Letters of a Transport Nurse Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document is a compilation of letters written by Katherine Prescott Wormeley during her time working for the Sanitary Commission and as a transport nurse and administrator during the Civil War. By examining elements of a few letters, the details of how the injured were administered to and the interactions of noncombatants in the war show the involvement of all people without making distinction for race, wealth, status, or gender. Katherine Wormeley, along with many other high-class women, dove into the war effort in an attempt to alleviate some of the suffering and pain of those who fought for the Union, despite the existing taboo of women involving themselves in such gruesome work or, as Wormeley came to do, managing men in an official capacity. The complete book of these letters was published years later in order to show how women and nurses participated in the war and is justly titled The Other Side of the War with the Army of the Potomac.

Summary Overview

This document is a compilation of letters written by Katherine Prescott Wormeley during her time working for the Sanitary Commission and as a transport nurse and administrator during the Civil War. By examining elements of a few letters, the details of how the injured were administered to and the interactions of noncombatants in the war show the involvement of all people without making distinction for race, wealth, status, or gender. Katherine Wormeley, along with many other high-class women, dove into the war effort in an attempt to alleviate some of the suffering and pain of those who fought for the Union, despite the existing taboo of women involving themselves in such gruesome work or, as Wormeley came to do, managing men in an official capacity. The complete book of these letters was published years later in order to show how women and nurses participated in the war and is justly titled The Other Side of the War with the Army of the Potomac.

Defining Moment

This document is a valuable piece of the historical record as it chronicles one upper-class woman’s time in the Civil War. This was not just any woman, however, but a woman who gave up the comforts of her high-society life to become an integral part of the nursing force which cared for the wounded soldiers, both in the field and in permanent hospitals and medical facilities. This same woman also became one of the first women ever to be given direct command of men–an impressive feat considering the nearly crippling ideas of the time period concerning the inferiority of women and their “place” in the household. An analysis of the entire book The Other Side of the War with the Army of the Potomac would reveal aspects of many parts of life in the 1860s, including social standards, race relations, gender relations, conditions of medical facilities in the Civil War, and even grammatical and diction tendencies of upper-class women from Rhode Island; but in this particular analysis the concentration is on the how the wounded were seen by those who aided them, as well as the reactions of Wormeley herself to her situation and the soldiers’ suffering.

This document mainly contributes to the social context of the Civil War, for Wormeley is one of several dozen high-society women who walked away from their lives of leisure in order to aid soldiers in the Civil War. They did not do this for praise or for thanks, but because they were driven to do so by a powerful internal need to help the war effort, even though no such aid work had been done previously. Wormeley’s book of letters gives an inside look into the life she choose to lead and a perspective which was captured the moment it happened, not as a memoir written later in life when the sights and memories were dulled and softened by time, but when everything was still sharp and painful. By reading these letters, modern audiences are able to take away a feeling of presence–that they too are in the hospitals, standing next to the wounded and dying soldiers, doing their absolute best to try to help, in any way they might be able.

Author Biography

Katherine (or Katharine) Prescott Wormeley was born in 1830 in England to an English father, who held the rank of rear-admiral in the British Navy, and an American mother. The family later immigrated to the United States. With the beginning of the Civil War, Katherine Wormeley decided to take up the cause alongside the soldiers who went to war and the civilians who geared their efforts toward supporting them. Her main goals were to gather supplies which would be necessary to soldiers, but she was not the only one to do so. In fact, she worked with many other women, beginning with a meeting of other women held in her mother’s home. This society was named the “Woman’s Union Aid Society,” and it became a springboard for Wormeley’s later work, after she served as its president and continued to serve as an administrator.

In approximately this same period, 1861-62, Wormeley strove for a new type of work, in which she was able to procure a contract with the military to provide shirts to the army. These shirts were hand made by the men and women whom Wormeley was working to help, poorer civilians who felt the need to support the war effort and needed the money to survive. This contract was set to expire in April 1862. Almost immediately after this, the United States Sanitary Commission was created and, soon after, Wormeley was recognized as an impressive and capable leader and administrator, taking charge of not only the sick and wounded being cared for after battles, but also men, in a time when such action by a woman, especially an unattached and relatively young woman, was unheard of.

