The Diary of Civil War Nurse Opens at the American History Museum

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Coming of age in America means studying the Civil War, all through our school years we revisit the battles, the leaders, the soldiers, reexamining the strife that tore this nation apart for four long years beginning in 1861.  We hear the stories of soldiers in battle and former slaves fighting for freedom, but seldom do we learn of the stories of women, particularly those who served, in the Civil War.

In commemoration of the Civil War's 150 anniversary, the National Museum of American History recently opened a special display exhibition entitled, "'So Much Need of Service'—The Diary of a Civil War Nurse." The diary belonged to Amanda Akin (1827-1911), a nurse who worked at the Armory Square Hospital, here on the National Mall. Her diary and related materials are on loan from the National Library of Medicine.

Eager to document her experiences in the hospital, Akin wrote dozens of letters to her family and kept diaries describing her experiences throughout the 15 months she worked at Armory Square Hospital, which was built where the National Air and Space museum stands today. After moving from her home in Quaker Hill, New York, in 1863, the unmarried, 35-year-old Akin was one of millions of men and women to leave their homes and communities to contribute to the war effort.

"Many woman served as nurses during the war even though nursing was not yet a profession. Akin has no particular experience or training—just a desire to participate—to give service," said Diane Wendt, Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the American History museum. "The war involved millions of ordinary citizens and many left their homes and families for the first time.  For women to participate in the military world and the medical world (both basically closed to women) was a tremendous change. The experience of women serving in hospitals during the (Civil War) helped pave the way for the emergence of professional nursing and nursing schools after the war."

Nurses like Amanda Akin were responsible for administering medicines and distributing special diets to wounded and ill soldiers, as well as non-medical tasks such as entertaining and comforting patients.

As battles were fought nearby, large groups of injured soldiers were brought to Armory Square, where Akin's eye-witness reports register the brutality of the war. On June 14, 1863, she describes the sight in a letter to her sisters.

“It seemed to me this evening, as I sat at my table adding to the list of medicines—writing down name, regiment, list of clothing, etc., of the new arrivals, calmly looking at the poor maimed sufferers carried by, some without limbs, on a ‘stretcher’—that I had forgotten how to feel, . . . it seemed as if I were entirely separated from the world I had left behind.”

"Most of us are lucky to have so little experience of war,” says Wendt, “reading Akin's words makes me wonder how we would respond if faced with the immediacy and immensity of civil war."

In one of her letters to her sisters, Akin describes how visiting the Smithsonian grounds next door to the hospital helped her and her coworkers escape from the turmoil of the patient ward and the suffering.

“The fact that she herself visited the Smithsonian heightens the feeling of immediacy as we read her words in a setting nearby,” said National Library of Medicine Director Donald A.B. Lindberg in a report.

In addition to visiting the Smithsonian's grounds, Akin describes her experiences meeting important figures at the time including photographer Matthew Brady, the famed poet Walt Whitman and even President Abraham Lincoln. Akin describes one visit with the president made to the hospital.

"His homely face with such sad eyes and ungainly figure did not fill my youthful idea of a 'President of the United States'; but it was a grand thing for him to come and cheer our soldier boys with his presence. No doubt the fearful responsibility of his office weighs heavily upon him."

Little is known about her life after the war except that in 1879, she married Dr. Charles W. Stearns and in 1909 at the age of 81, she published her book about her Civil War nursing experiences, The Lady Nurse of Ward E.

"So Much Need of Service" --The Diary of a Civil War Nurse is on view until July 29th, 2011 in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History.

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