In the early days of the American Civil War, few military officers knew or cared much about the medical care rendered to their men although organized medical departments existed in both the Union and Confederate Armies. However, the South suffered from a lack of resources throughout the war. Military doctors varied in their qualifications from outright charlatans or ill-qualified political appointees, to a cadre of dedicated men who made the most of the limited assets and medical knowledge of the time.
The war claimed some 620,000 lives among the armed forces of both sides and another 50,000 civilian deaths. Medical care was, as noted, both primitive and in many areas, limited. There were only about 150 hospitals in the entire country and no formal nursing education programs. Fortunately, civilians on both sides rose to the occasion and provided much-needed assistance in the delivery of care and services to wounded and ill soldiers. Perhaps one of the most important contributions was that provided by growing numbers of volunteer women nurses who braved the battlefield and the challenging conditions in military hospitals. The exact number of women who served is unknown, but certainly was in the thousands. Some historians suggest as many as 8,000 on both sides. Because of the volunteer and sometimes anonymous nature of their efforts, an accurate number may never be known.
The practice of medicine itself had barely begun to leave the dark days of the previous centuries. Battlefield technology had advanced rapidly, as it does in all wars, but the pace of medicine did not. Often, a minor wound became fatal due to inappropriate care, infection or simple ignorance. The horrific carnage of the war, coupled with rampant disease, took a heavy toll. Attention was forced on the issue.
Help was forthcoming almost after the hostilities began. The U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) was established on June 18, 1861, as a private non-profit relief agency to serve the medical needs of Union forces. Through a variety of efforts, it raised some $25 million dollars (comparable to nearly $400 million today to support sanitary standards in army camps, improved care, staffing and supportive services in military hospitals.
There was no similar private organization in the South, although individuals and states did what they could through such entities as the Ladies’ Soldiers’ Relief Society and the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers. As in the North, there were few trained female nurses but those who volunteered learned by doing and quickly proved that a woman’s strength was not confined to home and family whether in the environment of a wealthy mansion or a log cabin.
The Union Army quickly authorized the establishment of military hospitals across the northern states to bring the sick and wounded closer to their homes. One such facility was Lovell General Hospital, also known as the Portsmouth Grove Hospital. Rhode Island Governor William Sprague, facilitated its creation in the village of Melville on the shore of Narragansett Bay, on the site of a former summer hotel. The first patients arrived by military hospital steamship on July 6, 1862. During the following years up to the end of the war, some 10,000 servicemen passed through the hospital’s facilities. The hospital greatly benefited from the presence of a number of dedicated women nurses, both paid and volunteer, under the able leadership of the focus of this month’s article, Katherine Prescott Wormeley.
The role of women as nurses in the war expanded rapidly. At first, the horrors of war injuries were thought to be too much for the sensitive female nature. But, that soon changed thanks to the assertive efforts of women like Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, Annie Etheridge, Dorthea Dix (who was named superintendent of the female nurses in the Union Army) and many others who brought solace, comfort and attentive medical support to sick and wounded Union soldiers and sailors. Their counterparts in the South rendered similar care, although often with far fewer resources.
Our story this month looks at one dedicated and energetic woman who, although from a well-to-do and refined background, threw herself totally into a highly successful role as the Lady Superintendent of Portsmouth Grove Hospital. Katherine Prescott Wormeley (her name is sometimes spelled “Katharine”) was born in Ipswich, England in 1830. Her father was a Royal Navy officer and her mother, an American from Boston. On her father’s death, mother and daughter returned to the U.S. and settled in Newport. Katherine was of somewhat frail health, but that did not stop her from becoming a driving force in the general work of the Sanitary Commission and, specifically, at Portsmouth Grove. This writer’s fellow Rhode Island historian, Frank L. Gryzb’s 2012 book Rhode Island’s Civil War Hospital: Life and Death and Portsmouth Grove, 1862-1865, is an excellent chronicle of the hospital’s creation, existence and legacy and highlights the contributions of Katherine Wormeley and the women who joined her at Melville.
At first, the hospital suffered a lack of nurses as they had no on site housing, had to find their way to and from Melville every day and often could not afford the cost of transport, by private, coach, train or steamboat. Here’s where Katherine enters the picture.
She was already hard at work at the age of thirty-one supporting the war effort through the Newport Ladies’ Aid Society. She had secured a government contract to sew much-needed shirts for Union soldiers. Hiring local needy women, and paying them with her contract funding, she supplied some 50,000 shirts over a relatively short period during the early days of the war (the Army complimented her on the quality of the work). Soon after, she volunteered first at the battlefront in Virginia and then aboard a military hospital transport ship bringing sick and wounded soldiers north for care. This in itself was a daunting task, as the men were often in poor condition, and their seaborne journey didn’t help.
