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05.21.01 Toler, Panela D., PhD, Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War

About the Author
Pamela Toler on her website describes herself at the very first as “an academic renegade”. She states that she ”…wanted to write for history buffs and nerdy (or curious) kids and the general intelligent reader.” Dr. Toler earned her Ph. D. from the University of Chicago related to “…the Indian subcontinent, with strong subfields in European imperialism and Islam”, which makes this book, and her book Mankind: The Story of Us, all the more interesting. She also writes a bi-weekly email concerning a variety of subjects, as well as the process of writing. The email is a free service; all one does is sign up. She has also been described as a “freelance writer specializing in History and the Arts”.
Published in 2016 by Little, Brown and Company, the cover notes this book is “Companion to Mercy Street on Public Broadcasting Service. That is what initially caught my interest, as I had enjoyed the PBS series. If one is expecting this book to be a fuller documentation of most of the key characters in the series, they will be disappointed, at least to some degree. Certainly some of the named characters in the television series are discussed in the book, a few even with their photographs. The reader can easily understand that some of the other series characters are based, some broadly (types/examples) and some more specifically, on persons discussed in the book.
With that caveat in mind, the author does an excellent job discussing nursing from the Union aspect of The War Between The States, and she does place emphasis on Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. The author gives a nice follow-up on some of the better known and remembered Union nurses and unpaid volunteers after “The War”. She does write a conciliatory chapter at the end of the book regarding nursing activities on the Confederate side of the conflict as well. However, the book is unabashedly predominately concerning Union nursing history, its development and problems encountered by females entering a “rough and dirty”, and “at times, violent…man’s world”, by individual Union paid and volunteer nurses.
After an informative Forward by Ridley Scott, the Executive Producer of Mercy Street, the author’s Introduction gives a helpful and historically accurate overview of medicine and care-giving of the sick and injured prior to the commencement of The War Between the States. Also, a word about the difference between attitudes to females working in this nursing role outside the home in the States as compared to Europe. The first chapter deals with Dorothy Dix, but has several distinct problems as regards historically accuracy. Toler states regarding Fort Sumter that it “…had become the emotional focal point of the conflict between North and South in the weeks since South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860.” This statement belays a common weakness of those living after an event, both professional historians and none historians even, to weight an event, such as Ft Sumter, with equal anticipatory significance prior to the event as after the occurrence. Lincoln had four secret missions to induce the Confederacy into “firing the first shot”, and Ft Sumter was only one of these.

Secondly, Major Anderson was only in that fort after disobeying orders in defiance of an agreement in force between the state of South Carolina and the Federal government. Thirdly, the author states that the “…small garrison was cut off from resupply”. Toler (and other texts) report that the men in the fort had limited food supplies. But possible upcoming food shortages were due to the arrogance and false pride of Major Anderson, who refused the well-documented repeated offers from the people of Charleston to supply the Union men with foodstuff, probably better and fresher than what they had. Lastly in this section of failure of research, or selective deletion, designates the Union fleet coming into Charleston harbor as “resupply ships”. Yes, “resupply”, but primarily resupply with several thousand troops, again in violation of the previous agreement between the state and the Federal government. Toler gives more pages to Dorothea Dix as an individual nurse than the other nurses, and claims that Mrs. Dix, “…a welcome guest in the South” prior to the outbreak of hostilities, where Ms Dix overheard the plot to assassinate Lincoln on the final leg of his train ride to Washington, D.C., and gives Dix credit for revealing the “Baltimore Plot” to the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. Interestingly, though much of the book is documented in the Bibliography, this assertion is not. A quick internet search (though by no means exhaustive check) of numerous sites discussing “the Baltimore Plot” did not find mention of Ms Dix’s revelation. Lastly, the number of casualties for “The American Civil War”, is given on page as only “620,000 soldiers”, a number that has been significantly increased by many scholarly sites/references in recent years, not to mention the continual uptick in number of civilian deaths, primarily in the South.
If one is overlooks the above difficulties, this book has much useful information to bring to the reading public. If you are a fan of Mercy Street series, you will especially enjoy the book. Major characters in the PBS series such as Mary Phinney and Anne Reading are covered, as well as some information on Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, and many lesser known names. Other PBS series characters such as the Hospital Steward and the Matron, who are presented as types in the television show, have their positions extensively discussed in the book. So, despite my criticisms, I recommend this book as both an informative and interesting read, especially to those interested in the War Between the States, especially as relates to the practice of nursing and life in mid nineteen century hospitals. The text flows nicely. There are many individual portraits and a few pictures from that era mid book. The book has a robust Notes/Documentation section, though a large percentage of these are “Ibids”. There is a helpful Index in the back of the book, and a brief list of Suggestions for Further Reading, which is somewhat squewed toward the North.
This book is available through Amazon, Barns & Noble, and at the time of this writing, at Target and Wal-Mart. It is frequently found in community libraries as well. It is available as an ebook on Google, and for Nook at Barnes & Noble.