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Mercy Street’s Season Two Premiere: Radical Medical Procedures, Rebel Spies, ‘That’ Pinkerton, and the Plight of the Contrabands

Mercy Street header depicting three characters and a battle scene

Season one of PBS’s Civil War hospital drama, Mercy Street, took historical accuracy seriously, often reflecting recent historiography. Even its annoyingly inaccurate storyline involving John Wilkes Booth’s plot to blow up the hospital during a Lincoln visit was loosely based on actual events. The season ended with a cliffhanger involving the brutal stabbing of one character, and in the last moments, a fuse was snuffed out that would have blown up Lincoln and the hospital. The second season picks up where the first left off, throwing the audience back into the world of a federal hospital in Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, during the summer of 1862. (Filming in Richmond, the cast and crew reportedly fell in love with Virginia’s capital city and its many historical sites and museums). The first episode is an effective concoction of romance, humor, and dramatic storylines situated within solid historical context.

Not surprisingly, medical drama is front and center. Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen writing a letter to the family of a deceased patient, and readers of Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will recognize elements of “the good death” in how she describes the soldier’s final moments. Phinney also finds time to share a tender kiss with Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), in a contrived, but effective, romantic plot line that has been building since last season. More dramatically, last season’s stabbing victim, the despicable Silas Bullen (Wade Williams) endures two medical procedures that were radical for the time. The first requires experimentally pulling his intestines out to find and repair the damage. The other procedure is even more cutting-edge and is required after a second attempt on the patient’s life causes a rapid loss of blood. Foster recalls a doctor he met in London, James Blundell, and his draining of blood from one person into another. I’m not a medical historian, but a quick online search of reputable sources verifies the accuracy of the scene, as Blundell was one of the first to perform a successful blood transfusion. Impressively, the staging of the scene looks much like an 1829 illustration accompanying an article Blundell wrote for a medical journal.[1]

Drawing of a blood transfusion
Illustration from “Observation of Transfusion of Blood,” by James Blundell in The Lancet, June 13, 1829. Bernard Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

The wounds are the result of the plot to kill Lincoln. At the end of last season we saw Confederate sympathizer Frank Stringfellow (Jake Falahee) commit the crime because Bullen stumbled upon the conspirators in the hospital’s basement. Frank is betrothed to Emma Green (Hannah James), eldest daughter of the wealthy family that owned and ran the building as a hotel before it was transformed into a hospital by Union troops. Last season Emma tended to the facility’s Confederate wounded, but she has now decided that, despite the current lack of rebel patients, she wants to continue “to be a part of what is going on here.” This reveals that she is quickly evolving from the spoiled and defiant rebel she was in early episodes. Her character development is important; the war transformed nineteenth-century gender roles (debatably, only temporarily), especially among volunteer nurses. When Emma discovers that Frank is involved in the dastardly plot, she quickly and decisively ends their relationship despite having recently shared a carnal moment with him. Emma Green is no shrinking violet.

Meanwhile, Frank gets closer to Emma’s younger sister Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), who the war is also transforming. Determined to leave behind her comfortable southern belle life in order to support the Confederacy, she gets involved in Frank’s spy ring, helping him cover his involvement in the assassination plot. Later, she clandestinely communicates with shadowy figures and a woman (harkening to true spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow) who asks her to steal papers from a high ranking officer living in her family’s occupied mansion house. As Northern Virginia was indeed filled with female spies, this all comes across as realistic (even if Alice and Emma’s Virginia accents do not).

Hot on the trail of the conspirators, however, is a new character who could add pizazz to the show, Union Spy Chief Allan Pinkerton. (Yes, “THAT Pinkerton,” as he humorously says whenever introducing himself). Civil War enthusiasts will appreciate the character’s pomposity as portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne, and smirk at his comments about how much General McClellan relies on him. We are aware that his Confederate troop strength estimates were well off, playing a role in Little Mac’s timidity and failure. (In fairness, Pinkerton gave inflated numbers to McClellan largely because that’s what the general wanted to hear). Yet Pinkerton did successfully uncover spy rings, so he was not completely incompetent. Despite his comical arrogance, the show depicts him quickly uncovering the plot. “Someone is trying to kill him again,” he remarks, alluding to Pinkerton’s true-life thwarting of an alleged plot to kill Lincoln when he first arrived in Washington. Small details like this show that the writers did their homework.

