Mercy Street and M*A*S*H

A BIT OF NEWS:  On Monday, January 25, from 4 to 5 PM Eastern Standard Time, I’m going to be the guest host at #LitChat, a real time Twitter chat that brings authors and book lovers to talk about bookish things. If you’re a Twitter user, it’s a great chance for you to ask me questions about Heroines of Mercy Street or anything else you’ve been wanting to known.  If you’re not a Twitter user, maybe this will inspire you to join. (This link gives you all the details about #LitChat and how to participate: )

Hope to “see” you there.

And now to the topic at hand:

Ciivil war wounded

Volunteers tending the wounded in the field of battle. Alfred R. Waud

My Own True Love and I watched the premiere episode of Mercy Street last week.  Early in show, the main character, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen,* walked into the lobby of Mansion House hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, for the first time–past the bleeding bodies of wounded soldiers waiting for help. My Own True Love turned to me and said “Isn’t that a little over the top unless they are right next to a battlefield?”

My first thought was Alexandria was next door to a battlefield for much of the war.  That was one of the reasons that it became an administrative, transportation and medical hub for the Union Army

My second thought was that the scene was actually pretty tame compared to the first-hand accounts I had read of wounded soldiers arriving at Civil War hospitals–accounts that reminded me of scenes from M*A*S*H in terms of the blood, sense of  urgency, and confusion. (No helicopters, though.)

The historical equivalent of the scene from Mercy Street is a case in point.  The real life Mary Phinney von Olnhausen arrived at Mansion House Hospital in August, 1862, only a few days after the Battle of Cedar Mountain**and was plunged into medical chaos.

On August 9, a corps of Union soldiers led by General Nathaniel P. Banks stumbled across Stonewall Jackson’s infantry at the base of Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper Court House, Virginia. Hostilities ensued. Out-numbered three to one by Jackson, Banks lost more than a third of his men: 314 killed, 1,445 wounded, and 622 missing.

As was too often the case in the early days of the war, the horror continued after the battle was over.  Thomas A. McParlin, medical director of the federal Army of Virginia at the time and later medical director of the Army of the Potomac, established dressing stations near the battlefield and an evacuation hospital at Culpeper Court House.  The intention was that military trains*** would take on wounded soldiers and carry them the fifty miles to Alexandria for treatment. By the next day it was clear to McParlin that the surgeons on the ground, overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded, had lost track of the primary goal: sending the wounded to Alexandria. Instead they focused on amputations they believed were needed to save men’s lives; one doctor alone performed twenty-two thigh amputations and an uncounted number of arm amputations in a twenty-four-hour period.

No one had the time to attend to soldiers with relatively minor wounds. Supplies and tempers ran short. Even though trains were available, every building that could be turned into a shelter—churches, the Masonic hall, private homes, and even a tobacco barn—was filled with hundreds of wounded men. Hundreds more lay in the hot August sun awaiting evacuation, many of them dehydrated and groaning for water. McParlin sent the orders a second time, reminding doctors that the wounded were to be sent on by train as soon after they arrived as possible. Hours later, he discovered that nothing had changed; he went to Culpeper Court House himself and saw to it personally that the first train of railroad cars was loaded with men and on its way. After nine days of hell, the last trainload of wounded from Culpeper Court House reached Washington on August 18.

Von Olnhausen expected her first assignment to be helping the wounded at Culpepper Court House.  Instead she was sent to Mansion House Hospital, arriving just in time to see the wounded from Cedar Mountain arrive, still  in the condition in which they had been taken off the battlefield. Some had lain outside in the summer heat for three or four days “almost without clothing, their wounds never dressed, so dirty and so wretched.” Those who could walk were helped on foot into the hospital. The worst were carried in on stretchers. Those who died in the hospital were carried out almost as quickly.

Von Olnhausen had no chance to find her way around the hospital or learn her duties. Instead an orderly showed her into the surgical ward, where someone told her what to do, but not how to do it. Her informal experience nursing family and friends was not adequate preparation for dealing with the effects of cannon shells, bayonets, and the new deadly bullets known as minnie balls on the human body. Faced with carnage on a scale she had not been able to imagine, she wanted to throw herself down and give up. It seemed like a hopeless task. The only thing she could do for the soldiers now was learn: she followed the doctors and watched as they examined and dressed soldiers’ wounds. “So I began my work,” she wrote in her unfinished memoir, “I might say night and day.”

Similar scenes appear in the letters and memoirs of Louisa May Alcott, Hannah Ropes, Amy Bradley, and others.  Again and again, the wounded flooded into hospitals: ragged, mud-caked and bloody, carried on stretchers or staggering on their own feet, their faces drawn with exhaustion and pain. In short, incoming!


*Based on a real Civil War nurse of that name whose story, drawn from her letters and memoir, forms the backbone for Heroines of Mercy Street.  (Commerical over. You may now return to your regularly  scheduled blog post.)
**Also known prior to the way as Slaughter’s Mountain. After the battle, one Union army surgeon remarked that it was “truly named, for the slaughter was tremendous on both sides.)
***In some ways the helicopters of their day


  1. Doug Cox on January 24, 2016 at 3:31 am

    Sad history, hopefully Never to be repeated !

    • pamela on January 24, 2016 at 6:25 pm


  2. Amanda on January 24, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    For those who missed the series premier, you can stream it on

    • pamela on January 25, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Thank you, Manda!

  3. Megan on January 27, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post. Reading it, I was struck by the many similarities between Civil War nursing and WWI nursing. The endless mud, the men left to lay in the elements while waiting for trains, the piles of dismembered limbs, and the amazing strength of the nurses, many of whom ended up learning on the job. I suppose some things in war never really change…

    • pamela on February 2, 2016 at 2:03 am

      Too true.

      Love your blog, by the way! Anyone interested in the Roaring Twenties in Chicago should head on over:

      • Megan on February 24, 2016 at 8:16 pm

        Thanks so much for the shout out! Love your blog too, and can’t wait to read your book! 😀

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.