Inside the Making of PBS’s “Mercy Street:” An Interview with Professor Jane E. Schultz, Historical Consultant

Inside the Making of PBS’s “Mercy Street:” An Interview with Professor Jane E. Schultz, Historical Consultant

Jane E. Schultz. Image courtesy of Prof. Schultz and PBS.

For this post, Muster interviewed Dr. Jane E. Schultz, Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis about her experience working with the producers of Mercy Street. We thank her for granting us this interview. Please also note that this interview contains a brief spoiler for Episode Two, “The Haversack”.

What was the extent of your involvement with the creation of Mercy Street?

Lisa Wolfinger, who heads Lone Wolf Media in Portland, Maine, contacted me in February 2014, with the idea for Mercy Street, after having read my books on Civil War hospital work, Women at the Front and This Birth Place of Souls. She asked whether I’d be willing to be a consultant for the drama, even before having shopped the idea around to PBS, because the main character in the series was to be based on Mary Phinney, Baroness von Olnhausen, who became a nurse at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria in 1862 and about whom I had written. I was glad to do this because for about thirty years I’ve studied the complexities of wartime hospitals and I thought it would be wonderful to bring the issues of wartime medical care and practice to a wider public.

My own tasks on Mercy Street have been to read over all of the scripts and make comments on them about what feels inauthentic to me—whether in the realm of material medical culture or language. As a narrative specialist in a department of English, I want these characters to speak as people in the 19th century would have spoken. When I read a script, I often comment on dialogue that does not ring true for mid 19th-century speech patterns. I have also provided advice about the mis-en-scène: who would have been where in the hospital, what purpose the hotel lobby-cum-hospital would have served, what would have been the role of a Catholic nun in such a setting, where laundry and cooking would have been done, where soldiers would have relieved themselves or bathed if they were ambulatory—this sort of thing. It has been great fun working with Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, who are clever, knowledgeable, and hard-working people without pretensions.

Why did the show’s writers and consultants choose to specifically focus on the Mansion House Hotel Hospital?

I can only speculate that it’s because of Mansion House’s location: a Southern city adjacent to the U.S. capital, filled with people of color in all social categories: free people, contrabands, slaves; people of Confederate and Union beliefs jostling one another on the streets; soldiers and civilians adding texture to hospital and domestic settings. As an occupied city, Alexandria makes visible the demographic turbulence of a municipality during wartime. The city also serves as a kind of metaphor for the war at large—unfamiliar folk in transience and in unfamiliar roles; all of this activity taking place on a stage that suddenly looked different to residents because of the war in their hometown.

In terms of why just one hospital as the locus of events, a number of interesting people gathered, or were thrown together, at this hospital. The single location—though we will venture a bit further in time—makes it possible to develop characters, which is, of course, the calling card of all period dramas. We want to understand these people and find out what happens to them. And we’re fortunate to have a fair amount of narrative documentation from the people who actually worked at Mansion House. This has made it possible for the writers to create more three-dimensional characters.

What was the historical research process like for this series?

This is not something I’ve discussed with the writers, but I believe that Lisa Wolfinger, in particular, immersed herself in the nursing and medical literature about the era, as well as personal narratives and eyewitness accounts that specifically represented the work done at Mansion House. My own work has been what any historian would do to be helpful. For example, several months ago, I was asked about postal delivery in military hospitals—which was, of course, incredibly important to the denizens of any hospital. I knew from my own research (which is not on postal systems at all) that letters came via train and wagon to hospital installations, but not always on a steady schedule, given the vicissitudes of changing lines (especially in Virginia) and damage to rail lines. There wasn’t any particular person who delivered mail once it got to the hospital: it might have been a nurse, an orderly, or a steward. It had to be somebody literate. Finally, I explored the Library of Congress online catalogue concerning postal delivery in the Civil War and suggested several books to the writers.

I was struck by the opening scenes in the first episode, “The New Nurse,” which show Dorothea Dix interviewing Nurse Mary Phinney. Do you think the producers capture Dorothea Dix’s personality? The tight spot in which she found herself in the all-male terrain of the army medical hospital?