Pinkerton dispatches his men to arrest Frank. When they do, as we might find out in episode two, the trail will lead to the Green household because of Alice’s involvement. There, the family is celebrating the return of their father (Gary Cole), who had been arrested for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. His son (Brad Koed) subsequently signed the oath to obtain his father’s release, but the patriarch’s sense of honor only causes him to become enraged at his son’s “unpardonable act.” It turns out, however, that Emma’s efforts are what actually secured the release. Her personal request to Lincoln results in an executive order (yes, one of THOSE) releasing the southern gentlemen.

Yet it is through the crime investigation that the show has one of its best opportunities to address the complexities of race relations during the period, and I hope this is highlighted in future episodes. Pinkerton often succeeded thanks to the aid of an African American community eager to help the Union cause even before the war transformed into one of liberation. He relied on interviews with runaways to glean information about rebel troop dispositions and fortifications, and to root out southern spies. Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell) a slave in the Green household, has just started working in the hospital’s kitchen. Might Pinkerton interrogate or even use her to gather evidence against the family that she is ostensibly loyal to, and in which she is beloved? If so, it would be a powerful storyline revealing much about how supposedly “loyal” slaves desired freedom, were willing to betray their owners, and helped the Union cause.

For now, the biggest new storyline involving African Americans is the contraband camp near the hospital, and the arrival of former slave Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a new character patterned after real life heroine Harriet Jacobs. Fortunately, it appears that this storyline will receive even more attention in future episodes. She has been sent to “educate, support and fortify” the contrabands, as she boldly tells Dr. Foster. The confident woman immediately finds evidence of a smallpox epidemic in the miserable conditions in the camp. Here, the show is accurately influenced by Jim Down’s seminal book, Sick from Freedom, as white characters express the belief that the illness is only a “negro disease,” and that its lethal arrival demonstrates that blacks “weren’t meant for freedom.” Jenkins rightfully insists that there’s nothing racial about the disease, it is the camp’s terrible conditions causing it to spread. Foster is skeptical and thinks the illness in the hospital itself is typhoid. His apparently cavalier attitude about the contraband camp immediately makes Phinney regret their kiss, and she claims she will not let him “beguile” her again. (I wonder if I’m the only one that instantly thought of the overlooked Clint Eastwood Civil War movie, The Beguiled?) The episode’s ending reveals that Phinney is ill, but is it typhoid or smallpox? Hopefully the writers won’t let her condition cause the epidemic storyline to stray too far from the African Americans. It is praiseworthy that Mercy Street is examining the deadly contraband camp conditions that blacks often encountered on the path to freedom.

All of these events in the first episode take place just after the failure of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The weeks afterwards saw a major shift in federal policy, as Congress and Lincoln became convinced that the campaign’s failure revealed that they needed to deprive the South of its slave population and do more to utilize southern blacks on behalf of the Union. As a result, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of disloyal owners. This means that Green’s loyalty oath would prevent Belinda and his other slaves from becoming free. I’m anxious to see if the show gets this correct and if it becomes the catalyst that pushes her into helping Pinkerton. Further, just weeks after the campaign, Lincoln presented a version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Previews of future episodes of Mercy Street reveal this season includes an exciting battle scene (perhaps Second Manassas, which should provide the hospital with an overload of wounded), but it is how well the show handles its race and emancipation storylines that will ultimately determine its accuracy and value.

After each episode, I’ll post a short review on my blog, History Headlines (https://historyandthenews.wordpress.com). Follow the journey!

[1] James Blundell, “Observations of Transfusion of Blood,” The Lancet, June 13, 1829.

Glenn David Brasher

Glenn David Brasher is an instructor of history at the University of Alabama, and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) which received the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter, @GlennBrasher.

