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Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography

Using a photographic portrait of Katharine Prescott Wormeley, from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point, this essay highlights the life and experiences of an individual nurse.

Katharine Prescott Wormeley

By Elizabeth Lindqwister, 2019 Liljenquist Fellow, Prints & Photographs Division.

Before the bloody battles of the Civil War raged on, the United States had few organized nursing groups working alongside their military. Wartime aid was primarily left as a duty for male nurses and fellow soldiers, and the lack of existing hospitals meant that pre-War healthcare was often confined to the home. Regardless of who handled wounded soldiers, nursing was not yet a professionally trained or governmentally supported position.

But when thousands of soldiers enlisted and were severely injured from battle, the necessity for medical aid created ripe grounds for the formation of official nursing organizations and hospitals. Inspired by Florence Nightingale’s medical work at the Crimean War, Americans began to follow suit. Recognizing the need for orderly healthcare, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Secretary of War Simon Cameron to commission Dorothea Dix as nursing superintendent of the Union Army. At the same time, everyday citizens – particularly women – banded together in 1861 to found the United States Sanitary Commission, designed to organize medical aid and provide care for Union soldiers.

James Wallace Black, photographer. Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Civil War relief worker, U.S. Sanitary Commission nurse, and hospital director. Between 1861 and 1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) soon became one of the most prominent civilian-run nursing organizations in the Civil War; it made important moves to include women in the war cause, and provided nurses and numerous transports throughout the country. At the forefront of these growing nursing organizations was upper-class white women like Katharine Prescott Wormeley, an English-born New Englander who was known for her medical services and writing skills.

Katharine Prescott Wormeley was born on January 14, 1830, to a highly affluent British-American family living in England. She was the third of four children of Admiral Ralph Randolph Wormeley, a British naval officer and sixth-generation Virginian, and Caroline Preble, a wealthy American from Boston. When Admiral Wormeley passed away prematurely in 1852, the surviving Wormeley family settled in Newport, Rhode Island.

Almost immediately after the Civil War broke out in 1861, Katharine and her mother began dedicating their efforts to the Union Army. She became supervisor to the Ladies’ Union Aid Society and started grassroots women’s aid organizations from the confines of her mother’s Newport home. By the winter of 1861, she was running a government-contracted clothing supply organization designed to help the war on both fronts: at home and on the battlefields. She employed the wives and families of enlisted soldiers – many of them from less privileged backgrounds -- who would then sew and assemble tens of thousands of flannel shirts for the soldiers.

Katharine’s early efforts leading the Union Aid Society foreshadowed the type of work she would engage in later on in the War. After successfully running the uniform-making business for just under one year, Katharine departed from Newport to join the United States Sanitary Commission Hospital Transport Services traveling throughout the country. She joined the first transport ship to be commissioned by the USSC, the Daniel Webster, and she remained with the transport service throughout the majority of the Peninsular Campaign.

Alfred R. Waud, artist. Broadside views of three steamships. Between 1860 and 1865. Morgan collection of Civil War drawings. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Working on the Daniel Webster was no easy feat – not even for the tenacious and experienced Katharine. Transport ships could house hundreds of soldiers at a time, yet many of them were ill-equipped with medical supplies and unable to provide necessary provisions for the wounded men on board. Throughout her service, Katharine wrote frequently of the challenges transport nurses faced in trying to provide adequate care in unfit situations. After a particularly difficult transport, she wrote, “You can’t conceive what it is to stem the torrent of this disorder and utter want of organization.” And even as the injuries from battle grew numerous and more gruesome, Katharine and the Sanitary Commission steadfastly continued their work: “Of course the Commission throws itself in and does all,” she wrote. These recollections are included in Katharine’s 1889 book, The Other Side of War, which includes letters and memories from working on hospital transports. She left the hospital transport service in August 1862 – just 3 months after joining – for a brief period of reprieve at home.

Katharine’s break was short-lived, however, and she soon found herself tangled in nursing service once more. Surgeon General William A. Hammond called upon her to accept the position of nursing superintendent at Lovell General Hospital, located at Portsmouth Grove in her home state of Rhode Island. She began her commission in September of 1862, bringing with her a small army of her own: nurses – all women – who were to head individual sections of the 1700-bed hospital and hold a supervising responsibility once reserved for men alone. Of these nurses included the Woolsey sisters, Georgeanna, Sarah, and Jane, who became close confidants to Katharine while at Portsmouth Grove.

