PBS’s new Civil War medical drama Mercy Street follows a diverse cast of characters through the horrors of a Civil War hospital and the hectic world of Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. Set in the spring of 1862, many of the show’s characters and events are based on real people and actual happenings.
If you want to learn more about the history behind the show, check out the reading list below. I based it on suggestions from PBS, as well as a few selections from my own library. It is by no means comprehensive, but should be a good starting point!
Nursing & Medicine
The subject of nursing is central to Mercy Street and viewers interested in hearing first hand accounts on the topic might want to start with the diary and correspondence of Nurse Mary Phinney von Olnhausen found in the Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars. This edited collection served as a major inspiration for Mercy Street. Readers might also find Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches or Jean Berlin’s A Confederate Nurse: The Diary of Ada W. Bacot, 1860-1863 compelling.
The topic of Civil War medicine has been fertile ground for scholars over the past decade. Shauna Devine’s Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science, explores the numerous medical advancements and innovations ushered in by the horrors of the Civil War. Devine also served as an historical advisor on Mercy Street. Brian Miller’s Empty Sleeves: Amputations in the Civil War South is an interesting study on the ramifications that amputations had on southern veterans after the war.
The challenges and necessities of war also had a profound impact on gender roles in 19th century America. Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention examines how southern women rose to assume positions of economic and social responsibility left vacant by men during the war. In addition, Catherine Clinton has two books that look at the impact of the war on the southern family: Southern Families at War and Divided House: Gender and the Civil War.
Another topic covered in Mercy Street is the Union’s policy towards slavery during the opening years of the war. There is no better source than Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, for a compressive look at how President Lincoln’s personal views on and official policy towards slavery evolved over the course of the war. For information on how the average African American family made the transition to freedom after the war, Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom is a good place to start.
Viewers interested in the military campaign that plays out in the background of the series’ first season can check out Stephen Sears’s To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign and Glenn Brasher’s The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.
Finally, be sure to visit Mercy Street Revealed: A Blog. Every week on the blog, Mercy Street‘s historical advisors share their thoughts on the history behind the show.
So pick a few titles, or try to read them all!
- Adventures of an Army Nurse in Two Wars
- Hospital Sketches
- A Confederate Nurse: The Diary of Ada W. Bacot, 1860-1863
- Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science
- Empty Sleeves: Amputations in the Civil War South
- Mothers of Invention
- Southern Families at War
- Divided House: Gender and the Civil War
- The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
- The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom
- To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign
- The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom
- Mercy Street Revealed: A Blog
Watch Episode 2 | “The Haversack”
Shane Johnson is a producer for WSKG’s History & Heritage team. Before arriving at WSKG, Shane earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and History, Master’s Degree in History, as well as his Master’s of Arts in Teaching in Social Studies Adolescence Education from Binghamton University. He has a personal interest in 19th Century American history, especially the Civil War, and as a young lad, he dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.