Both the television show Mercy Street, and Heroines of Mercy Street* look at Civil War nurses through the lens of a single Union hospital, Mansion House Hospital in the occupied city of Alexandria, Virginia. I use the “memoirs” of two women who nursed there, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen and Anne Reading,** as a framework for the larger story of Civil War nurses. As result, Heroines of Mercy Street focuses on the experience of Union nurses. But it is important to remember that women in the South also volunteered as nurses
Confederate women’s experience of nursing in the war differed in several significant ways from that of their Northern counterparts–ways which reflected not only differences in the structure of Northern and Southern society but differences in how they experienced the war.
A large number of the women who volunteered to nurse in the North were members of the educated and reform-minded middle class that had developed alongside the rise of industrialized cities. The South had for the most part escaped both the benefits and woes of industrialization. Instead of middle-class reformers, the region had its own breed of women with the habit of command: women who ran large plantation households that were effectively small, or not so small, businesses.
In the early months of the war, women with social clout and experience in running their family estates stepped forward to organize care at the local and state levels throughout the South. In Tennessee, Mary Rutledge Fogg, descendent of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to the Confederate president Jefferson Davis demanding help establishing hospitals in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. She also informed him, almost as an aside, that she had recruited a corps of women through the Ladies Tennessee Hospital and Clothing Association to act as nurses, whom she was sending to Virginia the next day. In Virginia, Letitia Tyler Semple, granddaughter of former president John Tyler, descended on Williamsburg in the summer of 1861 with the intention of helping sick soldiers. Discovering that the “domestic arrangements” of the hospital were unacceptable, she took over the kitchen, pantry, and laundry. Later she also wrote to President Davis and requested that he appoint her female superintendent of not only the Williamsburg hospital where she was already filling that role, but two others as well. Juliet Opie Hopkins, who managed her father’s estate in western Virginia before her marriage to an Alabama judge, equipped and ran field hospitals near the front for the benefit of Alabama regiments, and took charge of both the provisioning and organization of the Alabama hospitals in Richmond. On a smaller scale, twenty-eight- year-old Virginia heiress Sallie Tompkins outfitted a Richmond house as a twenty-two-bed hospital where more than thirteen hundred men were cared for over the course of the war, with only seventy-three deaths—the lowest mortality rate of any military hospital in the war in either the South or North.
Miss Tompkins was not the only woman to run a successful hospital for Confederate soldiers. In 1862, the Confederate Senate appointed a committee to investigate complaints about military medical care. The committee reported an astonishing statistic regarding the impact of female nurses and female-run hospitals: investigators found that the mortality rate among soldiers nursed by men in male-run institutions averaged 10 percent, compared to a mortality rate of 5 percent among soldiers nursed in hospitals with a strong female presence.
So much for the assumption on the part of male surgeons, Union and Confederate alike, that female nurses would be useless in a military hospital.
* AKA My Book, My Book.
**In both cases pieced together by a relative from the letters and other documents they left behind.