Katherine was a breed apart. Like many of her early nursing counterparts, she was a clear-thinker, not afraid to tackle a challenge and she put the needs of her patients above all else including government red tape and often prejudiced military officers. Her efforts during the Peninsular Campaign brought her to the attention of Surgeon General William Hammond. He offered her the position of Lady Director, in effect the superintendent of Portsmouth Grove in August of 1862, not long after the hospital opened. The role was, in effect, that of a superintendent, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the hospital in support of the commanding officer and medical director. At this point in time, Katherine’s own health was failing, but she still took on the challenge.
Calling on several of her friends to join her as assistants, they organized a highly efficient system of individual ward-based care by dozens of nurses. Wormeley soon had a residence building for her nurses and then got to work overseeing appropriate meals based on each patient’s needs, clean laundry (provided through a steam powered wash house), and improved individual patient records to ensure each man’s medications and general medical care were properly addressed and documented.
In its final configuration, Portsmouth Grove was a large and impressive facility on a twelve-acre site. Surrounding and administration building (the former summer hotel) were twenty-eight 160-foot by 25-foot buildings housing separate wards each accommodating 59 sick or injured men and staffed by nurses and aides. There was a general mess hall (which served mostly nutritious, although sometimes unappetizing meals), a barracks for the Union soldiers who served as hospital guards, and other buildings including a chapel, bakery, laundry (capable of washing and drying thousands of pieces of linen daily), carpenter and blacksmith shops, a stable, an ice house and a building for the sutler (in effect, the hospital PX).
Katherine Wormeley made sure that all of domestic services operated at maximum efficiency. She immediately earned the respect of the Army officers at the facility as well as the affection of the men for whom she and her nurses cared. Her administrative nursing assistants included her friends, a trio of sisters from New York: Sarah, Jane and Georgeanna (“Georgie”) Woolsey. She also recruited her cousin, Harriet Whetten, who later went on to become the superintendent of the Carver Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. These women had already been working with the Sanitary Commission and gladly accepted Katherine’s invitation. Female nurses reporting to them were paid $12 a month plus room and board. In comparison, a male nurse received $20 a month.
Katherine kept up her involvement with the Sanitary Commission, reaching out to them for assistance with special foodstuffs for holiday meals, and other needs. The Commission supported its activities across the North with a series of Sanitary Fairs, charitable community events. For one of these in Boston, Katherine turned out an eleven-page brochure in rapid time. It proved to be a popular item and sold well in support of the Commission’s efforts.
Katherine’s health continued to deteriorate, not helped by the frenetic pace at which she worked. She was forced to resign her post for health reasons in September of 1863, but her influence on the hospital remained throughout Portsmouth Grove’s existence. As her health permitted, she kept active in the work of the Sanitary Commission and served as associate manager of the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association, responsible for Rhode Island where she saw to the needs of returning veterans.
After the war, she lived for a time in Newport in a college built by Stanford White. Katherine became a well-known translator of French literature, including the works of Honore de Balzac and Moliere. In 1892, she published a collection of her communications for the Sanitary Commission under the title Letters from Headquarters during the Peninsular Campaign: The Other Side. Katherine Wormeley never married and died at the age of 78 in Jackson, New Hampshire.
The end of the Civil War also quickly brought to a close the need for Portsmouth Grove. The hospital ceased operations in 1865 and its assets were auctioned off in September of that year. Gradually, the buildings were torn down or sold. During its operation, some 308 soldiers who died at the hospital were buried on the property. With the exception of a few bodies that were claimed by family or friends, the majority of remains were transferred to the Cypress Hills (NY) National Cemetery were they were interred in Section 1B of the Union Grounds. The hospital’s site saw another military use in 1901 when the Navy established a coaling station (later a fuel oil depot) and in 1942 when the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center was established. Their story is contained in a chapter of our book World War Two Rhode Island. Today, Melville is the site of a major commercial yachting center.
Without a doubt, the Civil War focused attention to the need for positive change in the delivery of healthcare, not the least of which was the importance of the role of nurses. Military hospitals, although they varied in quality on both sides, were a harbinger of well-equipped and centralized inpatient hospitals and better-trained physicians. The nurses of the Civil War earned the thanks from and respect by the men for whom they cared and paved the way for today’s skilled nursing profession. As Katherine Wormeley’s friend and colleague Jane Woolsey, in her in her post-war book Hospital Days wrote “It has been a tiresome march, but think of the results.”
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