Healthcare Insider Blog

Berks County nurses have Civil War roots

  • Healthcare Alvernia

Reading has a rich nursing history, which is directly tied to one of the biggest battles in Civil War history and some of that battle’s greatest heroes.

Nurses of Reading will be celebrated by a “24-inch-by-16-inch monument to be erected in City Park to honor the services of nurses who worked in the Fairgrounds Field Hospital from 1862 to 1863,” according to the Reading Eagle.

The Battle of Antietam saw 23,000 casualties in only 12 hours of combat, and among the many hospital outposts spread from Antietam throughout Pennsylvania was Fairgrounds Field Hospital, located on what is now City Park.

“It was a pitiful site. Some lay on the battlefields for three days, and before the nurses could attend to them they had to soak the blood off their bodies … I dread to think of those days,” said Mrs. Mary Ann Adams to the Reading Eagle in 1928. Adams died in 1930 and was the last surviving member of a group of four Reading women who served as nurses in the war.

We spoke with Associate Professor of Nursing and Pre-licensure BSN Program Coordinator Deborah Greenawald of Alvernia University to get some professional insight into how the nurses of Reading may have been trained for their Civil War duties.

“Up until the early 20th century, hospital-based nurses’ “training programs” were the primary way nurses were educated. These were built on the apprenticeship model, and nursing students might have one basic book to use and refer to during their training, but the primary focus was on skill development and ‘serving the patients and physicians,’” says Greenawald.

“Nurses in training essentially staffed the hospitals. During the Civil War, many women (and men) served in nursing roles, including Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott.”

Greenawald also shared with us “Duties of the Floor Nurse,” which she frequently reads to her nursing students:


We’ve come a long way since the Civil War.

Alvernia’s nursing education, including the RN to BSN program, “educates students rather than subject them to the “apprenticeship model,’” says Greenawald.”

They are required to develop not just competent skills for safe nursing practice, but also the knowledge which goes along with making critical clinical judgments about how to use those skills in a particular situation for a particular patient’s unique needs. Professional formation and education would be the best way to describe preparation of today’s Alvernia nursing students.”


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