Funny you should ask! In fact, I balked a bit at the Mercy Street characterization of Army Nursing Superintendent Dix when I read the first script. I thought it provided too harsh and punitive a portrait of Dix, who was rather austere but not unkind. As Thomas Brown’s wonderful 1998 biography of Dix suggests, Dix herself was in a tight spot in the military-medical infrastructure and would not have wanted to be judged by her Civil War service. Mansion House’s Surgeon Summers’ calling her “Dragon Dix” is not unrealistic: Dix was called this by many of the young nurses whom she refused to appoint early in the war, while she still had fairly complete authority to appoint sober and mature women to the hospital service. Even then, surgeons resented women showing up at their hospitals—just like Mary Phinney did at Mansion House. They felt invaded and that their own authority had been circumvented because they hadn’t been asked whether they wanted female nurses. Not only were the nurses assigned to new posts sitting ducks from time to time—this is how Mary is represented in Episode One—but the nurses’ emissary, Dix herself, was not respected and often mocked, despite her chops in the world of asylum reform.

Keep in mind that Dix’s predicament was that she could not countenance anything that looked like it would impair the respectability of the office of nursing or the women themselves. So if she got a whiff that a woman was flirtatious or dressed in too becoming a manner, she wasn’t going to venture there. And when it became clear that the war was going to last a long time and that hospitals were going to be jam-packed with the sick and wounded, the Surgeon General wrote an order that effectively truncated her power by allowing any staff surgeon to appoint his own male and female staff. She was no longer the gatekeeper.

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Nurses Mary Phinney and Anne Hastings at odds. Photo courtesy of PBS.

In your book, Women at the Front, you describe the experiences of a diverse group of nurses. Does Mercy Street capture that diversity?

Yes, I think it does a pretty good job of this. We see women in a variety of job titles—not just nurses. We see Matron Brannan, a middle-aged working-class Irish immigrant, who keeps the flow of patients moving in and out of the hospital. Matron Brannan would also have been expected to manage and perform cleaning services. We see Isabella, a young nun, helping out in the wards, and we know that plenty of religious orders sent women to this area from nearby convents (like the one in Emmitsburg, Maryland). We see Aurelia Johnson and other African American women who did scullery work, laundry, and food service jobs.

In Mary Phinney, Anne Hastings, and Emma Green, we see elite women with different preparation for their duties. Emma has to fight her parents to be allowed to help out in the hospital. Given her background, she would not have done much, if any, nursing before the war because of her youth, social privilege, and her family’s slave-holding tradition. Anne Hastings, based on Britain’s Anne Reading, had served in the Crimean War, which did not last nearly as long or result in nearly as many deaths as the American Civil War. Still, Anne knew more about nursing than Mary did and felt threatened when Mary appeared at the hospital in the role of head nurse. These kinds of jealousies, between not just nurses but surgeons as well, were quite common and readily apparent in the correspondence of the era.

Mary had not had any official nurse training when Dix appointed her (nurse training programs did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1870s), but she was an educated woman who had domestic nursing experience. Her widowed marital status also served as an inducement to seek hospital work, as a number of well-known widows (Mary Anne Bickerdyke, Jane Hoge, and Phoebe Yates Pember among them) reasoned that they could be useful to the nation(s) in this way. Even though she had nursed her husband in his final illness and was relatively young, Mary Phinney had little idea of what she was getting into when she walked into Mansion House. The “deer-in-the-headlights” look on her face is certainly credible.

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Shalita Grant as Aurelia Johnson. Photo courtesy of PBS.

You also show that the Civil War hospital was a dangerous place for women nurses. Does the show capture women’s particular dangers?

Yes, it shows both the physical and psychological dangers of being a young woman in a virtually all-male military zone. Later in the series, we see the sexually predatory conduct of the villainous steward, Silas Bullen and his subterranean staff of “helpers.” Aurelia Johnson, a contraband, is trying to locate her young son from whom she has been forcibly separated, and in her desperation, makes the grave error of looking to Bullen for help. Nurse Mary also has a run-in with Bullen over his neglect of patients’ diet and the graft which she suspects him of. As she enters his basement office, viewers have the visceral feeling that she has entered a lair of doom, and she decides to extricate herself quickly before gaining her point that the patients need better-quality sustenance.

Aside from the sexual dangers of military hospitals, there were very real physical dangers due to poor sanitation and ventilation. The literature reveals several instances of field hospitals and more permanent buildings being consumed by fire. Even the setup of Mansion House Hospital reveals dangers. We see long, steep staircases—very typical 19th-century architecture—which were not easy to negotiate, given the staff’s need to carry bodies, food, medicine, dirty laundry, and refuse up and down all day long. And, of course, the dangers of infection were everywhere present in hospitals before antisepsis was widely understood and practiced. Plenty of staff died in military hospitals of things like typhoid.

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Dr. Foster and Nurse Mary conversing by the Staircase. Photo courtesy of PBS.

Foster, Phinney, and Diggs are all army medical establishment outsiders–but they seem to have the patients’ best interests in mind. Is the message of the show that the medical establishment was broken? Needed to be reformed from the outsiders?

