Thank you to Rick over at 18th Century History for publishing my piece.
If you were to ask about when women began acting as nurses for the military, two names always pop up. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton are held up as the ground breakers who brought women and nursing into the history of military medicine, and indeed, to the world as a whole. This truth has been taught to us in both our history text books and in the popular mythos that reaffirms the basis of our modern society.
For the critical historian, a simple acceptance of the commonly held belief cannot go unchallenged. While Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton certainly deserve their position in the history books as powerful advocates for modernizing battlefield medicine and moving forward the recognition of women’s capabilities in military medicine, the facts reveal a somewhat different picture of the history of women in nursing and military medicine. The use of women as nurses in warfare was both formalized in regulation and practice in the armies and navies of both the United Kingdom and the United States prior to Nightingale’s involvement in the Crimean War and Barton’s involvement in the U.S. Civil War. We’ll explore this by looking at the two major wars to involve both nations prior to this, the American Revolution of 1775-1783 and the Napoleonic Wars (including the War of 1812) of 1793-1815.