Civil War Nurses &
The Mansion House General Hospital
New PBS Series
By: M. Callahan
Inspired by the memoirs and correspondence of doctors and nurses who, during the Civil War, were stationed at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, PBS is developing a 6 part series to air Sunday nights in the Winter of 2016. Later this spring, filming in both Richmond and Petersburg will begin. www.pbs.org/show/mercy-street
PBS described the series as, “Based on true stories, the new drama follows two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the Civil War. Mary Phinney, a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green, a willful young Confederate belle, collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel that has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. As the boundaries of medicine are being explored and expanded, the role of women is also broadening. Here, in the collision of a wartime medical drama and a family saga of conflicted loyalties and moral dilemmas, the series plays out a story of the highest stakes.”
Co-creator, Lisa Q. Wolfinger remarked, “We think of the Civil War as a brutal, devastating chapter in American history, but it was also a moment of remarkable transition that presented opportunities unthinkable just a few years before. Doctors, faced with mass casualties on an unprecedented scale, pushed the boundaries of medical science, women left the confines of the home and volunteered as nurses, and thousands of escaped slaves got their first taste of freedom. All of these elements come together in Alexandria’s Mansion House Hospital — a dysfunctional and unpredictable world filled with conflict and passion. Our characters (many based on real people) are colorful, complicated and completely relatable. This series is not about battles and glory, it’s about the drama and unexpected humor of everyday life behind the front lines. It’s a new twist on an iconic story, one that resonates with larger themes we still struggle with today.” Those soldiers, wounded in the battles of Bull Run and the Shenandoah, were transported by wagon through Annandale and into Alexandria.
Initially, the military requisitioned civilian hospitals in the District, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. By early 1862, necessity demanded the commandeering of suitable buildings that could be turned into facilities for medical and rehabilitative care. Hotels were especially prized since kitchen, laundry, and bathroom facilities already existed, as well as large open rooms with good ventilation.
History of the Mansion House Hospital
Furniture manufacturer, James Green purchased the former Bank of Alexandria building on the corner of Cameron and North Fairfax Streets around 1848, and opened Greens Mansion House Hotel. According to the Alexandria Historic Society, James Green added a four-story building to the east seven years later, making his hotel the largest in Alexandria. Unfortunately, the addition completed obscured the historic Carlyle House from being viewed or entered from North Fairfax Street.
After the Union Army occupied the city of Alexandria in 1861, the hotel was commandeered and turned into the largest military hospital in Alexandria, capable of caring for 700 wounded soldiers. For the duration of the war, it was known simply as Mansion House
General Hospital. “General hospitals, in contrast, primarily took care of the sick and wounded left behind as troops moved out and, more importantly, to deal with the influx of sick and wounded transported in from field hospitals for longer term care than could be managed near battlefields or by soldiers on the march.”(1)
The City of Alexandria, became absorbed into a multitude of war uses. Now under marshal law, and with a population of 12,000 people, the city surrendered most public buildings, churches, and even some large homes for use as barracks, hospitals, military headquarters, and prisons. Battles would soon be raging in Virginia, causing the Federal Army to turn Alexandria into their logistical supply center, as well as a major medical and convalescent center.
“The city quickly lost its placid colonial character and became an active federal supply depot, convalescent center and campground,” wrote George Kundahl in his book Alexandria Goes to War. A labyrinth of wharves, quartermaster storehouses, commissaries, marshaling yards, and railroad shops blanketed the area.”(2)
The City of Alexandria soon became one of the principal camps for Northern Virginia troops. Assembled to defend Washington at the outbreak of hostilities, the popular slogan, “On to Richmond,” became a well rehearsed chant. The Union Army of the Potomac was formed from a miscellaneous collection of militia regiments, reaching 2,000 strong. It is worthy of note that of these men, thirty-six percent of the total force, both African American and Caucasian, were native Alexandrians. The city also became a haven to African American refugees.
