Charlotte Bradford, Part Two: The Odyssey Continues

by Carolyn Ravenscroft

Armory Square Hospital in Washington DC where Charlotte began a new phase of her nursing career

In a previous blog entry Charlotte Bradford, a Civil War nurse from Duxbury, journeyed to Virginia and joined the United States Sanitary Commission’s Transport Service.  Now, we pick up her story as she leaves the Sanitary Commission and enters the next phase in her career.

In September of 1862 Charlotte found herself at a crossroads.  The hospital ships managed by the Sanitary Commission were, during the last week of August 1862, taken over by the United States Army and all Sanitary Commission workers were dismissed. As this chapter of Sanitary Commission’s work came to close, many of the women who had served with Charlotte as matrons aboard the transport ships departed for their Northern homes. Charlotte, however, was determined to stay in the South and find work as an Army Nurse.

After disembarking from the schooner St. Mark in Baltimore, Charlotte made her way to Washington DC. She was directed to the office of Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Army Nurses, and was immediately hired. But Charlotte soon found hospital work to be markedly different from her experiences in transport service. She had come to expect a degree of deference while aboard the ships.  At the Armory Square Hospital she was soon disabused of any notion that her presence was wanted.

On her first day as an Army nurse, she sat for three hours in an office before being sent to a ward whereupon she was “put on duty or rather, told to go to work.”[1]  The next day was no better, finding “the change from the respect with which we were treated on the boat was rather striking.”[2]  It took a week before anyone remembered her name; it only took a few days more before she was dismissed for incompetence. Charlotte had become openly hostile to a surgeon, Dr. Reid, whom she suspected was negligent. This conflict was not unique but, as in Charlotte’s case, it often led to dismissal.[3] Historian Jane E. Schultz points out, “taking the moral high road was consistent with nineteenth-century notions of virtuous womanhood, but in making workplace disputes public, they resisted the model of silent cooperation their society had scripted for them.”[4]

Most surgeons viewed female nurses as a nuisance. This was in large part due to their lack of formal training. Dorothea Dix, while holding potential nurses to strict age and moral standards, required little in the way of experience.[5] According to Union nurse Mary Livermore, “many of the women [Dix] accepted because they were sufficiently old and ugly proved unfit for the position, and a disgrace to their sex.”[6] Most nurses were allowed to do little “nursing” in the modern, professional sense of the word. They were required to do the highly gendered tasks of washing, dressing and feeding patients. They also wrote letters for and read to patients. In some instances female nurses, including Charlotte, were allowed to dress wounds but that was not the norm. Despite the medical personnel’s dislike for women in the wards, most soldiers were glad of their presence.

Luckily, Charlotte’s dismissal at Armory Square did not end her career as a hospital nurse. Dorothea Dix had had ample experience with disgruntled surgeons. She assuaged Charlotte’s fears that she would be sent home and promptly posted her to the Seminary Hospital in Georgetown.

Throughout the fall and into the winter of 1862 Charlotte worked ceaselessly at hospitals throughout the DC area. Eventually she, like so many other nurses, succumbed to illness.  While caring for a number of typhoid fever patients she most likely contracted the disease. Her symptoms included a fever that lasted for two weeks that left her weak and unable to leave her bed. She convalesced at the Sanitary Commission’s Home For Nurses run by a family friend, Mrs. Caldwell. She also spent much time at the home of her niece, Lucia Bradford Knapp, and her husband, Frederick Newman Knapp, the Special Relief Agent for the Sanitary Commission. Once fully recovered Charlotte resumed her nursing duties until April 1863 at which time she left the service of the US Army entered the third phase of her odyssey…stay tuned for a future blog article that will continue her story.


[1] Diary of Charlotte Bradford, September 8, 1862.
[2] Diary of Charlotte Bradford, September 7, 1862.
[3] Charlotte was accused of not properly caring for a patient by Dr. Reid.  She described the doctor as “bad tempered, ill bred and cares only for the surgical cases to practice and show his skill.” Diary, September 20, 1862.
[4] Jane E. Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2004), 6
[5] John R. Brumgardt, ed., Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press: 1980), 32
[6] Mary Livermore, My Story of the War (Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington and Co: 1889), 246

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