Katherine Wormeley, like nearly every other woman who worked in the service of the Sanitary Commission, eventually succumbed to the incredible demands of her job, sickening with fever and being forced by her health to remove herself from this aid work. But after returning home for a short while, she once again took up a place as a superintendent, until once again she was forced to retire due to her health. This time it was final. But she did not entirely give up on her work. She published letters and details of her time serving as a nurse and administrator in the Civil War, allowing more people to understand the horrors she witnessed and the necessity of such aid, both for the men they helped and for the women who were able to contribute. Wormeley spent much of the end of her life translating works by French authors, becoming much distinguished for her abilities. She passed away on August 4, 1908 at her home.

Document Analysis

This analysis is based on three letters, from 1862, immortalized in Wormeley’s book, The Other Side of the War…, the first a letter to her mother dated May 13, the second to a friend dated May 18 (although a only a section of the letter is referred to as the letter is very long), and the last to her mother again dated May 24. These letters cover a wide range of topics and are not, by any means, a complete cross-section of the letters to be found in Wormeley’s book. But these letters seem best to aid a modern audience through their descriptions of the types of work and injuries Wormeley faced when she began work each day (which she called “Routine of Work”); how the Hospital Transport Service was run and how well it coped with the high number of casualties from the war (titled in her index “State of Affairs of the Hospital Transport Service”); and, finally, how the humanity of the soldiers and their ability to rise above their own injuries continued to amaze her (a part of a her letter labeled “Unselfishness of the Sick and Wounded” in the index). By analyzing these letters, a better understanding of Wormeley’s work, to which she devoted her life, and the care she and others provided to the soldiers, should emerge.

In the Service of the Hospital Transport Service

A detailed description of Wormeley’s specific daily routine in the Hospital Transport Service is provided in the first of her letters. The letter itself was written on her second day at her posting, but even in this short amount of time, Wormeley was able to explain what each day of service was going to look like. The descriptions of the injuries which each soldier is enduring or dying from is not the most helpful part of the letter; that comes from reading more deeply and understanding the services that Wormeley provided to the soldiers themselves. She clearly pays attention to each patient, but she also gives extra attention, which modern audiences would not expect from a nurse, such as her taking dictation and writing the lines thought of by a wounded poet. She and her fellows also spend time with the men, not simply bandaging wounds, but talking with them and keeping up morale. Her comments that the poet sat up in bed and wore some kind of voluminous garment “constructed for him by Miss Whetten out of an old green table-cloth” show each woman’s attention to the men–for no other reason than out of a desire to see them well again.

More than simply entertaining the soldiers, Wormeley and the other women’s daily routine included keeping watch, helping the soldiers prepare for the day and washing up, as well as serving breakfast. While these tasks do not seem out of place for nurses, they do suggest a shocking level of intimacy for 1800s women who are not married to the men in question. Since they were nursing the soldiers, it would have been considered shameful or looked down upon, but it was still highly out of the ordinary for upper-class women, such as these, to do tasks, even more so since the soldiers would rarely be men of equal social status. But even though Wormeley states that she is easily settling into the routine, just as the other women have, she is still horrified by some of the necessary tasks which she has to see and occasionally be involved. The doctors personally oversee the caring of wounds, but it is up to the nurses to soothe the men after they receive their care. Wormeley found this most difficult to endure as she had not yet built up any kind of tolerance to the pain and cries of the men.

The rest of that paragraph is dedicated to an outline of the tasks which she and the other nurses complete every day and how they spend their time while off duty. It is unsurprising that at the end of a shift the women chose to relax or write letters to friends and family–for these are the pastime which they would normally be engaged in, if they were still in their homes. Through this description, it is easy to see that these nurses make up an integral part of the Sanitary Commission machine, of which the Hospital Transport Service was a part. This is further described in Wormeley’s second letter, in which she describes how the Sanitary Commission became such a prominent part of medical care in the Civil War. Simply stated, the government-run “Medical Department” was not sufficiently prepared for the huge number of dead and wounded which were produced by nearly every battle in the Civil War. From there, any boat or barge owned by the Sanitary Commission was put into service, loaded with nurses and patients and ordered to move soldiers from the field to somewhere where they were able to receive more comprehensive medical attention.

Wormeley continues her dialogue by explaining that while being treated properly is a must for any seriously wounded soldiers, some men were starting to take advantage of that fact, as is part of human nature and a justifiably fierce desire not to be killed in battle. While her words do not make her seem to be overly worried about the possibility of men abusing the system, even the fact that she brought up the topic at all in her letter lets audiences know that it is something which she and the other nurses must face. She clearly looks forward to the possibility of a large hospital following behind the army for less seriously sick or injured soldiers who would be able to return to their stations, but she also has a practical understanding of the government, the Sanitary Commission, and of the strains of war which make such an endeavor unlikely for the time being. Her disposition as she writes seems to be one of contentment, as she understands the reasons for the on-goings around her and her own place within them. Such ease of mind seems to be enviable in a time of much confusion and danger.