‘Break Free’ From A One-Dimensional Portrayal of Slavery: WGN’s new series, “Underground”

In the 1872 narrative, The Underground Rail Road, William Still stated that he owed “it to the cause of Freedom, and to the Fugitives and their posterity” to bring the activities of the Underground to “the public in the most truthful manner…to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom.” Still believed that in order to fully honor those freed by the Underground Railroad, it was essential to impart the historical memory of slavery and resistance to contemporary readers. WGN’s Underground looks to continue Still’s important work by adapting his self-emancipation narrative for a twenty-first century audience.Underground, which debuted on March 9th, airs Wednesdays at 10pm and is part of a 10-episode first season.

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“The Cast of Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Underground offers viewers a nuanced cast of characters and at its center, Macon Plantation’s black community. In one compelling scene, Noah (Aldis Hodge), an enslaved blacksmith trusted with travel beyond the plantation, but also subject to his enslaver and the black overseer, Cato (Alano Miller), tells Rosalee, the Macon family’s house servant, (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) that “we all pretending in some way.” This formulation alerts viewers to the inner-life of the network of complex individuals that forms the core of this community. The series attempts to portray the emotional lives of enslaved people, beyond days punctuated by labor and other forms of violence. Underground also looks to expose how slavery’s gender and labor differentiation affected the lives of enslaved people. Although the plan of escape seems to be male centered, enslaved women are powerfully portrayed in the series when, in the first episode, wife and mother Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) is shown to be the holder of the word of freedom, not Moses (Mykelti Williamson), the enslaved community’s preacher.

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“Mykelti Williamson as Moses and Adina Porter as Pearly Mae in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Importantly, Underground portrays slavery as a system sustained by physical, mental, legal, and economic oppression that controlled the daily lives of African Americans and stood at the very center of the politics and economy of the nation. The first episode’s action takes place on the Macon Plantation just as the Supreme Court is considering the fate of Dred Scott, his wife, and two young daughters. William Still’s character demonstrates the crucial role of black abolitionists in the battle against systemic oppression. He not only rallies against harsh policies governing the fate of African Americans like Scott, but he also tries to convince the white anti-slavery lawyer, John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), to join his efforts and pushes Hawkes to advocate for the enslaved through more direct action. Hawkes continues to wrestle with how to advocate for the end of slavery without breaking the law and debates with his wife over whether he can do so by managing his slave-owner brother’s Senate campaign. August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a white man who appears first as a conductor on the underground, delivers the episode’s first plot twist when he turns out to be a slave catcher—part of what Julie Winch dubbed the “other underground railroad.” Pullman’s earlier discussion of the future with the runaway woman he turns in, therefore, appears to be not so much about a world free of slavery but about the security of his family. This storyline highlights not only the physical and legal dangers of fugitive life but also the precarious economic and social positions of non-planter southern whites and the work many did to uphold the slave system.

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“Aldis Hodge as Noah and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

In the wake of recent films like 12 Years a Slave, there has been debate over slavery’s portrayal in popular culture. Critics have pressed the industry and audiences to defend decisions to repeatedly show and watch African American actors enduring the pain and brutality of enslavement. Others argue that the true horror of slavery has yet to be dealt with in all its complexity. Mychal Denzel Smith, for instance, makes the case for more “slavery films,” claiming that “no slavery narrative exists” in American culture because “we would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on.” Popular narratives that have circulated since the nineteenth century have so often been historically inaccurate and also socially dangerous, flattening out and covering over the real history of American slavery. By placing enslaved and free black people at the center of resistance to slavery, and making all characters—both black and white—complicated and fully human, Underground has the potential to help viewers understand slavery as a system that shaped so many aspects of the world in which we continue to live. As such, the series has the potential to depict the experiences of those who labored to be free in all of their complexity. That work is still very necessary.


Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Why I’m Ready for More Slavery Films.” The Nation. January 29, 2016. http://www.thenation.com/article/why-im-ready-for-more-slavery-films/

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road… Philadelphia: Porter and Company, 1872. Archive.org. Accessed March 12, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr00stil/undergroundrailr00stil_djvu.txt

Winch, Julie. “Philadelphia and the other Underground Railroad.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (1987): 3-25.

Julia Bernier is a PhD candidate in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She can be reached at juliab@afroam.umass.edu.

