Dorothea Dix

Although Miss Dix was not in the line of fire, it was her efforts in administering care for the soldiers as the Superintendent of Female Nurses that made her invaluable to the Union. Her appointment as the superintendent of women nurses was a result of her seemingly tireless work for insane asylum reform. A successful teacher who established her own school in Boston, was forced to give it up when a tubercular illness, a recurring affliction, struck her. It was after a period of invalidism that she dedicated herself to the quiet study of conditions of insane asylums, prisons and almshouses in many states, Canada, Japan and Europe. In Massachusetts she spent a year touring every jail, whorehouse and house of correction. She then presented a report, or “memorial” to the Legislature asking for funds for an institution specially designed to treat the mentally ill. Always observing the rules of feminine propriety, she rarely spoke publicly, but she was a persuasive lobbyist behind the scene. She did the same in state after state as well as other countries. Her revelations concerning the conditions and treatment of the insane not only brought about reforms and influenced legislation, but it also enlarged the social consciousness of the nation. As the superintendent of nurses, Miss Dix oversaw the recruitment, training and placement of some 2,000 women whom cared for Union soldiers. Described as an assertive individualist with limited administrative skills and duties that were ill defined, she worked in uneasy cooperation with the Sanitary Commission to recruit nurses and controversy swirled around her. Concerned for keeping her appointees above reproach, she issued very strict stipulations for her nurses: No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses are required to be very plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts. … [Nurses] must be in their own rooms at taps or nine o’clock unless obliged to be with the sick; must not go to any place of amusement in the evening; must not walk out with any patient or officer in their own room except on business; must be willing to take the forty cents per day that is allowed by the government. She even requested that the provost marshal, who had been receiving a number of aspiring applicants, to send her only those who were able to turn a full-grown man around in bed, and to do the most menial work. This, he remarked, thinned out the number of applicants considerably. Margaret Leech described the difficulties Miss Dix had a difficult time getting organized and working with others: In her long career of public service, she had always worked alone, and she had no administrative ability. She was elderly [nearly sixty], high-strung and inflexible. In a determination to do everything herself, she was soon involved in a maze of details. She interviewed all candidates, assigned them to their posts, visited hospitals, adjusted disputes, and ferreted out abuses. … Under the pressure of her multifarious and unsystematized duties, she grew overwrought, lost her self-control and involved herself in quarrels. In these she often was right; but she never showed the graces of tolerance and tact. Miss Dix remained at her post without leave throughout the war, but the Federal nurses never were organized. Many of the doctors snubbed her and with the supportof the Surgeon General, hired their own attendants. This led to some nurses reporting to Miss Dix and others to the surgeons. Training was further complicated by nurses sent directly by State agencies and aid societies in addition to wives and sisters who remained with their loved ones to care for the men. Without formal training or discipline, they had to learn the best they could. The nurses often were afraid or awed by her in the beginning, but in time most came to respect her and many were sincerely devoted. Most doctors resented her but it isn’t clear if it was because she was dictatorial or because she was more efficient than many of them. After the war Miss Dix returned to her work for the insane, continuing to travel widely in Europe and Japan. Hardworking, dedicated to the humanitarian cause in spite of continuing illness, she could seem cold and distant; “I have no particular love for my species,” she once said, “but own to a exhaustless fund of compassion.” Miss Dix died in 1887 in one of the hospitals she herself had founded.


Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix was sixty years old when the Civil War began, considered by some "too old" to "do any good" for the Northern cause. Still, Dorothea was a veteran of hospitals, having devoted her life to the reform of insane asylums. Despite her age, she was chosen to head the nurses assigned to the Northern medical facilities. Assertive and domineering, Dorothea took the significance of her appointment to heart and immediately set rigid standards for nurses, issuing this call for volunteers: "No woman under 30 need apply to serve in government hospitals. All nurses required to be plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts." This expectation of hard work soon gave her a reputation of trustworthiness among the wounded. And although Dorothea pushed her nurses, she asked no more of them than she did of herself and often opened her home to tired nurses so that they could stay closer to the hospitals.

A noted social reformer, Dix became the Union's Superintendent of Female Nurses during the Civil War. The soft spoken yet autocratic crusader had spent more than 20 years working for improved treatment of mentally ill patients and for better prison conditions. A week after the attack on Fort Sumter, Dix, at age 59, volunteered her services to the Union and received the appointment in June 1861 placing her in charge of all women nurses working in army hospitals. Serving in that position without pay through the entire war, Dix quickly molded her vaguely defined duties.

She convinced skeptical military officials, unaccustomed to female nurses, that women could perform the work acceptably, and then recruited women. Battling the prevailing stereo types-and accepting many of the common prejudices herself-Dix sought to ensure that her ranks not be inundated with flighty and marriage-minded young women by only accepting applicants who were plain looking and older than 30. In addition, Dix authorized a dress code of modest black or brown skirts and forbade hoops or jewelry.

Even with these strict and arbitrary requirements, relaxed somewhat as the war persisted, a total of over 3,000 women served as Union army nurses. Called "Dragon Dix" by some, the superintendent was stern and brusque, clashing frequently with the military bureaucracy and occasionally ignoring administrative details. Yet, army nursing care was markedly improved under her leadership.

Dix looked after the welfare of both the nurses, who labored in an often brutal environment, and the soldiers to whom they ministered, obtaining medical supplies from private sources when they were not forthcoming from the government. At the war's conclusion, Dix returned to her work on behalf of the mentally ill.

The Civil War Society's Encyclopedia of the Civil War principal writer and researcher Suzanne LeVert.

Women of Valor in the American Civil War; A Research Report Submitted to the Faculty In Partial Fulfillment of the Graduation Requirements Advisor: Dr. Howard M. Hensel Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama April 1999 Distribution A: Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited. Disclaimer The views expressed in this academic research paper are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense. In accordance with Air Force Instruction 51-303, it is not copyrighted, but is the property of the United States government.