Monday, July 10, 2017

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War by Pamela D. Toler, PhD

My unceasing interest in women living through the Civil War continues with The Heroines of Mercy Street. This history book focuses mostly on the experiences of a few women living and working as nurses in the North during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.  Many people may be familiar with the PBS series  Mercy Street.  It created such interest in the characters that this book was written to look a bit closer at the women who worked under miserable circumstances and conditions to treat the wounded from both the Yankee and Confederate sides. 

Dorothea Dix was a feisty middle-aged spinster who inherited her grandparent's wealth, and that made possible her endeavors to bring reform to sanitariums, jails, poorhouses, and the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.  She was a woman on a mission, and when the Civil War began with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861 she was ready to help gather supplies that would be needed to care for the wounded soldiers that were sure to come.  She faced an uphill battle in her quest to hire women for nursing positions.  There were no nursing schools in the United States in 1861; the only women who were loosely called nurses were those who were working off jail sentences.  They were drunks, uneducated, and usually women of ill-repute.  

Dorothea's strict requirements kept a lot of otherwise perfectly capable women out of the nursing positions she needed to fill.  She only wanted women who were plain faced, in their 30's and older, and of a very good reputation.  She did get plenty of women traveling to Washington, D.C. to work in hastily constructed hospitals, but her strict rules and the overwhelming opposition to women taking care of soldiers by doctors, surgeons, and pretty much every male in the U. S. Army created a lot of issues.  

Some women, you'll be glad to know, ignored Dorothea's rules and struck out on their own, often times just showing up at hospitals (which were usually hotels, factories, churches, and homes) hoping to help.  For many, the severity of soldiers' injuries was too much.  Some had very genteel ideas of what it meant to take care of soldiers.  Dysentery, typhoid fever, and so many other diseases ran rampant through the troops.  The medical world in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War was far behind Europe; there was still no belief in sterilization, clean water and instruments for the wounded, nor clean linens or bandages.  Infections and gangrene were everywhere.  Nurses oftentimes slept on the floor or in chairs, ate hard bread and really bad coffee, and worked 12 hour days with no breaks.  And the majority weren't trained in much of anything.  It's appalling to realize just how many soldiers died from sheer ignorance of basic cleanliness, or soldiers suffering from gastrointestinal diseases that kept them from eating the usual horrible foods offered in the hospitals. Women in the hospitals pushed to create special diets for soldiers who were unable to eat the heavy meals cooked for fighting soldiers.  There are just certain things you don't give someone who has dysentery and expect them to recover!

Dorothea isn't the only woman featured in this fascinating book.  Anne Reading, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, and so many others were at the forefront of new radical changes in medicine and the dawning of a fundamental change in medical care in the U.S.  It's hard to imagine nurses were seen as little better than prostitutes in 1860, but it's true.  One of the good things to come out of this terrible war was the realization of the importance of nurses in the care of and as advocates for patients.  

Clara Barton, addressing an audience in 1888 said "...that as a result of the Civil War women had advanced at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace" (p. 221). 

I learned so much about Civil War medicine, the perception of women's capabilities and "delicateness" during mid-19th century America, and the sheer strength and determination of so many women to contribute to the healing of so many damaged men during such a brutal war. It's a fascinating read, and anyone who is interested in women's history, the Civil War, politics, or even medical history will find this a good addition to their history bookshelf. I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in pursing nursing as a career.

Rating:  4/6 for a part of Civil War history that has been long overlooked.  Such a rich history, and well worth the read!  

Available in paperback and e-book.

1 comment :

  1. Nursing is so not my thing but I remember a biography of Clara Barton written for kids that I read many times as a child. My favorite aunt was a nurse, even attended my birth! The book sounds great. In Emma Donoghue's The Wonder (http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-wonder.html) the main character was a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.