Treating the Wounded: Elizabeth Wheeler

The Civil War remains our nation’s deadliest war. Due to a shortage of doctors and medical supplies, compounded by an imperfect understanding of germ theory, disease caused an estimated two thirds of military casualties. Amputation was often the only treatment available for shattered bones and infected limbs. In the field, makeshift hospitals were created from commandeered houses or large tents.

The Union and Confederate armies depended on volunteer nurses like Elizabeth Wheeler to tend sick and dying soldiers. In a chapter of Our Army Nurses (1895), she recalled, “It was dreadful to see so many die, and be buried in a few hours, and know that somewhere there were friends who loved them.” But because she could not enlist like a man, she wanted to do “the next best thing, which was to offer my services in case the men should be sick or wounded.”

President Lincoln founded the United States Sanitary Commission to coordinate the work of these women in support of the Union cause. The Sanitary Commission raised money, distributed supplies, and staffed hospitals and shelters. Sanitary Commission Nurse Amy Morris Bradley ran hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina. She kept extensive records of the soldiers she treated as well as rare photographs of field hospitals.

Elizabeth Wheeler, 1897

Elizabeth Wheeler, 1897

Elizabeth Wheeler, a nurse featured in Our Army Nurses, compiled by Mary Holland in 1897. Item Link