What Katharine did at Portsmouth Grove is nothing short of extraordinary. Upon her arrival in 1862, the hospital had no formal infrastructure, no organized group of female volunteer nurses, and uninsulated sheds rather unfit for proper medical care. With these issues at the forefront of her mind, Katharine moved quickly and efficiently. She wasted no time in setting up a clear, around-the-clock nursing system comprised of assistant superintendents (women like Georgeanna and Jane Woolsey), surgeons, and volunteer and commissioned nurses. She appealed – but ultimately failed – to secure tarpaper to cover the hospital’s holed walls. Letters were frequently sent out to neighboring towns, requesting food provisions and funds for the wounded soldiers. Whatever challenge the hospital faced, Katharine and her group of nurses were there.

Katharine’s time at Portsmouth Grove was as short-lived as her tenure at the hospital transports. Though her peers described her as “clever, spirited and energetic in the highest degree,” she was only physically able to be Lovell’s Superintendent for one year. Family obligations and health issues took a toll on Katharine, and she resigned from her position in September 1863. Though her service was short, her effect on the hospital was not unknown to the soldiers within, nor to the nurses who served after her.

Lovell General Hospital, Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Joshua Appleby Williams, photographer. Lovell General Hospital, Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Between 1862 and 1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Once she returned to Newport, Rhode Island, Katharine settled into a life of public service and writing. The war had not yet ended, and Katharine continued to dedicate funds and resources to the Union Army until the battles died down in 1865. In this period, she collected over $17,000, food, and other supplies to donate to the Sanitary Commission’s hospitals and transports. She soon began her tenure as Rhode Island’s associate manager for the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association in 1864, working on behalf of the state’s veterans. The Newport Aid Society was also operated under her supervision, and she later founded the Newport Charity Organization Society in 1879. By 1887, Katharine turned to education and founded an all-girls industrial school designed to educate working-class girls.

In addition to her reputation as a civil servant, Katharine was known for her writing and French translating skills. She wrote a book on the history and operation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission – supposedly starting and finishing the project in just 11 days – and its sales went directly to fund the Commission. Her personal writings were later accompanied by popular translations of Balzac and other French authors, some of which were published and introduced by known authors of her time. Her list of translations extends to over 40 different works, and she even wrote a memoir to accompany the dozens of Balzac translations she achieved in her lifetime.  Katharine spent the final 15 years of her life in New Hampshire, where she died in August 1908.

Understanding the magnitude of Katharine’s service requires a knowledge of the social background that shaped her entire life. Having been born into a family of considerable wealth and social standing, Katharine was used to living among the upper crust of New England society. She and her siblings were raised in gentility, yet from an early age, their father instilled in them a sympathy for the less fortunate. Katharine took these lessons to heart; seeing it as a moral obligation to help lower-class women, Katharine founded multiple organizations and a school for these communities. Yet, the Wormeley’s upper-class rearing never left her and had a clear impact on the way she viewed the nursing profession. Throughout the War, her praise was reserved for the similarly upper-class women that accompanied her on hospital transports. These elite women were described by Katharine as “efficient, wise, active as cats, merry light-hearted, thoroughbred, and without the fearful tone of self-devotion which sad experience makes one expect in benevolent women.” Those who Katharine chose as Assistant Superintendent at Lovell Hospital were women of a certain social background – like the Woolsey sisters, who were daughters to a rich industrialist father -- and ostensibly those who Katharine could relate to herself. A well-reared woman who could devote her services and not expect pay was seen as the ideal for many elite nurses like Katharine, who viewed their charitable volunteer work as morally superior.

Katharine’s elite background thus places her contributions to the War in an important light – one which acknowledges the sheer magnitude of the service projects she engaged in, but one which also recognizes the financial backing that made much of it possible. Historians note that Katharine was wealthy by her family alone, and that she never married later in her life; these factors certainly helped make her service possible, and finances were never a restriction on her ability to give. Her popularity in the history of Civil War nurses is likely attributable to her accessibility to the media; she was a charitable, white, literate upper-class woman who worked for free, where other nurses worked for pay, faced significant financial hardships, and could not afford to write memoirs of their wartime experiences. Katharine thus falls into the not-uncommon category of Civil War nurses who completed an outstanding degree of work that was directly parallel to the larger degree of wealth they were afforded throughout their lives.


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