In last week’s episode of Mercy Street entitled “Southern Mercy” (S2E4), I noticed something unique that happened to Miss Green. No, I’m not talking about finding out that her sister is a spy, I’m not talking about the kiss, I’m not even talking about when she had the courage to stand atop a wall while everyone else was pinned down by Confederate musket fire. It was near the end, and somewhat subtle. I wonder if you noticed it?
Miss Green and the Chaplain have successfully brought in wagons full of wounded Federal soldiers after the second battle of Manassas (Bull Run). After speaking briefly to the Chaplain, she turns, armed with a canteen full of water and a towel, and begins tending the wounded, not just focusing on the soldier in front of her, but directing the care of others.
If you watched the episode, you know her mother walked out of the hospital at just that moment, witnessing it. But in the actions that her mother saw as surrender and betrayal, I witnessed the blooming of a nurse.
For those of you who haven’t watched the show, it follows the events of Mansion House Hospital in Virginia. Though the town was Southern and truly Confederate, the Federals had captured the city, and the hotel, which had been transformed into the Union Hospital. Miss Emma Green, oldest daughter of the Greens who owned the hotel, visits the hospital in Episode 1 and sees that the Confederate POW patients are not receiving the proper care and have no one nursing them. She asks permission to become their nurse. Throughout season one and into season two, we have seen Miss Green learn the basics of nursing, and be placed in a few harrowing situations for someone as innocent as the sheltered daughter of Southern high class business man– such as being made to assist with an amputation (S1E3). But as the Confederate wounded have dwindled, she has remained, and now nurses across the hospital, still focusing on the Confederate soldiers most of all.
She is no longer squeamish.
She has learned many skills along the way.
But at the moment witnessed by her mother, she became a nurse. Not a woman who was helping with the nursing duties, but a nurse. Piles of wounded men sat before her, bleeding, in pain, and desperate. Suddenly, she no longer saw their uniforms. She jumped in, caring for the soldier before her, and overseeing the care of others, pulling in help, checking on the soldiers around her, instructing others how to help them. It was no longer “They’re Yankee, I’m Confederate,” or even “They are the enemy.” Now, they were just men in need of her help. She kept her head, her stomach, and her focus, providing the care that was needed. She kept the panic, the confusion of previous events, and the constant pressure of an overwhelming amount of need at bay as she worked. This is the making of a true nurse. She would have been in good company.
Many of the nurses whose names have been remembered from the War Between the States nursed soldiers on both sides. Some did not, only nursing the boys from their army, but many soon began to realize that, in this state these soldiers were wounded men first, and Union or Confederate second.
Kate Cumming started nursing after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, and would continue to nurse throughout the south, particularly in Georgia, until the end of the war. She served as both nurse and matron, and would become one of the first professional female nurses in American History. She wrote in her journal on April 13, 1862:
“Quite a number of bunks arrived today, and we are having the most severely wounded placed on them… A doctor requested me to go downstairs and see if there was a bunk with a Federal upon it, and if so to have him taken off, as he had a badly wounded man that needed one. I went and asked Mrs. Royal, from Mobile, whom I had heard talk very bitterly. She knew of one, but would not tell me where it was. Her true woman’s nature showed itself, in spite of her dislike. Seeing an enemy wounded and helpless is a different thing from seeing him in health and in power. The first time I saw one in this condition every feeling of enmity vanished at once. I was curious to find out who the Federal was, and, as Mrs. R would not tell me, I went in search of him. I found him with but little trouble; went to the men who were upon the bunks, and asked them where they were from. One, quite a youth, with a childish face, told me that he was from Illinois. I knew in a moment that he was the one. I asked him about his mother, and why he had ever left her. Tears filled his eyes, and his lips quivered so that he was unable to speak. I was deeply moved myself, spoke a few words of comfort, and left him. I would not have had him give up his bunk for the world. Poor child! There will be a terrible day of reckoning for those who sent you on your errand, and who are the cause of desolating so many hearts and homes.”
Kate was not unique in this way, though she may have seemed so to those not in the midst of the carnage. Somehow, in disasters and war, all pretenses are stripped away, and we are only left with our faith, and our humanity. Many lose this, and become as monsters. Others cling to it, and we see them change a little piece of the world for the better.
A bigger name than Kate Cumming is Clara Barton. Though she was attached to the Army of the Potomac, she was known by all to nurse fallen soldiers on both sides of the war. She said she didn’t see (or care) about the color of the boy’s uniform, only that he was wounded and needed help. She responded to any and all wounded she could reach, and was one of the few nurses who would respond to the battleground triaging and caring for the wounded as soon as the battles were over, as well as nursing and assisting the surgeons in the field hospitals. Yes, she did even help with amputations. In her poem “The Women Who Went to the Field,” she gives us a picture of what these men endured:
“…That the place for the women was in their own homes,
There to patiently wait until victory comes.
But later, it chanced, just how no one knew,
That the lines slipped a bit, and some ‘gan to crowd through;
And they went, – where did they go? – Ah; where did they not?
Show us the battle, – the field, – or the spot
Where the groans of the wounded rang out on the air
That her ear caught it not, and her hand was not there,
Who wiped the death sweat from the cold, clammy brow,
And sent home the message; – “‘T is well with him now”?
Who watched in the tents, whilst the fever fires burned,
And the pain-tossing limbs in agony turned,
And wet the parched tongue, calmed delirium’s strife
Till the dying lips murmured, ” My Mother,” ” My Wife”!
And who were they all? – They were many, my men:
Their record was kept by no tabular pen:
They exist in traditions from father to son. …”
Kate and Clara are by no means the only ones, but simply used here as an example of them all. There were many others who saw beyond the color of the person’s uniform, or the color of their skin, and took care of the man underneath. As Doctor Foster stated in Season one, “They ALL bleed red!”
So on that note, we will say thank you to every woman who became a nurse, to every doctor who mended the broken, to every person who saw beyond the color barrier and through to the person, to every woman who paved the way for professional women nurses, and to every person who never forgot that God created all men equal, and that He loved each and every one enough to send His Son to die in their place so that they might be restored to Him, and live with Him for eternity, we say thank you.
And to all our nurses throughout time, we thank you!
If you have enjoyed this blog and the topic, be sure to keep your eyes open for an upcoming article! (Hint hint!)
[Housekeeping note: I am by no means endorsing “Mercy Street.” In fact, there are some things included in the show that I literally have to fast forward and cannot watch as a Christian, and I do so. However, I will say that the medical parts of the show thus far have been quite accurate, and I can tell that they have worked closely with their medical and medical historian advisors. As a medical historian myself, for that I am grateful. In the event that you chose to watch the show, please keep these notes in mind and then make your own decision.]