As a young woman in Somerset in 1773 you married that handsome weaver from a neighboring parish, but now it’s two years later and a war has begun across the ocean and your husband has just come home from the nearby market town and announced that he’s enlisted in the army. You’re impressed with the bounty money he received, over two months’ wages at the rate he earned for weaving, and with the fine hat with a cockade of brightly colored ribbons that he wears as a new recruit. But the regiment he joined is under orders to embark for America; within two months he’ll be gone, and even if the war ends quickly his regiment could remain overseas for years. What’s a woman to do?
If you’re like several thousand other wives of British soldiers, you go with your husband. The army allowed this. They even accommodated wives, providing space on the transport ships and in barracks, and food rations. In spite of these amenities, in order to have a reasonable standard of living you gotta get a job.
Fortunately, the army provided jobs for wives too. Selling provisions and washing clothes were options. So was working as a nurse at a regimental or army hospital. Military nurses before the era of Clara Barton? Yes, indeed. A new article in the collector’s print edition of Journal of the American Revolution examines the noble role of these women who cared for the sick and wounded, sometimes at their own peril. From the article:
There is no evidence that nurses received explicit training, but their duties are clearly described in several military textbooks of the era. The work included insuring that each patient received his prescribed diet and medications, had clean clothing, bedding, and chamber pots, received no unauthorized food or drink from visitors, and did not engage in any irregular behavior. Nurses also saw to the cleanliness of the hospital (a facility usually established in whatever building was available, from a well-appointed house to an abandoned outbuilding), including opening windows for ventilation, re-packing mattresses with fresh straw, sprinkling vinegar for sanitation and occasionally fumigating with aromatics such as “the smoke of wetted gunpowder, or of frankincense.” The biological mechanics of illnesses had not yet been discovered but the importance of hygiene and diet were well known, and it was soldiers’ wives working as nurses who provided these essential elements of care.
Surgeons were recommended to appoint a woman as matron of the hospital, who would oversee the other nurses. Unfortunately few records survive to tell us who these women were, how long their careers were, or any other personal details. Returns reveal the numbers of sick who passed in and out of some hospitals each week, and the number of patients who died, but we don’t know how many nurses were on staff or whether any succumbed to the hazards of attending the sick. We can estimate the number of women employed as nurses at various times, but have very little direct information to confirm those estimates. Orders sometimes indicate numbers of women per regiment sent to the hospitals, and that sometimes the duty was rotated, but not how long they remained employed. Although hundreds of army wives spent time as nurses, they remain largely anonymous.
But what about the money – could you earn a decent living at this demanding job? As you’ll see when you get the collector’s hardcover edition of Journal of the American Revolution and read the article, you might earn more than your husband!
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