Key and Peele’s “Civil War Reenactment”: Historical Sketch Comedy as Social Commentary

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“Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Civil War Reenactment Sketch,” Image courtesy of Comedy Central, 2012.

Americans are increasingly forgetful of the fact that the Civil War was about slavery. Atlanta’s 2010 Sesquicentennial kicked off with a celebration of secession, sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Only a few days ago, Mississippi’s governor declared April “Confederate Heritage Month.” Fortunately, opposing voices from the realm of pop culture have recently emerged to challenge this historical negligence. Brilliant comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s 2012 “Civil War Reenactment” sketch pinpoints the ways in which the “Confederate heritage” movement erroneously divides slavery from the Civil War, with negative consequences for twenty-first century race relations.

The Key and Peele series appeared on Comedy Central from 2012-2015. In 2015, the show was nominated “Favorite Sketch Comedy TV Show” by the People’s Choice Awards. Though the series no longer runs, full episodes may be found on Comedy Central’s website and clips are available on Vimeo. Key and Peele is a very useful classroom tool for high school and college students, who will appreciate its humor as educators inform them about the causes and consequences of the Civil War.

The focal point of “Civil War Reenactment” is highly familiar to historians acquainted with public perceptions of the American Civil War. A stern Civil War reenactor posing as a Confederate officer rallies his troops to protect the Southern way of life, which he describes as “pure” and “beautiful.” The opening moments invoke the corny grandiosity of Lost Cause stereotypes in popular films like Gods and Generals or Gettysburg as soldiers kneel dramatically by the Southern flag. Much to the general’s dismay, his speech is suddenly interrupted by Key and Peele, who portray stereotypical obedient slaves and send the Confederate general into awkward flights of anachronism as he tries to dismiss the comedians’ presence at the “serious” reenactment.

This comedic portrayal of American attitudes about slavery and the Civil War contrasts deeply with other recent programs which realistically demonstrate the institution’s brutality. Graphic depictions of slavery in films such as Twelve Years a Slave portray its horrors without whitewashing history. However, disturbingly large segments of the population look at this form of popular culture as revisionism, championing the views put forward by the Confederate reenactor in Key and Peele’s skit.

When you separate the Civil War from slavery, can you create an accurate picture of American history? This question drives the disagreement between recent dramatic treatments of slavery and a view of the Civil War which ignores the institution altogether. Comedy like Key and Peele’s skit may be able to succeed in ways that drama thus far has not. Its effect comes not from a clear, horrific depiction of slavery, but from illuminating the absurdity of its absence. In the romantic vision held by the skit’s reenactment leader, and those like him in twenty-first century United States, the Confederacy fought for states’ rights and for personal liberty only as long as that freedom benefited white males. But when Key and Peele cleverly and comically expose the reenactor’s racism, they again join the Confederate cause with race and slavery.

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“Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Auction Block Sketch,” Image courtesy of Comedy Central, 2012.

In emphasizing the absurdity of the Confederate reenactor’s beliefs, Key and Peele attempt to show just how ridiculous it is to view the Civil War without slavery. “Civil War Reenactment” can be coupled with the same episode’s “Auction Block” skit, in which slavery is reexamined through a similarly raw, comedic lens. In this sketch, the only thing worse than being sold as slaves was not being sold– or labeled as unwanted “goods”. Key and Peele begin to complain when they are not sold, and the white auctioneer chides them for being “superficial” and “bigoted” and halts the auctions–another scathing commentary on the ridiculousness of white supremacy. For many viewers, producers, and institutions, race and slavery are off-limits and deemed far too uncomfortable to be addressed. Is comedy the key to bridging the gap between “higher” culture and a lack of historical understanding? If it starts the conversation and opens a dialogue about slavery and the Civil War, then why can’t it be?

Mike Fischer is a Graduate Assistant at Villanova University.

Inside the Making of PBS’s “Mercy Street:” An Interview with Professor Jane E. Schultz, Historical Consultant

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“Jane E. Schultz,” Image courtesy of Prof. Schultz and PBS

For this post, Muster interviewed Dr. Jane E. Schultz, Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis about her experience working with the producers of Mercy Street. We thank her for granting us this interview. Please also note that this interview contains a brief spoiler for Episode Two, “The Haversack”.

