William H. McCrillis
April 24, 1861
On April 24, 1861, less than two weeks after the South fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, William H. McCrillis, of Bangor, proposed a bill to a special session of the Maine Legislature.
Women were already active in the nursing profession as civilians. It was one of the few professions available to women outside the home. But nursing in the military – especially during a war – had been strictly a man’s role. McCrillis thought that it would be a good idea to change that. He asked his legislative colleagues for their approval to allow women to serve as nurses in the Maine Army.
More known for his extensive holdings of timberland in Maine, McCrillis displayed social and logistical insight in trying to expand the role of women. His effort came merely nine days after President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers – men only – to put down the rebellion
Nationally, the story of female nurses in the Civil War begins with the creation of the United States Sanitary Commission in June 18, 1861, and Maine’s Dorothea Dix’s appointment as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army.
However, McCrillis had long since suggested that Maine "authorize the Governor to accept the services of females as nurses in the army."
His efforts leading to women volunteering to serve as nurses coincided with a book published two years earlier, Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing, gives nursing tips that Nightingale learned from her experiences as a nurse during the Crimean War.
Many women in Maine and elsewhere wanted to contribute to the war effort, but the idea of putting them in harm’s way so close to battlefields bothered a number of people in the all-male Legislature. Nevertheless, the measure passed.
Women were not officially authorized to serve in Confederate hospitals until the fall of 1862.
By the end of the war, approximately 6,000 women had performed nursing duties for the Union army.
Questions for further thought/research:
- Female nurses were only beginning to be accepted during the Civil War. What other jobs did women do before and during the Civil War?
- Were these jobs different for women from the North and South?
- What are some reasons why would women choose to leave the home to go to the war?