Mercy Street: A Reading List

Thought I would put together a short reading list for those of you watching Mercy Street. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Rather, it offers a few suggestions to help get you started. Feel free to add further suggestions in the comments section below.

George Kundahl’s Alexandria Goes To War: Beyond Robert E. Lee offers a fairly comprehensive look at the city that serves as the setting for the show, but it does not delve much into the African-American experience.

There are a number of good books on Civil War hospitals. Shauna Devine’s Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science is the perfect place to start. Devine is a historical adviser for Mercy Street and this book recently won the SCWH’s Tom Watson Brown Book Prize. I also highly recommend Brian Craig Miller’s book, Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South, which provides the most thorough analysis of this procedure and the soldiers’ experience.

On nursing during the Civil War, start with Jane Schultz’s book, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America along with the diary of Harriet Eaton, who after Antietam served as a nurse in Virginia with the Army of the Potomac. For a look into the experiences of women who served as nurses to Confederate soldiers, see A Confederate Nurse : The Diary of Ada W. Bacot, 1860-1863 edited by Jean Berlin.

The African-American experience in Alexandria is a bit more difficult to nail down. For analysis of how the early stages of the war impacted Lincoln’s outlook on slavery and federal policy, start with Eric Foner’s award-winning, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Although set in Washington, D.C. Kate Masur’s book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., should give you some sense of what was going on in Alexandria given its proximity to the capital. Start with Andrew Ward’s, The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, for how the slaves themselves experienced the war in 1862.

Mercy Street is set in the spring of 1862 as the Union army was making its way up the Virginia Peninsula toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. Many of the fugitive slaves or contraband fled this part of the state as a result of this large military presence. Glenn Brasher’s book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, does a wonderful job of explaining the impact of Union policy on the lives of slaves and the shifting federal policies. Forthcoming studies by Chandra Manning and Thavolia Glymph will likely give us even more insight into the experiences of contraband slaves.

For an overall understanding of the Virginia Peninsula Campaign of 1862 start with Stephen Sears’s To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. You may want to add Gary Gallagher’s edited collection of essays on the campaign, which includes two chapters that are directly relevant to the show.

That should do it. Again, feel free to add your suggestions below.

19 comments add yours

  1. Jane Schultz’s book is excellent. It is one of the few that stresses the role of non-elite white women in the care of the sick. Immigrants and African Americans often formed the backbone of regimental and hospital care for the men. She also has a good discussion of the often ignored role of Catholic nuns in hospitals.

    Kate Cumming’s 1866 Journal is one of only three Confederate nursing memoirs published right after the war. It is more candid than most and was written before the later template of nursing memory influenced how these stories were told in the 1880s and 1890s. As a Scottish immigrant, she is of particular interest.

  2. That’s a great list. There are also books by or about historical figures in the series:

    Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars; Ed. from the Diary and Correspondence of Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen

    <a hThe Journal of Anne Reading: From Florence Nightingale to Dorothea Dix and Beyond
    Reading is the real-life inspiration for the character of the English nurse Anne Hastings, although in her case the producers decided to change the character’s name, possibly because the characters will diverge substantially from the historical record.

    <a hStringfellow of the Fourth
    Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow’s wartime scouting and activities as a Confederate spy in Alexandria are not well documented, and this work relies heavily on Stringfellow’s own, possibly exaggerated accounts published many years later. Taken with a grain of salt.

  3. those are excellent suggestions, so I only have a few small things to add.

    “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to Civil War Defenses of Washington” by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II has some material of life of the Union soldiers in the area’s forts, some of which were within what is now the city of Alexandria.

    “Alexandria in the Civil War” by James Barber has been superseded by Kundahl but has some good material.

    on an small side area of interest, “Mount Vernon: The Civil War Years” by Dorothy Troth Muir discusses how the nearby home of Washington dealt with being in what was basically no-man’s land. It was published by “The Mount Vernon Ladies” so don’t expect radical far-reaching historical analysis, but it’s a good survey. The basic gist is that it was neutral territory. Soldiers of both sides visited, but were expected to respect the site’s neutrality. (no fighting over Mt Vernon!)

    and the classic “Life of Billy Yank” by Bell Irvin Wiley has nice excerpts form soldiers’ accounts of Alexandria.

  4. Ira Rutkow’s “Bleeding Blue and Gray” is an interesting account of a number of various medical issues during the war, including the rise of nursing as well as the development of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Also, the “Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion” is an excellent primary source for anyone interested in Civil War medicine.

    Best
    Rob

  5. I recommend Louisa May Allcot’s “Hospital Sketches,” her account of six weeks spent as a nurse across the river in Georgetown. It’s a quick read and the text is available online at the Gutenberg Project, among other sites.

  6. “Living Hell” by Michael C. C. Adams gives a shocking account of the horrific injuries and trauma that soldiers endured and can give some back-story to the challenges faced by medical staff.

  7. may I suggest the poems of Walt Whitman, his famous Leaves of Grass. it sounds so very modern but he was a male nurse in that area at that time. I was hoping “he might make an appearance in the show”. there is also a companion book for the show. I am from Alexandria and use to resemble the actress playing the blonde Miss Green. In the 1970’s they took the old rooming house down, the teens called it the mad house. The Construction foreman said “want to see a magic trick” I said of course and without fanfare he said stand on that corner and do not move….and voila the brick wall was taking down to show Carlyle House, a perfect stone mansion of one of the town’s founders (along with the Alexanders) AND the ancient windows were still intact. If visiting Alexandria the Apothecary Museum has wonderful scholarly books and fun souvenirs. ENJOY the show.

  8. Yep, I was going to add Hospital Sketches. I don’t know how good of a nurse LM Alcott was, but she was a hell of a writer. There is a death scene in it that rings very true, even amongst the “good death” conventions of the Nineteenth Century,

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