What was the extent of your involvement with the creation of Mercy Street?

Lisa Wolfinger, who heads Lone Wolf Media in Portland, Maine, contacted me in February 2014, with the idea for Mercy Street, after having read my books on Civil War hospital work, Women at the Front and This Birth Place of Souls. She asked whether I’d be willing to be a consultant for the drama, even before having shopped the idea around to PBS, because the main character in the series was to be based on Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen, who became a nurse at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria in 1862 and about whom I had written. I was glad to do this because for about thirty years I’ve studied the complexities of wartime hospitals and I thought it would be wonderful to bring the issues of wartime medical care and practice to a wider public.

My own tasks on Mercy Street have been to read over all of the scripts and make comments on them about what feels inauthentic to me—whether in the realm of material medical culture or language. As a narrative specialist in a department of English, I want these characters to speak as people in the 19th century would have spoken. When I read a script, I often comment on dialogue that does not ring true for mid 19th-century speech patterns. I have also provided advice about the mis-en-scène: who would have been where in the hospital, what purpose the hotel lobby-cum-hospital would have served, what would have been the role of a Catholic nun in such a setting, where laundry and cooking would have been done, where soldiers would have relieved themselves or bathed if they were ambulatory—this sort of thing. It has been great fun working with Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, who are clever, knowledgeable, and hard-working people without pretensions.

Why did the show’s writers and consultants choose to specifically focus on the Mansion House Hotel Hospital?

I can only speculate that it’s because of Mansion House’s location: a Southern city adjacent to the U.S. capital, filled with people of color in all social categories: free people, contrabands, slaves; people of Confederate and Union beliefs jostling one another on the streets; soldiers and civilians adding texture to hospital and domestic settings. As an occupied city, Alexandria makes visible the demographic turbulence of a municipality during wartime. The city also serves as a kind of metaphor for the war at large—unfamiliar folk in transience and in unfamiliar roles; all of this activity taking place on a stage that suddenly looked different to residents because of the war in their hometown.

In terms of why just one hospital as the locus of events, a number of interesting people gathered, or were thrown together, at this hospital. The single location—though we will venture a bit further in time—makes it possible to develop characters, which is, of course, the calling card of all period dramas. We want to understand these people and find out what happens to them. And we’re fortunate to have a fair amount of narrative documentation from the people who actually worked at Mansion House. This has made it possible for the writers to create more three-dimensional characters.

What was the historical research process like for this series?

This is not something I’ve discussed with the writers, but I believe that Lisa Wolfinger, in particular, immersed herself in the nursing and medical literature about the era, as well as personal narratives and eyewitness accounts that specifically represented the work done at Mansion House. My own work has been what any historian would do to be helpful. For example, several months ago, I was asked about postal delivery in military hospitals—which was, of course, incredibly important to the denizens of any hospital. I knew from my own research (which is not on postal systems at all) that letters came via train and wagon to hospital installations, but not always on a steady schedule, given the vicissitudes of changing lines (especially in Virginia) and damage to rail lines. There wasn’t any particular person who delivered mail once it got to the hospital: it might have been a nurse, an orderly, or a steward. It had to be somebody literate. Finally, I explored the Library of Congress online catalogue concerning postal delivery in the Civil War and suggested several books to the writers.

I was struck by the opening scenes in the first episode, “The New Nurse,” which show Dorothea Dix interviewing Nurse Mary Phinney. Do you think the producers capture Dorothea Dix’s personality? The tight spot in which she found herself in the all-male terrain of the army medical hospital?