I don’t think I’d say that exactly. Instead I’d say that the medical establishment was only still evolving and that many parties would ultimately contribute to medical advancement and better patient care. In 1862, when Mary Phinney arrived at Mansion House, the Union Surgeon General’s Office was still trying to figure out how best to arrange staffing, how to provision hospitals, and how to transport sick or wounded troops from camp and field.

Like most institutional change, Civil War medical advances proceeded slowly and were aided by innovators. It’s true that Foster, Phinney, and Diggs were all outsiders. For that matter, so was William Hammond, who served an important term as the Surgeon General during this time, and was not among the surgical “elect.” But we need also to remember that Phinney and Diggs would have had little power to promote any institutional change, despite their efforts to work behind the scenes in ways that officials would have frowned upon. Even Foster, as a Marylander in a Union hospital, would have had little occasion outside of the hospital to gain any traction, given the hierarchical operating procedures of most military surgeons. In the grand scheme of things, he wouldn’t have had much access to the centers of medical authority. That said, his personal challenges remind us just how complex even one person’s limited experience was in a place like Mansion House. Mercy Street is trying to show the depths of human turbulence that lay beneath the surface of military etiquette.

Neither Green nor Phinney seem willing to extend their sympathy to the enemy. Is the message that women are ill-equipped to be medical professionals or is this a commentary on the limited outlets available for women to express their political opinions?

I don’t believe that it’s either one of those options, notwithstanding that women didn’t, in fact, have so many options for expressing their political views. This was more about military protocol than medical protocol. Practitioners on either side did not generally like to care for soldiers of the opposing side, and you can be sure that such views led to surgeons passively neglecting enemy soldiers from time to time. Surgeons mention in their letters, when it comes up, that they didn’t necessarily like caring for “the enemy,” but they did it because they were ordered to, and they were not accustomed to disobeying orders. There were also surgeons like Jed Foster, who recognized that blood had just one color, and felt that, once fallen and in need of succor, soldiers were entitled to the best care that could be found for them. This is how it worked with nurses and female hospital attendants as well. Some hated the enemy because they daily witnessed the havoc wrought by ammunition; others realized that war was the real enemy, not human bodies on one side or another.

I would wager that about as many women as complained of being obliged to treat the enemy expressed more conciliatory views. Sometimes, in fact, they were angry that they were not permitted to care for enemy soldiers. Several of these invoke religious values, noting that if “mine enemy hunger, then I must feed him,” emphasizing that true Christian morality is not about partisanship but about extending help to all of those who need it, regardless of political proclivities.

With regard to whether Emma’s or Mary’s sectional loyalties unfitted them for medical work, it’s useful to remember that even by mid-war, women were already pursuing work as physicians. Some, like Illinois’ Mary Safford, trained in Europe because American medical schools were not interested in admitting women, and when they did, they did not accommodate women easily. Others, like Esther Hill Hawks of New Hampshire, were hired as nurses despite their medical training. Hawks, the wife of a pharmacist, took care of contrabands and black troops in the Sea Islands under General Rufus Saxton’s watch because it became clear to her that military authorities were little interested in health care arrangements made for African Americans.

Jane E. Schultz is Professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University- Indianapolis and and affiliated with the programs in American Studies and Women’s Studies. Dr. Schultz is the author of two highly acclaimed works about gender in the Civil War. Schultz’s Lincoln prize finalist Women at the Front (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) focused on women relief workers in Civil War hospitals. Schultz edited This Birth Place of Souls (Oxford University Press, 2011), one of the few extant diaries of a Civil War nurse. Dr. Schultz is currently at work on two books, “Lead, Blood, and Ink” about Civil War surgical culture, and “A Match Made in Hospital” about the correspondence and romance between a female hospital worker from Pennsylvania and a surgeon from the Army of the Potomac.


Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Clarke, Frances M. War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Devine, Shauna. Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Finseth, Ian. “The Civil War Dead: Realism and the Problem of Anonymity.” American Literary History 2, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 535-562.

Hacker, J. David. “A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead.” Civil War History 57, no. 4 (December 2011): 307-348. Project Muse.

Hawks, Esther Hill. A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary, Edited by Gerald Schwartz.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Humphreys, Margaret. The Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Schultz, Jane E. This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Female Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

4 Replies to “Inside the Making of PBS’s “Mercy Street:” An Interview with Professor Jane E. Schultz, Historical Consultant”

  1. It appears in Episode 2 that a man doing some carpenter work is pounding in nails that were manufactured using a coil process that was not common until the early 1900’s. Nails of the 1860’s were typically individually produced.

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