“Because Alexandria was behind Union lines, African American refugees streamed into the city, contributing to the Union labor force but putting major stress on the area's ability to house and feed those in need. Alexandria's outskirts and vacant lots filled with shanties that would eventually form vibrant African-American neighborhoods. The Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery was the burial place for approximately 1,700 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape bondage.”(3)
A main character in the coming PBS drama is based on the writings of Baroness Mary Phinney von Olnhausen who was assigned to the Mansion House General Hospital. After becoming a widow, she took up nursing in her native Massachusetts. By August of 1862 she was accepted into the Army Nursing Corps by Dorthea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Phinney wrote:
“The whole street (Fairfax Street) was full of ambulances and the sick lay outside on the sidewalks from nine in the morning till five in the evening. Of course places were found for some; but already the house was full; so most had to be packed back again and taken off to Fairfax Seminary, two miles out. I have been so indignant all day. - not a thing done for them, not a wound dressed...They reached town last evening, lay in the cars all night without blankets or food, were chucked into ambulances, lay about here all day, and to-night were put back into ambulances and carted off again. I think every man who comes a soldiering is a fool!”(4)
As one might expect, female nurses were not in great favor with most of the male physicians, including a Dr. Summers, also stationed at this Alexandria hospital. Phinney explains:
“The surgeon told me he had no room for me, and a nurse told me he said he would make the house so hot for me, I would not stay long. When I told Miss Dix I could not remain without a room to sleep in, she, knowing the plan of driving me out, said "My child (I was nearly as old as herself), you will stay where I have placed you." (5)
Even after four years of occupation, or because of it, Alexandria remained the 18th century early Federal period town it had always been. No battles rained artillery shells onto this beautiful city; it survived pretty much in tact although the population did grow to 17,000. However, many of the original residents had fled further south to avoid the occupation. After the war former Union soldiers and civilians, who had served the federal war effort, and fugitive slaves took up their first residents as freedmen.
After the war, the Mansion House General Hospital became a hotel once more operating under the name, Braddock House. In the 1970’s much of the building was demolished and replaced with office and co-op apartments. Only a fragment of the original Bank of Alexandria, dating to 1807, was preserved.
US Army Nursing Corp
Dorthea Dix, born in Maine on April 4, 1802, campaigned tirelessly, worldwide, to improve care for the mentally ill. An educator and social reformer, she lobbied the US Congress and foreign governments. In the US alone thirty-two institutions were built as a direct result of her efforts. "There are few cases in history where a social movement of such proportions can be attributed to the work of a single individual" (Kovach,1972)
When the US Civil War erupted, she volunteered to form an Army Nursing Corp. Firmly dedicated to her mission, she never missed a single day of work, even though she was in poor health. During her tenure as Superintendent of Nurses, she organized and oversaw the training of hundreds of nurse volunteers. She established many new hospitals, first aid stations, and even battlefield hospitals. She inspected them regularly, and raised significant sums of money for medical supplies. She and her Nursing Corp have been credited with saving the lives of many thousands of soldiers, as well as permanently changing the role of women in medicine. Writing to Secretary of State, Simon Cameron, Superintendent Dix responded to the suggestion of being supplied a horse and carriage by the government, “I give cheerfully my whole time, mind, strength, and income, to the service of my country, and would not receive any remuneration for what I cheerfully render as a loyal woman.” (6)
On March 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln humbly praised the women serving as nurses during the American Civil War, “If all that has been said…since the creation of the world, in praise of women, applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during the war.”
The Twenty Main Military Hospitals in Alexandria
Wolfe Street, Grace Church, Old General Hospital, Fairfax Street, St. Paul’s, Old Hallowell, King Street, 2nd Presbyterian, Slough Barracks, Mansion House, Baptist Church, Bentley Barracks, Soldier’s Rest, Methodist Church, Grosvenor House, Prince Street, Sickle Barracks, McVeigh House, New Hallowell, Queen Street
Also read: Alexandria National Cemetery at: www.annandalechamber.com/alexandria_cemetery.rhtml
Reproduction and distribution of this article or photographs requires the written permission of the ENDEAVOR news magazine. Some photographs courtesy of Google images. (Copyright © 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved. (Photographs & images, on this page, and on this website, are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites.)
(1) Lawrence, Susan C.: Organization of the Hospitals in the Department of Washington , www.civilwardc.org/introductions/other/hospitals.ph
(2) Kundahl, George: Alexandria Goes to War, University of Tennessee Press, 2005.(3) Visit Alexandria website: http://www.visitalexandriava.com/about-us/
(4/5) Phinney, Mary Baroness Van Olnhausen, Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars, Little Brown and Company. Boston, 1904.
(6) Dorothea Dix. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved 11:07, Feb 24, 2015, from www.biography.com/people/dorothea-dix-9275710.
Photographs from the ACC archive and from the Library of Congress.
(Copyright © 2012 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved. Photographs are from the ACC archives, the Library of Congress, the Library of Virginia, private archives, the National Archives, and Wikipedia. (Photographs & images, on this page, and on this website, are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites.)