Funny you should ask! In fact, I balked a bit at the Mercy Street characterization of Army Nursing Superintendent Dix when I read the first script. I thought it provided too harsh and punitive a portrait of Dix, who was rather austere but not unkind. As Thomas Brown’s wonderful 1998 biography of Dix suggests, Dix herself was in a tight spot in the military-medical infrastructure and would not have wanted to be judged by her Civil War service. Mansion House’s Surgeon Summers’ calling her “Dragon Dix” is not unrealistic: Dix was called this by many of the young nurses whom she refused to appoint early in the war, while she still had fairly complete authority to appoint sober and mature women to the hospital service. Even then, surgeons resented women showing up at their hospitals—just like Mary Phinney did at Mansion House. They felt invaded and that their own authority had been circumvented because they hadn’t been asked whether they wanted female nurses. Not only were the nurses assigned to new posts sitting ducks from time to time—this is how Mary is represented in Episode One—but the nurses’ emissary, Dix herself, was not respected and often mocked, despite her chops in the world of asylum reform.

Keep in mind that Dix’s predicament was that she could not countenance anything that looked like it would impair the respectability of the office of nursing or the women themselves. So if she got a whiff that a woman was flirtatious or dressed in too becoming a manner, she wasn’t going to venture there. And when it became clear that the war was going to last a long time and that hospitals were going to be jam-packed with the sick and wounded, the Surgeon General wrote an order that effectively truncated her power by allowing any staff surgeon to appoint his own male and female staff. She was no longer the gatekeeper.

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“Nurses Mary Phinney and Anne Hastings at Odds,” PBS, 2016.

In your book, Women at the Front, you describe the experiences of a diverse group of nurses. Does Mercy Street capture that diversity?

Yes, I think it does a pretty good job of this. We see women in a variety of job titles—not just nurses. We see Matron Brannan, a middle-aged working-class Irish immigrant, who keeps the flow of patients moving in and out of the hospital. Matron Brannan would also have been expected to manage and perform cleaning services. We see Isabella, a young nun, helping out in the wards, and we know that plenty of religious orders sent women to this area from nearby convents (like the one in Emmitsburg, Maryland). We see Aurelia Johnson and other African American women who did scullery work, laundry, and food service jobs.

In Mary Phinney, Anne Hastings, and Emma Green, we see elite women with different preparation for their duties. Emma has to fight her parents to be allowed to help out in the hospital. Given her background, she would not have done much, if any, nursing before the war because of her youth, social privilege, and her family’s slave-holding tradition. Anne Hastings, based on Britain’s Anne Reading, had served in the Crimean War, which did not last nearly as long or result in nearly as many deaths as the American Civil War. Still, Anne knew more about nursing than Mary did and felt threatened when Mary appeared at the hospital in the role of head nurse. These kinds of jealousies, between not just nurses but surgeons as well, were quite common and readily apparent in the correspondence of the era.

Mary had not had any official nurse training when Dix appointed her (nurse training programs did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1870s), but she was an educated woman who had domestic nursing experience. Her widowed marital status also served as an inducement to seek hospital work, as a number of well-known widows (Mary Anne Bickerdyke, Jane Hoge, and Phoebe Yates Pember among them) reasoned that they could be useful to the nation(s) in this way. Even though she had nursed her husband in his final illness and was relatively young, Mary Phinney had little idea of what she was getting into when she walked into Mansion House. The “deer-in-the-headlights” look on her face is certainly credible.

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“Shalita Grant as Aurelia Johnson,” PBS, 2016.

You also show that the Civil War hospital was a dangerous place for women nurses. Does the show capture women’s particular dangers?

Yes, it shows both the physical and psychological dangers of being a young woman in a virtually all-male military zone. Later in the series, we see the sexually predatory conduct of the villainous steward, Silas Bullen and his subterranean staff of “helpers.” Aurelia Johnson, a contraband, is trying to locate her young son from whom she has been forcibly separated, and in her desperation, makes the grave error of looking to Bullen for help. Nurse Mary also has a run-in with Bullen over his neglect of patients’ diet and the graft which she suspects him of. As she enters his basement office, viewers have the visceral feeling that she has entered a lair of doom, and she decides to extricate herself quickly before gaining her point that the patients need better-quality sustenance.
Aside from the sexual dangers of military hospitals, there were very real physical dangers due to poor sanitation and ventilation. The literature reveals several instances of field hospitals and more permanent buildings being consumed by fire. Even the setup of Mansion House Hospital reveals dangers. We see long, steep staircases—very typical 19th-century architecture—which were not easy to negotiate, given the staff’s need to carry bodies, food, medicine, dirty laundry, and refuse up and down all day long. And, of course, the dangers of infection were everywhere present in hospitals before antisepsis was widely understood and practiced. Plenty of staff died in military hospitals of things like typhoid.

