- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

There are many kinds of courage. One notable example took the form of a woman’s dogged struggle against entrenched opposition as she helped those in need. Unfazed and unyielding, Dorothea Lynde Dix undoubtedly was such a champion, but surely there were times when her frail body, which never enjoyed good health, cried for rest.

Dix was born to poor parents on April 4, 1802, in Hampden, Maine, just south of Bangor. When she was 10, her father died and she went to live with grandparents in Boston, where her grandfather was a physician, which may explain her determination, in later life, to secure better medical conditions for wounded soldiers.

Before the Civil War, Dix was determined to alleviate the terrible conditions endured in America by paupers, the mentally ill and those in prison. In 1854, she began a three-year stay in England and Europe, where she studied care for the insane. In America, her campaign did bear fruit, but she aroused the hostility of the authorities, who were understandably resentful at having their shortcomings brought to the attention of the public. It was a foretaste of the opposition she would encounter when war began.

Dix was 59 when Fort Sumter fell. She began her own fight, as she learned how inadequate the hospital conditions were for those who fell but did not die immediately. She soon came to realize the low standards of Army surgeons and the appalling lack of hygiene, problems that swelled the ranks of those who did not survive.

A little spinster with gray-blue eyes, a soft voice and a firm jaw, Dix prepared to take on the Union Army.

All the same, she did have supporters in high places. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, liked and admired her. Simon Cameron, secretary of war until he was replaced by Edwin Stanton, espoused her cause and appointed her superintendent of the Nursing Corps. He asked her to get all the bandages and hospital cotton shirts she could find, and she began appealing for them and for sheets and canned goods. She was so successful that soon her house was bulging with stores.

Dix recruited a large number of female nurses, and here she thoroughly trod on Army toes. Military hospitals were hostile to women, and only male nurses were employed. This did not deter Dix, whose well-organized army of female nurses eventually numbered in the thousands. She did her own interviewing, and she had firm views on the kind of woman who was eligible: plain-featured and not below age 30, drab dress, no hoop skirts. Apart from these recruiting efforts, Dix traveled widely, hoping to create new hospitals.

Throughout, she had to combat the lack of cooperation from Army surgeons. She also clashed continually with the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Her bands of devoted women must have saved countless lives, a contribution the Army stubbornly refused to recognize. Finally, the Army did defeat her. Early in 1864, it was decreed that all female nurses were to be responsible to the senior medical officer at the hospital where they were employed. Dix had no choice but to yield.

Four months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, Dix resigned as of Sept. 10, 1865, and she spent her last months mustering out her ill-paid but devoted army of caring women. She declined to accept a prestigious “Thanks of Congress Award” and refused any financial rewards.

For Dix to be totally unrecognized after her achievements was unacceptable to Stanton. In January 1867, he wrote a letter warmly praising her for what she had done throughout the war. With his letter came a national flag. Greatly moved, she did accept this.

She had returned to her earlier campaign: The poor, the mentally ill and the imprisoned still needed their champion. Dix also became a writer, and there were several editions of one of her books, “Conversations on Common Things” (1869).

The ill health that had plagued Dix all her life brought it to an end. She was ill for six years before she died in Trenton, N.J., on July 17, 1887, at age 85.

Peter Cliffe writes from Hertfordshire, England. A retired administrator for a multinational corporation, he became interested in the Civil War while working here.

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