Wormeley’s Patients

Wormeley’s letters, however, not only show her ease in her place in the war and as a transport nurse, but also her pride in the soldiers whom she aids. In her letter to her mother, dated May 24, she gives some of the details of those whom she is currently tending while they recuperate from their wounds. While she had previously spoken of their wounds, their interactions, and sometimes even the amusement which they provide to the nurses, she had not before talked about the “instances of such high unselfishness” which occur, sometimes on a daily basis.

While she did not spend much time on the details of many instances in her letter, preferring instead to tell her mother about them in person, she does recount one instance at the end of the paragraph–a man giving up his bed in order that a more seriously injured fellow soldier could sleep there and volunteering to climb into a higher bed, even though it caused him great pain. While this does not seem to a modern audience like such a great sacrifice, it would be all too easy for a wounded man to think only of his own pain and ignore the plight of others. Wormeley reports that this is not the case and finds her own faith in humanity restored and “strengthened,” even though she is surrounded by the proof of just how much damage men can do to one another. The importance of these moments to Wormeley are clearly demonstrated, as she writes about them almost immediately in her letter, with only a small opening greeting to her mother proceeding this information.

Wormeley cared deeply for her patients and about her own performance of her duties. This is apparent in each line of her letters and the detail which she includes, possibly to explain her choices to those who are not fellow volunteers in one of the bloodiest struggles in American history. She did not decide to help on a whim and then decide to go home when the job became too hard or too real. She, and many other women from similar backgrounds and subject to a similar drive to help, worked themselves to a state of pure exhaustion and sickness. In a time when doing very little or nothing pertaining to the Union’s war effort would not have been considered unreasonable or excessively unusual, upper-class, wealthy, unmarried women left their homes, volunteered their time, and sacrificed their health in order to make some kind of difference for the men who risked their lives and limbs to reunite the country.

Essential Themes

Katherine Wormeley’s book of letters has all but been relegated to the dusty shelf of the back part of a shuttered library and is only read and appreciated today by scholars researching her specific time period and occupation. But she should not be dismissed by ordinary readers, because her work is a shining example of what people are able to do when they decide to throw themselves into a cause. Wormeley’s letters may not give the impression of being written by a woman who worked to shatter the glass ceiling of administration in the 1800s, but they provide invaluable details about the medical issues faced by staff and soldiers alike. They also provide minute descriptions of what nurses were required to do and how they lived upon transport ships, not an area of history that is otherwise widely known.

In the short-term, Wormeley influenced those around her by her actions as a nurse and those back home by keeping them informed of her activities and the happenings of the war. It would be a shame to underestimate how much those letters must have been treasured by the people who received them, for Wormeley had volunteered to put herself in harm’s way in order to help the Union’s cause and care for the injured and dying, instead of staying safe at home and, maybe, donating money or goods to the army. Long-term, her letters may have less obvious impact, but they are still vital parts of American history. The details in these letters help to create a whole picture of the Civil War, they flesh out the personalities of faceless soldiers, and they even give life to the administrators with whom she worked. Without such documentation, written history becomes nothing but a series of events without the power to draw in or impact modern audiences.

Bibliography
  • Brockett, L. P. “Katherine Prescott Wormeley.” Women’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience. Tufts University, 1867. Web. 23 Aug. 2013.
  • “Hospital Transport Service.” Civil War Women. The United States Army Heritage and Education Center, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.
  • Wormeley, Katharine Prescott. The Other Side of the War: With the Army of the Potomac. Letters from the Headquarters of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia in 1862. Boston: Ticknor, 1889. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Diary of a Civil War Nurse, The. Smithsonian National Museum of American History, n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2013.
  • Egenes, Karen J. “Nursing During the US Civil War: A Movement Toward the Professionalization of Nursing.” Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities, Jan. 2009. Web. 09 Sept. 2013.
  • Favor, Lesli J. Women Doctors and Nurses of the Civil War. New York: Rosen, 2004. Print.
  • Smith, Adelaide W. Reminiscences of an Army Nurse During the Civil War. New York: Greaves, 1911. Print.
  • Straubing, Harold Elk. In Hospital and Camp: The Civil War through the Eyes of Its Doctors and Nurses. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1993. Print.
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