A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Nursing Duty


Fifty-three-year-old Hannah Stevenson was the first Massachusetts woman to volunteer to serve as a Civil War nurse. In August 1861 she writes a letter to her family describing her experiences at Columbia College Hospital in Washington D.C. Clara Barton was another Massachusetts Civil War nurse who, after the war, devoted herself to gathering money to help identify missing and dead soldiers. She delivers this lecture in 1866 to raise funds for the cause (she wrote so large in order to see better when giving her speech).


Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: Letter from Hannah Stevenson to family and friends, 8 August 1861.
Selection from the Library of Congress: Clara Barton, ca. 1866.

Questions to Consider


  1. How does Stevenson describe the conditions of the hospital and the treatment the soldiers receive? Who does she blame for these conditions?
  2. As described on page 10 of her lecture, why did Barton decide to become a nurse? As told on page 13, in what kind of environment was Barton carrying out her duties? What kind of obstacles did she and her fellow nurses face? What supplies/tools did they use, and where did those come from? Starting on page 24, in what ways did she comfort wounded soldiers?


  1. What kind of training, support, and assistance was available for Civil War nurses? What other roles for women were available during the war?
  2. At the time, how was the role of the nurse viewed? What duties did it encompass, and how is that different from today?


  1. What things does Stevenson say in this letter that she could not say in public? Why could she not have said them aloud?
  2. How does Barton’s story support her purpose for giving the lecture? Why does she focus on the particular story of Hugh Johnson (pages 21-31 and 48-49)? How does she portray the South (beginning on page 88), and how does such a portrayal help her achieve her ends?


  1. How do you think Stevenson’s family would have felt when reading this letter? What worries would they have for Stevenson, the Union soldiers, and the Northern cause after reading it?
  2. How would Barton’s audience have responded to this lecture? What does she say to directly address her audience in pages 1-10 and 91-92, and how would it have been received? Do you think people would have donated money after hearing this lecture? Why or why not?


  1. In her last paragraph, Stevens mentions “Miss Dix.” To whom is she referring, and what role did she play in the Civil War? What else is she notable for? What did Barton do in the decades after the Civil War, and how did her experience as a nurse shape this?
  2. How can these two letters be used together to help us understand the role and experiences of nurses during the war? What gaps in our knowledge does each one fill most effectively? How do they complement each other? What aspects of Civil War nursing does Stevenson focus on that Barton does not, and vice versa?