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“Dr. Foster and Nurse Mary Below the Staircase,” PBS, 2016.

Foster, Phinney, and Diggs are all army medical establishment outsiders–but they seem to have the patients’ best interests in mind. Is the message of the show that the medical establishment was broken? Needed to be reformed from the outsiders?

I don’t think I’d say that exactly. Instead I’d say that the medical establishment was only still evolving and that many parties would ultimately contribute to medical advancement and better patient care. In 1862, when Mary Phinney arrived at Mansion House, the Union Surgeon General’s Office was still trying to figure out how best to arrange staffing, how to provision hospitals, and how to transport sick or wounded troops from camp and field.

Like most institutional change, Civil War medical advances proceeded slowly and were aided by innovators. It’s true that Foster, Phinney, and Diggs were all outsiders. For that matter, so was William Hammond, who served an important term as the Surgeon General during this time, and was not among the surgical “elect.” But we need also to remember that Phinney and Diggs would have had little power to promote any institutional change, despite their efforts to work behind the scenes in ways that officials would have frowned upon. Even Foster, as a Marylander in a Union hospital, would have had little occasion outside of the hospital to gain any traction, given the hierarchical operating procedures of most military surgeons. In the grand scheme of things, he wouldn’t have had much access to the centers of medical authority. That said, his personal challenges remind us just how complex even one person’s limited experience was in a place like Mansion House. Mercy Street is trying to show the depths of human turbulence that lay beneath the surface of military etiquette.

Neither Green nor Phinney seem willing to extend their sympathy to the enemy. Is the message that women are ill-equipped to be medical professionals or is this a commentary on the limited outlets available for women to express their political opinions?

I don’t believe that it’s either one of those options, notwithstanding that women didn’t, in fact, have so many options for expressing their political views. This was more about military protocol than medical protocol. Practitioners on either side did not generally like to care for soldiers of the opposing side, and you can be sure that such views led to surgeons passively neglecting enemy soldiers from time to time. Surgeons mention in their letters, when it comes up, that they didn’t necessarily like caring for “the enemy,” but they did it because they were ordered to, and they were not accustomed to disobeying orders. There were also surgeons like Jed Foster, who recognized that blood had just one color, and felt that, once fallen and in need of succor, soldiers were entitled to the best care that could be found for them. This is how it worked with nurses and female hospital attendants as well. Some hated the enemy because they daily witnessed the havoc wrought by ammunition; others realized that war was the real enemy, not human bodies on one side or another.

I would wager that about as many women as complained of being obliged to treat the enemy expressed more conciliatory views. Sometimes, in fact, they were angry that they were not permitted to care for enemy soldiers. Several of these invoke religious values, noting that if “mine enemy hunger, then I must feed him,” emphasizing that true Christian morality is not about partisanship but about extending help to all of those who need it, regardless of political proclivities.

With regard to whether Emma’s or Mary’s sectional loyalties unfitted them for medical work, it’s useful to remember that even by mid-war, women were already pursuing work as physicians. Some, like Illinois’ Mary Safford, trained in Europe because American medical schools were not interested in admitting women, and when they did, they did not accommodate women easily. Others, like Esther Hill Hawks of New Hampshire, were hired as nurses despite their medical training. Hawks, the wife of a pharmacist, took care of contrabands and black troops in the Sea Islands under General Rufus Saxton’s watch because it became clear to her that military authorities were little interested in health care arrangements made for African Americans.

Jane E. Schultz is Professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University- Indianapolis and and affiliated with the programs in American Studies and Women’s Studies. Dr. Schultz is the author of two highly acclaimed works about gender in the Civil War: Women at the Front and This Birth Place of Souls. Schultz’s Lincoln prize finalist Women at the Front (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) focused on women relief workers in Civil War hospitals. Schultz edited This Birth Place of Souls (Oxford University Press, 2011), one of the few extant diaries of a Civil War nurse. Dr. Schultz is currently at work on two books, “Lead, Blood, and Ink” about Civil War surgical culture, and “A Match Made in Hospital” about the correspondence and romance between a female hospital worker from Pennsylvania and a surgeon from the Army of the Potomac.


Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Clarke, Frances M. War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Devine, Shauna. Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of
American Medical Science
. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Finseth, Ian. “The Civil War Dead: Realism and the Problem of Anonymity.”
American Literary History 2, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 535-562.

Hacker, J. David. “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead.” Civil War History 57, no. 4 (December 2011): 307-348. Project Muse.

Hawks, Esther Hill. A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary, Edited by Gerald Schwartz.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Humphreys, Margaret. The Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the
American Civil War
. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Female Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Schultz, Jane E. This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

PBS’s Mercy Street: Series Premiere “The New Nurse” Offers More Than Blue and Gray’s Anatomy

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“Mercy Street,” PBS, 2016.

Mercy Street, Ridley Scott’s, fresh, compelling six-part drama captures the gritty, dangerous experience of medical caregiving during the Civil War. The series debuts January 17th on PBS, immediately following Downton Abbey. Set inside Mansion House Hotel, a makeshift hospital in Alexandria, Virginia in 1862, Mercy Street is narrated from the perspective of two nurses, Boston abolitionist, Mary Phinney (aka Baroness von Olnhausen), and Emma Green, the daughter of the hotel’s owner.

The first episode captures the intense resistance and suspicion female nurses faced when they entered wartime field hospitals. Before taking over operations at Mansion House, Phinney endures a sharp interrogation from Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses for the U.S., and then faces jeers from the male medical staff. Like Louisa May Alcott in Hospital Sketches, Phinney spends much of her time doing menial cleaning tasks, and like Alcott, Phinney perseveres. This episode’s depictions of nurses’ trials reflects the expertise of the show’s stellar team of historical consultants, including Anya Jabour, Jane E. Schultz, and Shauna Devine.

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“Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney and McKinley Belcher as Samuel Diggs,” Antony Platt, PBS.

The show’s other main characters complement Phinney and Green, including Dr. Jedediah Foster, a wisecracking proponent of new medical techniques and advocate of the cause of Union salvation rather than abolition and Samuel Diggs, a Philadelphian of color with a mysterious past and brilliant surgical skills. The stories of contraband slaves unfold in the background in a complex interwoven subplot reminiscent of the Crawley family’s servants in Downton Abbey.

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“Hannah James as Emma Green,” Antony Platt, PBS.

Despite well-developed plotlines, some of the characters fall prey to goofy stereotypes. Foster yells “hoopskirt!” and “von Outhousen!”at Green and Phinney, reflecting a grumpy misogyny that seems at times overblown. Green initially floats through scenes with a flower basket and a frilly white dress, resembling a close cousin to Melanie Wilkes, but she is wrestling with the limitations of her position as an elite white woman sitting atop a crumbling society. This tension should be further developed if the show’s writers hope to avoid making Green into another stereotypically shallow Southern belle.

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“Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Phinney and Josh Radnor as Jedediah Foster,” Antony Platt, PBS.

In its early stages, the show provides a fascinating look at the war beginning in its second year, before the Union’s Peninsula Campaign and the United States Sanitary Commission began to officially train nurses. Outside Mansion House Hospital, the violence was escalating and society was being radically transformed. Emancipation was yet uncertain, and the Union Army was faltering. It will be entertaining to watch Mercy Street’s characters develop as the war intensifies and to think about the real-life people they represent. Mansion House’s “McDreamy” Dr. Foster’s sharp tongue and medical brinkmanship could cut both ways. How and where did Diggs learn to yield a scalpel? Phinney’s idealism might yet be tested, as was Alcott’s. And Green’s fluffy white dress will surely be soiled–her hands dirtied by the unfolding bloodshed. We’ll be watching the show alongside you and would love to hear your thoughts! Tweet us @JCWE1.

Elizabeth Motich, JCWE Editorial Assistant, Villanova University