrote about the burning of South Carolina by Gen. William T. Sherman's troops, her husband's capture by Union forces, and her experiences traveling with Sherman's army to join her husband (3 items; 1903-9).
  • The papers (4 items; 1916-30) of Martha Elizabeth Wright Morris (1832?-1919) contain an address she gave in 1916 describing her wartime activities, including her work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission and her acquaintance with Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow.
  • A biographical sketch (1 item; n.d.) of Carrie Eliza Cutter (1842-1862) details her activities and death from fever while serving as a nurse with a New Hampshire regiment during the war.
Clara Barton. War lecture. Circa 1866. Clara Barton Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.19

Perhaps the best known of all Civil War nurses was Clara Barton (1821-1912), who later founded the American National Red Cross. At the war's outbreak, Barton was a forty-year-old Patent Office clerk in Washington, D.C., who embraced the task of collecting much-needed provisions and medical supplies for the Union army. Frustrated by bureaucratic delays, she began to distribute the supplies herself and also started nursing the wounded in military hospitals and battlefields, earning the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” Barton became famous for her Civil War exploits mainly because of a series of phenomenally successful postwar lectures she delivered about her war experiences and her later efforts to identify dead and missing soldiers. In preparing these lectures, Barton drew not only from memory but also from diaries and notes she had kept at the time, which are now part of her personal papers (70,000 items; 1834-1918).

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. Many of these sources are described in Civil War Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, compiled by John R. Sellers (Washington: Library of Congress, 1986; Z1242.L48 1986). Back to text
  2. Twenty years before founding the American Red Cross, for which she became famous worldwide, Clara Barton (1821-1912) came to the aid of Union soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. At first, War Department regulations and nineteenth-century female stereotypes limited her involvement, but before the war's end, she “broke the shackles and went to the field,” nursing hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and elsewhere. Although by no means the only woman to engage in such work, Barton became one of the most famous because of the postwar lectures she delivered to raise money for her efforts to identify dead and missing soldiers, especially those who perished at Andersonville prison. As this page from one of her lectures illustrates, in the days before laser printers and word processors with multiple font sizes, orators typically enlarged their handwriting to increase legibility of their remarks, which were often read in dimly lit settings. Back to text