Saturday, May 11, 2013

Yankee Doodle Angels of Mercy

I wanted to devote more time to this particular blog, but the computer gods hosed  my operating system, which imploded, causing me to spend about fifteen hours on three different days to sort of get things back in order.  Thus my time has been consumed in less creative ways that I'd like. On the positive side, I also have some very good friends now in India....

Continental Nurse Corps?

One important way women served in the Continental Army was through nursing. Female nurses were preferred over male, because every woman nursing meant one more man freed to fight. Women who would care for the sick were in constant demand and short supply throughout the war. A woman serving as a nurse  received regular pay (which meant irregular or not at all),but the job brought many risks such as exposure to deadly diseases like smallpox, as well as other viruses and infections. Nursing was one of the dirtiest jobs connected to the medical profession, so many women around the camps were bribed and threatened  into it. The promise of  full rations and an allowance for volunteer nurses or threats to withhold rations from women who refused to volunteer often worked.

Shortly after establishment of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Gen. Washington then asked Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.”

General Horatio Gates recognized
 the need for nurses early in the war

In July 1775, a plan was submitted to the Second Continental Congress that provided one nurse for every ten patients and provided “that a matron be allotted to every hundred sick or wounded.”

Second Continental Congress

Big Bucks

Nathaniel Greene
The Congress allowed two dollars per month as a salary for these nurses, though matrons (women who supervised nurses and acted as liaisons to surgeons) were allotted four dollars per month. In 1776, Congress raised nurses’ pay to four dollars per month, and in 1777, to eight dollars per month, possibly in an attempt to entice more women into nursing or to retain nurses dissatisfied with their jobs. Despite Congressional efforts to increase the number of female nurses for the army, there remained a shortage throughout the war. Regiments constantly sought women to nurse their sick and wounded. Contemporary newspapers  in Massachusetts and Virginia advertised  requests for nurses to serve in the Continental Army. In July of 1776, Nathanael Greene wrote: "The sick Being Numerous in the Hospital And But few Women Nurses to be Had, the Regimental Surgeon must Report the Number Necessary for the sick of the Regt and the colonels are Requested to supply accordingly."

Nurse or Spy?

The demand for nurses was so great that commanders often overlooked suspicious circumstances in order to obtain women for nursing. In April of 1777, General Israel Putnam questioned a woman named Elisabeth Brewer after she left British-occupied New Brunswick, New Jersey. Putnam wrote to Governor William Livingston that Brewer...
" . . . has an Inclination of entering the Hospital as a Nurse; in which employment she has been before
Israel Putnam
employ'd at this place, and the Surgeon giving her a good Character, I have that purpose to detain her here for that purpose—If you have any Objections and will let me know, I will send her Immediately to you."

 Brewer was permitted to take up nursing duties with Putnam's units. The fact that she had arrived from a British-held town did not cast enough suspicion on her to prevent a desperate army from using her skills.  Putnam should have inquired more carefully into Brewer’s background though because she was found guilty of espionage in June 1777.

First Patriots

But for the most part, true patriot nurses answered the call. In July of 1776, orders for the Pennsylvania battalions at Ticonderoga stated that one woman be chosen from each company to go to the hospital at Fort George to nurse the sick. Returns for the hospital at Albany in July 1777 record nine female nurses. In 1778, Washington ordered his regimental commanders to employ as many nurses as possible to aid regimental surgeons.

Reconstruction of Continental Army hospital
at Morristown, New Jersey

 In March 1780, an Albany hospital provided provisions for female nurses and their children, as well as for female and child patients. Nurses Rachel Clement (with two children) and Mary DeCamp (with one child) received two rations each, while a Mrs. Perkins (with three children) and Sarah Lancaster (with one child) received one ration each. Nurses working there who were without children received one ration each.

Continental Nurse treating at the front line

Unlike the skilled and highly educated professionals of today, Continental nurses' duties were generally related to keeping the hospital and its patients clean. The "Rules and Directions for the better regulation of the military Hospital of the United States" described nurses' duties. They must stay clean and sober, empty chamber pots as soon as possible after use, wash new patients, wash the hands and faces of old patients, comb patients' hair daily, change linen, sweep out the hospital, sprinkle the wards with vinegar (as a disinfectant) three to four times a day, and deliver dead patients' belongings to the ward master. Nurses were forbidden to be absent without the permission of their supervising physicians, surgeons, or matrons.

These devoted women served tirelessly and without glory, status or bountiful compensation.  As with nurses today...they served their patients with quiet and selfless dignity. These First Patriot nurses should be accorded all the accolades accorded their male patients. So this week...and every week...we should honor them above all....

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