Civil War Gallows Humor

For a change of pace, Catherine Lawrence I wanted to share a very funny and touching exchange between one of the most famous nurses of the Civil War, Lawrence and some of the physicians she worked with. It is once of my favorites I use often in teaching.

From the autobiography of Miss Catherine S. Lawrence available for free.Her grave is here. This excerpt if from pages 103-105.

Ms. Lawrence tells a story of good-natured kidding between doctors and herself. It shows a very different style of challenging doctors than the overly personalized and defensive manner on #MercyStreetPBS. From her book:

One Sunday morning a night nurse came into my ward  in great haste, saying Sands, our cook, wanted to see me he had the small-pox and they were going to take him to the Kalarama  Hospital. I went to his room and found him in bed with a comfortable over his head and that on a very warm day. I uncovered his face. “Why, Sands, you have the measles. Your  face is covered with them.” Just then in came the head doctor and another doctor, a visitor.  I said, “Do you call this the small-pox?”  “Certainly I do, nurse.”  Both agreed upon small-pox. “I call it a case of measles, “ said I four doctors against one nurse.  Now if this proves to be a case of small-pox you may hang me sure.” “Well,”  said Dr. B. if it turns out to be measles, then what?” “Well, of course you four gentlemen must abide by what is right, that is, you must be hung.” All passed off pleasantly but Sands must go to  Kalarama  Hospital. I wrote a note to the head nurse to have a room by himself as he had the measles…Lawrence will not give up the ship, neither will she be hung, sure of that in this case.

She goes on the explain how she was looking forward to having some amusement with the physicians she was working with.  One of the physicians became ill and in her words she attended to him and took the approach of “killing him with kindness”. Serving him breakfast in bed her autobiography declares “The hatchet was buried”. She continues to describe a later conversation showing a very mature, good natured,  exchange that continued among colleagues on this matter. p. 105.

This exchange is a rare treat in which nurses and physicians work as equals. Women were just barely finding their voice in the Civil War. This is especially true of the Southern women. But there were examples of mutual respect reported and here is one.

More information on diseases and the civil war


Mercy Street – Haversack Episode 2


emma and friend

I must confess I had to look up the word “Haversack” to make sure I understood it properly. A haversack was used in the Civil War to carry personal items. One was passed from a Confederate soldier to Emma for safe keeping during this episode. You can watch episode #2 online at PBS here.

My bonnet is off to Lone Wolf Productions and the entire team for putting together an episode that is so dense with historical information integrated with creative license that I am in awe. This winning team could probably solve any problem they wanted to: Ridley ScottLisa Q. Wolfinger, David Zabel and David W. Zucker. They are not only gifted as individual artists, but there is a creative synergy that brought about an episode that had me barely breathing throughout the episode. We nurses know that when there is the amount of blood that is displayed on each episode the smell is nauseating.So not breathing in too often has an advantage.

Pick a subject: nursing (mine), the role of women (mine), slavery, the quality of medical care and death care (also mine) and you could discuss this episode for a long time.

As with all my posts, I want to focus on death, nursing and women. My focus is the extent to which events were impacting nurses personally and professionally. Finally, how all of it affected patient care. Unfortunately so much of the conflicts are entirely relevant today. I was interviewed on some podcasts recently. Jamie Davis of the Nursing Show and I were talking about the moral distress nurses (and others) face in nursing. There is no way to get the distress level to zero. The nature of the job is to address suffering. In this episode there was the corruption of the failure to give the soldiers food even though there was plenty (common in the Civil War), the conflict (nurse-nurse, doctor-nurse, Union-Confederate, and slave owner-slave) and collusion, and conspiracies that occurred on just this episode.

The episode begins with a short scene of building coffins and placing the bodies of dead soldiers (in body bags just like we do today) in them. The owner of the hotel is manufacturing the coffins and has a cottage business with the military. If you have not read the best-selling book The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, you would find it a perfect compliment to the series. The total reported deaths in the Civil War were 620,000. A staggering amount. As as been demonstrated already on the show, the lack of even basic care is a far more deadly killer than the battlefield.

Twitter (#MercyStreetPBS) was alive with comments on the episode too. Many pointed to the fact Nurse Phinney was sleeping on the floor. Follow the Twitter feed to get more information. @lexa415 referred to Phinney’s autobiography, free online, that describes the horrible living conditions. You can read about her lack of a bed to sleep here. Phinney, all throughout the book is very candid about her lack of skill in nursing. She repeatedly said she did not want to complain about not having a bed because she would have been discharged. Isn’t that why nurses don’t speak out today?

I will be talking about Annie Reader/Hastings in a separate post. My strong objection to tonight was placing her having sex with a physician who was clearly not up to the job and manipulating him to attack Phinney. The second issue was in the last scene she was taking a drink from a flask of alcohol. I read her diary edited by a distant cousin and have more to say about her later. Back to episode 2. Two things I will say here. First, it would take a lot of alcohol to keep me there. Second, the favored stimulant for all in the Civil War was Brandy or whiskey. So we have to keep on eye on that. Reader herself, in her diary, worked incredibly hard, endured a lot of time away from her military husband and was lost to history. I am so glad she is remembered here.

emma greenOur other major character is a greater character Emma Green, daughter of the hotel owner. Emma Green is coming into her own- you go girl! Your parents knew you were going to the hospital the very second they saw your dress. No hoop skirt, no fancy anything, plain and darker colors, although not too dark. By the time Emma asked here parents to go downstairs and work with Confederate soldier, their decision was already made. She would have known she could go becuase there was no earlier objection to her dress.

The team meeting Phinney called was brilliant. And opening up to Emma was great. I hope to find that actually happened as episode 2I reread this material. There is a fair amount of material freely available. You can find my full list of free books on Civil War Nursing on this website.

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