Sunday, February 7, 2016


It amazes me how in the literary world themes go in cycles.  Within the past few years there has been a run on books relating to WWII especially people who helped saved the Jews and others escaping Nazi terrorism.

At present the theme is nursing on the battlefields of past wars, and in keeping with our YEAR of MERCY theme  I have presented some well known and lesser known books and TV series about the women who bravely volunteered.

This year we have MERCY STREET a PBS American period medical drama television series. It is set during the Civil War and follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides- New England abolitionist Mary Phinney and Confederate supporter Emma Green. I find the acting for the most part poorly done, but the history is interesting.

Mary, a widow, is sent as new head nurse to an Alexandria (VA) hotel owned by the Southern Green family which is repossessed as a Union military hospital, much to the family's  disliking.
Inspired by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital, this new drama reveals the stories of those struggling to save lives while managing their own hardships.

Annie Bell- Note they did wear their long dresses
To depict a realistic and accurate account of this era, the writers and producers collaborated with historians and medical experts, including James M. McPherson who is an American Civil War historian who received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom. Shauna Devine, who wrote Women at the Front:Hospital Workers in Civil War America was also an advisor.

Interesting to note from her work as many as 20,000 women worked in Union and Confederate hospitals during America's bloodiest war. The women were black and white, and from all social classes, serving as nurses, administrators, matrons, seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, and custodial workers.

Field Hospital

Military protocol and society "correctness"  banned women from field hospitals, thus nursing duties continued to be assigned to men. But with the increasing numbers of casualties and the overburdening of facilities, gender-related strictures on nursing broke down and spurred the nation’s women into taking immediate and decisive action to help correct the situation. Leave it to women!

We saw in a past Blog how religious orders sent trained nurses to  staff field hospitals near the front. Within a few months of the war’s onset, some 600 women were serving as nurses in 12 hospitals.

Nuns who volunteered 
There is very little written record of their service though a few of the more famous names left accounts, including Louisa May Alcott, Jane Stuart Woolsey (widow of a prominent industrialist) and Katherine Prescott Wormeley, who with noted landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted and the Rev. Henry Bellows, played a role in the work of the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian agency set up to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women and men who wanted to contribute to the war effort. The Commission was a volunteer affiliate of the Union Army.

 At the beginning of the war, nurses were merely volunteers who showed up at military hospitals. But after Battle of Bull Run, Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix organized a nursing corps to help care for the wounded soldiers. Clara  established an agency to supply soldiers and worked in many battles, often behind the lines, delivering care to wounded soldiers on both sides.

The Sanitary Commission

One critic of this new TV series stated that women of this period did not speak out as it was not "lady-like", so he felt in part the series did not ring true. He must not have read of Dorothea Dix
and all she did in the Civil War to help the wounded. In April 1861, Dorothea  assembled a group of volunteer female nurses, staging a march on Washington, demanding that the government recognize their desire to aid the Union’s wounded. Throughout her life Dorothea begged biographers to de-emphasize her Civil War years. But in 1983, long after she was dead and could not protest the well-deserved honor, she was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

These women may have lacked professional training but they labored tirelessly to bring aid and comfort to the sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

Mansion House

Women on the battle front

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